Asian invasion

As the Hong Kong movie industry collapses, scads of Chinese filmmakers and actors are landing big jobs in Hollywood

And the going has been smoother for Asian filmmakers in the post-John Woo era, he says: "John was the pioneer who came here first. He opened up the minds of a lot of producers in the States. He cleared the mines."

Yet the problems others encountered in Hollywood were greater than they were willing to tolerate.

Take director Ringo Lam, whose City on Fire is considered the inspiration for Reservoir Dogs. Lam was hired to direct Van Damme's Maximum Risk; when the studio, based on test screenings, did major re-cutting to make one character more sympathetic, Lam was so disgruntled that he returned to Hong Kong.

Chow Yun-Fat's situation falls somewhere between Woo's success and Lam's disillusionment. Last January's The Replacement Killers, the Asian superstar's first Hollywood vehicle, which co-starred Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino, was a flop. In his Hong Kong films, leading-man Chow displays the range and devil-may-care charm of Cary Grant. But Killers failed to showcase either.

The most recent test for whether Asian stars translate well to U.S. audiences occurred this fall when CBS gambled on building a prime-time television show, Martial Law, around veteran Hong Kong actor-director-stuntman Sammo Hung.

The network took the considerable chance because of the star's status back home. Hung was the first of his generation of Peking Opera-trained actors to break into film, and he worked with King Hu, the only internationally recognized Chinese director before Zhang Yimou. If one were to choose a single figure to tell the story of the modern Hong Kong film industry, it would be Sammo: He not only created the kung fu-comedy style that made Jackie Chan famous, but helped create Jackie Chan.

It appears that CBS' gamble is paying off. Martial Law has come in first or second among the four networks in its time slot every week since it started.

"It's been very hard to break into American television," Hung admits, smiling. "What's different? In Hong Kong, I speak Chinese. But now, in America, I have to speak English all the time."

Hung is half-joking, but he has stumbled onto one of the biggest Hollywood roadblocks for Chinese actors. Some Chinese actors do not speak English, and those who do--even the ones from the former British colony of Hong Kong--usually have a thick accent.

Sometimes American producers' doubts about these actors' abilities to be understood, much less accepted, by American audiences have comic results: "When I first went to meetings, you could see they were worried," Michelle Yeoh says, speaking in perfect, lightly British-accented English. (The actress was raised in Malaysia with English as her first language. When she started making movies in Hong Kong, her Cantonese was so bad that she needed the dialogue written out phonetically.) "Of course, they'd have already asked [my managers] 'Can she speak English?' But they were never quite sure until they heard it from me...because it's very easy for my people to say, 'Yeah! She's speaks great English.' Of course, when I walk into the room and they hear me say 'Uh, hello...very, very good...' (Yeoh emphasizes the l's and r's), you can see the relief on their faces."

Another problem for the Hong Kong transplants has been adapting to Hollywood's way of doing business.

In Hong Kong, filmmakers and actors generally are left alone, at least once a project is approved. Here, unless you're Steven Spielberg, it doesn't work that way. There are always a raft of producers and studio execs scuffling on and off a movie set to put their "creative stamp" on a project, particularly one that looks hot. Also, because profitability almost always overshadows artistic considerations, American production companies tend to push filmmakers to have multiple projects in development.

"It was difficult the first couple years, adjusting to the new way of working," Terence Chang says. "In Hong Kong, we always finished one film before we even started thinking of the next one. It just doesn't work that way here."

Even the optimistic Kirk Wong says that Hong Kong directors are afforded far more trust. "They don't even look at your script. It's you [the director] they trust, and they understand you have a lot on the line--your reputation."

Yet Asian filmmakers are merely facing the same problems as anybody outside the Hollywood mainstream, whether they're gay, black, indie, avant-garde, Polish, or Egyptian, says Laura Kim, a veteran in the marketing of specialized and independent films at the mPRm public relations firm. "It doesn't really matter where the films are coming from. Directors who are given work in bigger-budget films have to have some kind of track record. It's just plain business."

Maybe that's precisely why the American film business is so much more successful than any other, she says. And it's the biggest reason that Asian actors and directors are coming here in droves.

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