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Asian Fetish

By Matthew Everett

DECEMBER 8, 1997:  Jackie Chan's latest release, Operation Condor (1997, PG-13), finds the clown prince of kung fu on a quest to recover a stash of Nazi gold. Along the way, of course, he has run-ins with a couple of inept Arab terrorists, the granddaughter of the Nazi who hid the gold, and various cars, swinging cranes, stacks of crates, and brick walls. As usual, the acting and plot are ignored in favor of Chan's self-choreographed stunts, but the sly, knowing grin of its star keeps the hokum fun. Chan the director pays tribute to Raiders of the Lost Ark and Battleship Potemkin, among other films, and the action revolves around leaps and falls more than punches and kicks. The real charm of his movies is that as soon as you start to wonder what's going on, a car chase breaks out.

The actor who made everyone else, including Jackie Chan, want to be a kung fu star was the legendary Bruce Lee, who was born in Hong Kong and put its film industry on the map with Enter the Dragon (1973, R). As with any martial arts film worth the price of rental, it almost completely abandons any formal problems of plot structure by setting all the action at a fighting tournament on a remote island. There are some incidental details about drugs, but for the most part it's Bruce Lee and John Saxon against everyone else. And the final, spectacular fight scene in the hall of mirrors is a tour de force of action filmmaking.

An altogether different movie from Hong Kong is Zhang Yimou's Shanghai Triad (1995, R), a lavish, dense, deliberately paced film about the Chinese underworld of the 1920s and the people caught in the middle of its violence. Though not as compelling as Yimou's international hit of 1993, Raise the Red Lantern, and hindered by slow pacing and emotional distance, Shanghai Triad is still satisfying; fine performances, especially by Gong Li as the young wife of a ruthless crime boss, and the exquisite production (it received an Oscar nomination for cinematography) save some rather predictable material.

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