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The millennial state of Hong Kong films

By Ray Pride

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998:  For a brief time, the Hong Kong movie industry was the dustbin of cinematic history. Talented directors combined Western and Eastern storytelling styles in visually dynamic, often incoherent or absurd movies made fast and cheap for the larger Asian market. While Hong Kong still turns out titles, the most apocalyptic imaginations have moved on, with directors like John Woo ("Face/Off") and Tsui Hark ("Knockoff") making big-budget movies in America and performers like Samo Hung winding up in television series. But as Hollywood takes on the best directors and the go-for-broke narrative drive of Hong Kong movies, is the future for the next century of Hong Kong filmmaking all used up?

The answer may lie in one of the two movies Jackie Chan (below) has a hand in this week. First there's "Rush Hour," in which he stars with shrill-talking Chris Tucker in a stock cop-buddy picture. Then there's "Six-String Samurai," a scissors-and-tape Sergio Leone-"Road Warrior"-"Wizard of Oz"-"El Mariachi"-"Star Wars"-rock 'n' roll-samurai-kung fu-comic book filled with willfully naive charm that stars and was co-written by Jeffrey Falcon (right), a martial artist who's worked as the Western villain in Asian movies since Chan cast him as a bad guy in 1989's "Inspector Wears Skirts." Chan's approach is pragmatic, looking conservatively toward the future, where Falcon and 26-year-old director Lance Mungia have made a movie with the go-for-broke verve of the Hong Kong output of fifteen years ago.

Chan had a sizable hit with "Rumble in the Bronx" two years ago, but each of his re-edited-for-U.S. releases since have grossed less, with "Who Am I?" even making its debut on HBO. The 44-year-old Chan is a patient student, working with director Brett Ratner on a movie that subordinates Chan's persona and fighting style to the dictates of an American-style action movie. Chan shares a philosophy with the 27-year-old Ratner of shooting complicated action scenes in the simplest manner possible, struggling for some manner of spatial authenticity in the same frugal fashion as Hong Kong filmmakers.

But Ratner is quick to point out that he's not making a movie only for Chan fans. "I'm not trying to make films just for my friends who are all smart filmmakers. I'm trying to make a film that appeals to all audiences. In the end, I have to look at the whole picture and say, 'Am I satisfying each audience throughout?'" Chan, long esteemed for his lengthy, balletic fight scenes, is restrained in "Rush Hour," with set-pieces seldom lasting more than forty-five seconds. "Maybe too long the fighting," Chan muses about the difference in style. "But I am here to learn. The audience that already knows me, they would come in. But most people still ask, 'Who is Jackie Chan?' People who already know me like long fights, but the American market is totally different. When I see some American rubbish movie, they make money. Sometimes I think my movie's better, but when it's released in America, nobody goes to see it."

Chan says he's content with his fortune and fame, and has a different goal in the North American audience than making more money. "The American market is the biggest in the world. I want to get into the American market, not for myself, but I want to do something for our Chinese community. When I do the hand print at the Chinese Theater, in Hollywood, it's nothing, everybody does it. In Asia, pow! Me, John Woo, we have any small news in a newspaper here, in Asia it's THIS BIG! I'm not doing it for money, but for our own people."

As for "Six-String Samurai," it's perhaps a genre of one: indie action. Or as Dorothy Parker might have put it, What fresh apocalypse is this? In depicting a post-apocalyptic world, with a sword-bearing guitarist named Buddy crossing the desert to Vegas for a showdown with Death, "Six-String"'s form mimics its story: in this glittering junk heap, there's a little bit of everything.

Falcon has a ready metaphor for accusations of being unduly derivative. "You can't help but be influenced by something that's good. To not accept something that's good is ridiculous. That would be like me as a martial artist looking at another martial artist doing movements that are so perfect. Of course I'm going to study his movements, emulate his movements, but those will become my own. They'll be similar, but they'll be like me. I can't do that exactly like him."

Someone told Mungia he could see dozens of influences in "Six String" but didn't see Lance Mungia in the work; where was he? "I told him that I tried very hard to find my own visual, moral and storytelling style with this film," the recent college graduate says. "If you could copy style so easily, you'd have perfect Hitchcock and Leone duplicates walking around. You don't work in a void. Watching movies is like going to school. Some filmmakers may say that they don't do that, but I think even the most obscure filmmaker saw another obscure filmmaker's film and said, 'I can make an obscure film!' It's not like you're born to this and all these creative ideas pop into your head."

"Six-String" began as a weekend project, with the crew using student permits to shoot in Death Valley. "I can tell you 100 percent there was no conscious effort to copy shots from other films, because most of the time we were just grabbing what was in front of us, worrying about the heat, the camera working, the film running out." The whatever-works tack went for the combination of stunts that Falcon - who's studied martial arts for twenty-one years, fifteen of them in the Far East - performs onscreen. "It's a combination of styles. The martial arts done in most movies is of a style called 'natural martial arts,' a free-flowing, whatever comes, free-fighting style. It's not choosing a style for each scene, it's what I feel natural doing as the actor at that time."

The duo were fortunate to have found each other. Falcon's experience on Hong Kong cheapies made it possible for Mungia to make a film they should have known was unlikely to be finished. "A lot of Hong Kong films are incredibly visual and action-wise, they're amazing. But the story and the characters are usually weak, then there's the week or two of really horrendous post-production." Knowing what results could be gotten under such circumstances, Mungia was bold enough to make his martial-arts action comedy against a David Lean backdrop. Still, "There was a lot of experimentation on the set to make the camera and the acting and the action work together," he says. "Jeff stressed before the film that there's two ways to shoot an action film like this. One is to rehearse for a couple of months with stunt people and make everything as choreographed as possible, which we didn't have the budget or time to do. The other way is to have a rough outline, look at it on the set, then be spontaneous. The actual physical movements were planned out based on what looked good with the lighting or the location."

Chan, farther into his career than Falcon or Mungia, is resigned to not doing spectacular stunts in the U.S. "I know I cannot. When Brett says, 'Jackie, we would just do a traditional American film, it's not like a Hong Kong movie.'" Again, Chan defers to the market. "Just come to America, really, like a student and learn from everybody. I want to get the first step after fifteen years - get in the American market and let everybody know me. If I can meet a lot of producers and directors, I'll have the chance to learn some special effects and computer graphics. Then I can work with them. How long can I fight? A few years, I'll have to retire and after I retire I want just to direct. I don't think I can be a really good actor in America. My English not like yours! America likes drama, talk. When you see Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, pow-pow-pow, talking scenes. I think, I never can be that. But I'm a very good action director. I want to be an action director when I retire - or grow up! - in America and in Hong Kong. I'll know special effects and not have some other actor hurt themselves with a real jump. 'Rush Hour' is the first step. We'll see what happens."


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