Asian invasion

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

Nearly everyone--certainly every film buff--who saw the last James Bond movie, Tomorrow Never Dies, came away excited, though the film was certainly no match for Goldfinger or From Russia With Love. Audiences were buzzing, not about the gadgets or about Pierce Brosnan, but about Michelle Yeoh--the Hong Kong actress who played the first really kick-ass Bond girl in the franchise's 37 years and 18 episodes.

And, in last summer's Lethal Weapon 4--again, a trusty, movie-industry war-horse whose designers are aware of the need for fresh ideas--two new elements were brought into the series' familiar mix: Chris Rock and Jet Li. Rock did a passable job, but it was Li, Asia's biggest martial arts star next to Jackie Chan, who galvanized every scene he was in. Even before the film was released, advance word of his searing performance sparked a seven-figure offer for him to star in The Art of War for Universal. Before the ink was dry, Warner Brothers (which released Lethal Weapon 4) stepped in and exercised an option for Li to star in Joel Silver's Romeo Must Die for $3 million. The Universal project had to be delayed.

Yeoh and Li and many other Hong Kong stars bring to American screens a kind of dazzling kinetic art that hasn't existed in Hollywood since the days of Buster Keaton or Douglas Fairbanks Sr. But, along with Jackie Chan and director John Woo, they represent the tip of the iceberg--the most visible advance guard of an ever-increasing wave of Chinese talent pumping new blood into American movies.

These Chinese actors and directors (most of them from Hong Kong) could particularly revitalize the bloated American action film genre, whose status as a reliable moneymaker took a drubbing this summer with the less-than-anticipated box-office business of Armageddon and Godzilla. For many people not familiar with Jackie Chan movies, their first big taste of Hong Kong-style action was Yeoh's big fight scene two-thirds through Tomorrow Never Dies. Until then, the film had teased us with just a few shots involving Yeoh's physical talents. Suddenly, in the sequence where she's trapped in a shack by some villains, the film bursts to life, as Yeoh leaps, spins, kicks, and grabs whatever's handy to defend herself. For roughly two minutes, the Bond film catapults into another universe--a kind of purely visual cinema that has more in common with Gene Kelly's athletic "Singin' in the Rain" number (difference in tone aside) than with all the explosions and computer-generated images of Armageddon.

Jackie Chan is, of course, the highest-profile of the new arrivals. It's been about three years since he hit the United States amid a firestorm of publicity. As Rumble in the Bronx (his first big American release in a decade, re-edited and dubbed from his Hong Kong hit of a year earlier) opened in the No. 1 spot on box-office charts, Chan appeared on the cover of more than 30 national magazines. His boyish charm, coupled with film clips of his acrobatic stunt work, made him a hit on the talk-show circuit.

Actually, this wasn't Chan's first attempt to break through to American audiences. In the '80s, Golden Harvest Productions, the biggest Hong Kong studio and Chan's home base, seriously attempted to promote him in the States, with The Big Brawl and the two Burt Reynolds/Hal Needham Cannonball Run films in which he played one of the drivers, but nothing came of these admittedly lackluster efforts.

Former Golden Harvest executive Thomas Gray--who was integral to bringing Chan to America--admits that the company handled the situation poorly. "Most of it is our fault," Gray conceded. "We didn't give Jackie the right kind of vehicle."

But Gray soon made up for the mistake. Rim Films, the Golden Harvest subsidiary run by him, promoted Chan's movies through mini-festivals and art-house bookings. The enthusiastic response from critics and audiences led directly to New Line's interest in the action star. "We did our job, which was breaking in Jackie in America," Gray says. "But I have to applaud New Line. They did a terrific job on Rumble."

Yet despite Chan's success in that picture, it seemed last summer that he might prove just a fad to American audiences. None of the subsequent releases of Chan's Hong Kong productions--at least two of which, Supercop and Operation Condor, were superior to Rumble--did nearly as well. His latest Hong Kong smash, Who Am I?, bypassed American theaters and debuted on cable. In two and a half years, his Hollywood film exposure had been limited to a small part in the disastrous satire An Alan Smithee Film Burn Hollywood Burn, in which he appeared with longtime buddy Sylvester Stallone.

But just as the frustrated Chan was rumored to be ready to return to Hong Kong for good, Rush Hour came along and made him the same kind of bankable star in America that he has been for decades in Asia.

While it would have been easy for the biggest Hong Kong star of all time to return home, it would be impossible for almost anybody else. Chan enjoys broad popularity in all Asian markets, but other actors--even Yeoh, Li, and Chow Yun-Fat, the handsome leading man in the best-known John Woo films--are stars only in their homeland, where the local film industry is in shambles.

