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A Reel Life

June 1998

Hong Kong Hits Hollywood

by Mark Morrison

Fu followers know that Hong Kong cinema fires on more cylinders than its pale little Hollywood cousin will ever aspire to. The Hollywood money men know it too, and have been inviting HK's finest and fastest to come across to make movies in America.

The emigration was certainly inspired in part by the 1997 Handover. Prior to the event, with uncertainty hanging over the creative freedoms available to HK movie makers after the island assumed Chinese rule, the top actors and directors looked to America as an escape route. Another solid reason to try to make it big Stateside is that Hollywood flicks pay much, much more. The Replacement Killers has made more money than any other Chow Yun-Fat film to date. (I predict that those fortunate enough to have watched Chow in the seminal HK film The Killer are reacting to this news as I did: screaming with indignation.) This trend continues even at home in Hong Kong, where Hollywood movies are now more popular than the local fare. All the more reason for everyone to pack their bags for the USA.

The first wave of HK emigres were the directors. In a bizarre twist of fate (and affront to reason), there seems to be an invisible contract which states that every HK director's first go at a Western flick has to star Van Damme. John Woo was first to take on the Big Boy from Brussels in Hard Target. Ringo Lam followed suit with Maximum Risk, and Tsui Hark has gone back for seconds, making both Double Team and the forthcoming Jean Claude V.D. biff-fest Knock Off . Bearing in mind that Woo brought us Hard Boiled, that Lam made City on Fire (the film which hipster fave Tarrantino plundered wholesale for the plot and best scenes of Reservoir Dogs), and that Hark almost single-handedly engineered the new wave of HK cinema with his production on such films as A Better Tomorrow and the Chinese Ghost Story series, seeing these stellar talents churning out one Van Dammerung after another is just plain WRONG.

Happily, John Woo has managed to scramble out of the B-grade US martial arts ghetto once and for all with the enormous success of Face/Off. He's now Mr In Demand in Tinsel Town, and has been snagged by Tom Cruise to direct Mission Impossible 2 . Hopefully once he's out of the clutch of Cruise he'll get back to work on King's Ransom, slated to star Nick Cage and Chow Yun-Fat. Let's hope also that Hark and Lam enjoy similar success once they've served their time.

Chow Yun-Fat is one of HK's best-loved actors, and the actors form the second wave of Hongkies making it big in LA. He made his Hollywood debut in The Replacement Killers, in which he was permitted to shoot but not it seems to smile, thus immediately nullifying the dazzling charisma he has flashed through dozens of great HK films. It'll probably be more of the same in his next effort, The Corrupter , co-starring Mark Wahlberg, who was recently seen (in every sense of the word) as Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights. (In Hong Kong, Boogie Nights was given a new Cantonese title, which translated back as "His powerful device makes him famous." There's truth in advertising, no?) It took Woo three films to hit his stride, so we can hope the same will hold true for Chow, whose third film will be either Woo's King's Ransom, or a new non-musical version of The King and I, making him the first Asian actor to play the role on screen. It should also break him out of the man-with-two-guns stereotype and allow him to show his considerable degree of wit and charm.

Other HK stars leaping the Pacific include Michelle Yeoh, who debuted as the most kick-ass Bond girl ever in Tomorrow Never Dies, so kick-ass in fact that she had to fall victim to a lame plot device and get taken prisoner so that Bond would something to do in his own film rather than standing around watching her get the job done. Yeoh's next film is Vertical Limit, in which she'll climb the Himalayas; because it is there, I suppose. After that she is rumoured to join a remake of Charlie's Angels (bags not as Farrah Fawcett).

The incredible action star Jet Li took a lot of time deciding on his first Hollywood role, which makes it even more inexplicable that he signed on to play the villain in Lethal Weapon 4 (which, if you think about it, means that Mel Gibson is gonna kick Jet Li's ass. I don't think I can bear to see that.) However, he has just signed on to a new UN-based thriller called The Art of War , in which he'll play the hero that we know him to be.

Kung fu comedy master Jackie Chan had a huge US smash with his HK film Rumble in the Bronx, but did not do so well with his follow-ups First Strike and Mr. Nice Guy (the latter filmed in Melbourne, and featuring the finest tram fu ever filmed. Should be in the cinemas some time this year; if you can't wait, every Asian video store in town has it already). Chan's new HK film Who Am I? is a return to form, and he has just finished filming Rush Hour , his first US film in years.

Meanwhile Chan's old buddy Sammo Hung is about to appear on the small screen in the new US TV series Martial Law, playing a two-fisted detective. This is good for many reasons, the first of which is that the show replaces the axed Dr Quinn: Medicine Woman. Attaboy, Sammo! More to the point, when you consider that the legendary Bruce Lee played a mere sidekick in the TV show Green Hornet, and that the distinctly non-Chinese David Carradine took the lead in Kung Fu (a series which was designed for Lee), Hung's new show demonstrates that the karmic wheel has finally spun around to the side of good.

Mind you, I along with every other frothing fanboy would much rather see all these fine people back making films in the East. Their best Hollywood work is still not a patch on the Hong Kong films which made them famous. But hell, they've earned those big US dollars, not to mention a rest. US films only shoot eight hours a day and feed you three big meals, rather than the sixteen hour shoots with a hurried box of noodles which are the norm on HK productions.

Here's hoping that the new generation of HK stars who stayed at home can keep delivering the goods, while the world at large gets turned onto the true meaning of action as Hollywood kicks into overdrive with an injection of Hong Kong adrenaline.

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Author Mark Morrison maintains the web site Heroic Cinema (http://www.zikzak.net/heroic), a guide to finding Hong Kong films in Melbourne on television and video, as well as up-to-date information on what is screening currently at the Chinatown Cinema.
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Published in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
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