The Hong Kong industry was on a roll in the '80s; despite a population of under seven million, the colony was home to the third (after the United States and India) most prolific movie industry in the world. While American films dominated the box office in every other country in the world, Hong Kong and India preferred their local products. And unlike Indian movies, which seldom transcend the local culture, many Hong Kong films have played well throughout Asia.

But the boom started to crumble at the start of the '90s. Star salaries skyrocketed, while organized crime figures, seeing the opportunity for big profits and access to glamour, became strikingly involved in the industry. The mob's taste for quick profit drained the industry of capital, while its iron-fisted intimidation of stars caused some of the biggest ones to leave for America.

As the influence of Hong Kong movies spread in the United States, Hollywood films began incorporating Hong Kong-style thrills; films such as Speed and The Fifth Element gave Hong Kong audiences the kind of action they loved, but on a larger scale and with international stars. While as recently as 1992, homegrown productions outgrossed foreign films in Hong Kong theaters by four to one, 1997 saw imports (mostly American) beating out the locals for the first time in nearly two decades.

Simultaneously, the transfer of sovereignty to China, after more than a century of British rule, had already created an atmosphere of uncertainty in the film industry.

But by far the biggest factor in the decline was mob-controlled video piracy, which thrives in Hong Kong on a scale undreamed-of here. In Hong Kong, you can find whatever you want at the Temple Street market in the Yaumatei district of Kowloon, where a legion of entrepreneurs spread their goods out on folding tables. Not only has the piracy cut severely into video income, but it has made theatrical revenues drop sharply.

Because of all these problems, the number of films made annually in the former British colony has dropped from well over 200 titles in 1993 to just 60 in 1998--the second-best inducement for top stars to look to America.

Even without a crisis at home, filmmakers from all over the world yearn to work in Hollywood, and the reasons are obvious: bigger paydays, bigger budgets, superior technical facilities, a huge pool of professional talent, and the world's most effective distribution system. Also, as succinctly stated by producer Edward R. Pressman (who has worked with foreigners like R.W. Fassbinder, Wolfgang Petersen, and Fred Schepisi), "American film is the only film that is international."

Ever since World War I disrupted European film production and consolidated Hollywood's status as the world's movie capital, foreign directors have sought refuge, fame, and fortune in the L.A. film community. But if Hollywood has long been open to Europeans and European colonial transplants (such as Australians and New Zealanders), it has been less hospitable to Asians. For decades, Asians, much like blacks, were used mostly as burlesque figures in American movies: Stepin Fetchit, meet the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu. For a while, in the silent era, Japanese-American actor Sessue Hayakawa was a star, sometimes even a romantic lead, but he was the great exception.

Although the war put Asian culture even more in the back seat of America, the postwar period was such a great era for Japanese film that Akira Kurosawa (particularly in Western-derived films such as The Seven Samurai) and other directors gained respect in Europe and the States.

But it wasn't until the Bruce Lee phenomenon during the early '70s that a huge portion of the public--particularly the trendsetting youth market--was turned on. Lee's one genuine American blockbuster, Enter the Dragon, was a remarkably savvy bit of audience targeting, mixing the novelty of Asian martial arts with the style and tone of blaxploitation. After Lee's death, Hollywood employed a new generation of martial artists for relatively low-budget action films that catered to adolescent males.

In the late '80s, Asian movies--mostly from mainland China--began to make a splash in art houses. While such works as Ju Dou, The Girl from Hunan, Farewell My Concubine, and Red Sorghum--from young directors like Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and Xie Fei--were dazzling, they were also limited by the precarious political and financial considerations that define artistic freedom in China.

For the most part, these were relentlessly serious films, examining important social problems, or more often one important social problem--the oppression of women in the days before the revolution--which seemed to be the only subject on which the Western-influenced filmmakers and the defensive, aging bureaucracy could agree. It was a subject that importers and distributors thought likely to engage Western audiences. In 1990, Ju Dou became the first Chinese-language movie nominated for the best-foreign-film Oscar; five more films from China and Taiwan were nominated over the next five years.

Things changed in the early '90s as art houses began to book commercial cinema from Hong Kong. These movies had always been around--playing in Chinatown theaters in most major North American cities for Asian-Americans and diehard Bruce Lee-era kung fu fans. But that audience started to change after festival programmers in Toronto, Chicago, and Vancouver began booking the works of Hong Kong's so-called "New Wave." Ecstatic critics returned home from festivals, spreading the word, and a new generation of fans began to develop around the films. Hollywood execs started to focus on Hong Kong talent--talent that had long been over there.

What caught their eye was that the commercial Hong Kong cinema of the '80s and early '90s combined a hybrid of traditional Chinese folklore with the stylistic flash of Hollywood. These movies employed not so much the current Hollywood fodder but the rambunctious Hollywood of old. The popular genres included the kinds of period epics, "women's" melodramas, and screwball romantic comedies that defined Hollywood in the 1930s. In some cases, Hong Kong altered these old-style Hollywood genres for its audience: Horror films became ghost stories and Westerns became swordplay movies.

The Stateside popularity of the movies also got a big boost when Quentin Tarantino, the poster boy for the independent film revolution, spoke lovingly of his admiration for Hong Kong action. His boutique film-releasing company, Rolling Thunder, made its debut by bringing Wong Kar-Wai's charming Chungking Express to the United States.

The exodus of Asian stars to America was inevitable, but it took them a while to gain a foothold here. The first real breakthrough was the success of Bernardo Bertolucci's multiple-Oscar winner The Last Emperor in 1987, which brought stars John Lone, Joan Chen, and Vivian Wu to the attention of American audiences. The Hong Kong-born Lone had already attracted attention in Ice Man and Year of the Dragon, but it wasn't until the Bertolucci film that he became the first choice for Asian male roles in Hollywood.

But Lone's star has dimmed slightly as Chen's has risen, particularly after her pivotal role in David Lynch's briefly notorious TV series, Twin Peaks. Chen and Wu, both Shanghai natives, found steady work in America, though Wu's best-known role was in the British film The Pillow Book.

While The Last Emperor served these three well, Hollywood insiders at the time considered their popularity a fluke. It wasn't until the early to mid-'90s, with the emergence of director John Woo in Hollywood, that it became clear a mass movement was under way.

Indeed, Woo made it big, but not without the help of a colleague already on the American scene: "I was the luckiest one, because I've got a great partner and friend in Terence Chang (Woo's manager and producer). In Hong Kong, I was always just concentrating on making my movies. And Terence brought my movies to every film festival and introduced me and my work to the whole world. He built a path for me to come to Hollywood."

Woo started by directing Universal's Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Hard Target in 1993. But this modest accomplishment was marred when Woo lost control of the editing because of the star's ego and because of problems with the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board, which insisted on an NC-17 rating until the movie was re-edited finally by Universal.

"After Hard Target, I was a little upset," Woo admits. "I didn't want to go back to Hong Kong. I'm a fighter. But I realized that if I wanted to make a real good movie, I had to have control of the script, like I did in Hong Kong. In Hollywood, to do the same thing, you have to have the power."

Woo's third American release, the 1997 Face/Off, was a big enough success to guarantee his continued American career, as well as that of Chang, who has a dozen films in various stages of development these days. (Woo was recently listed in Premiere magazine as the 70th most powerful figure in Hollywood.)

Woo cites his willingness to meet Hollywood halfway as a major reason he has succeeded. "Some people insist on making films here the Hong Kong way, and it doesn't work. Sometimes Western audiences [don't get it]," he says. "I'm proud of the Hong Kong films, but not all about them is good."

Kirk Wong is the most recent director to make the transition. In Hong Kong, he is best known for making gritty police thrillers that are more realistic than Woo's fare. While Organized Crime, Triad Bureau, Gunmen, and Rock and Roll Cop were his best Hong Kong films, it was Crime Story (his one collaboration with Jackie Chan) that brought him to the attention of Hollywood.

Ironically, distributor Miramax ended up sending the film--an uneasy combination of Chan's action and Wong's noirish realism--straight to video. By then, however, Wong had already lined up his first deal--The Big Hit, starring Mark Wahlberg (hot off of his success in Boogie Nights) and Lou Diamond Phillips. The film opened in the No. 1 spot last spring, though it faded quickly.

Wong, who has lived in L.A. for two years (but has visited L.A. and Houston, where he has family, for the past five) agrees that Hollywood and Hong Kong have vastly different styles. "In Hong Kong, you have pretty much total freedom," he says, admitting that his transition was difficult. "I felt like I had to start all over again, as if I'd just graduated from college, was pushing my student film, and was having to start meeting people."

Unlike some others who have found Hollywood stifling to their creativity, Wong says, "I think, in general, Americans are open to new talent--more than anywhere in the world. The door is wide open as long as you're good enough, as long as you've got the juice."

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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