Why Asian Directors Fail in Hollywood: Jackie Chan


As stated in my introductory post for Killer Imports, I wanted to write some posts other than reviews. This post addresses a topic that I’ve always wondered about. I was tempted to add the word “always” to the title of this article, because I can’t think of a single Asian director who has succeeded in Hollywood. When I say Asian, I should qualify that I mean directors who were not born on American soil. And when I say succeed, I mean in both critical and financial terms, and more often than not, these two ways of judging movies don’t go hand in hand. And of course, I’m generalizing. I admit I am also comparing their Hollywood films with the films they have made on their own soil.

In a sense, this article is probably being unfair. In some cases, these Asian directors are hired to recreate the movies that they have become famous for, or make movies in the style that they are famous for. And we all know that remakes or sequels are lesser products than the originals. Also it’s too easy to put the blame on the Hollywood system. Hollywood has managed to produce classic films despite the unfavorable light that is often placed on it. I suppose that this article could have even been generalized to foreign directors, but there are enough Asian directors who have “failed” to allow this narrow focus.

To broaden this analysis beyond my own opinions, I’ve tried to find interviews that would reveal why these directors think they have failed. As you might imagine, most directors would tend not to be so candidly critical especially if they had future aspirations of continuing to work in Hollywood.

So which directors will I be discussing? In no particular order, they are: Jackie Chan, Wong Kar-Wai, John Woo, the Pang brothers, Ryuhei Kitamura, Takashi Shimizu, Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark, and Kim Jee-Woon. We have one avant-garde director and a mixture of action and horror directors in this list. For this post, I’ll stick with Jackie Chan since I have quite a bit to discuss about him.

People don’t think of Jackie Chan as a director, but he’s directed 17 films so far according to IMDb. There are action scenes in Chan’s Police Story aka Police Force that have been duplicated in Hollywood films. There’s a scene involving Chan standing on a street and pointing a gun at a double-decker bus that is driving towards him. The bus makes an abrupt stop in front of Chan, causing the bad guys to come crashing through the bus windows and tumbling onto the pavement. Sylvester Stallone was inspired to use this in Tango and Cash. And there’s a scene involving two cars driving through sheds and ramshackle housing units on a hillside. Michael Bay does the same thing in Bad Boys 2.

And Chan has action-directed, that is, choreographed the fighting in many other of his films. Chan’s fame in America ignited with a contemporary film, Rumble in the Bronx, an Asian film made in Vancouver, Canada. The popularity of the film was attributed to the non-stop action, stunts, and Chan’s inventive use of props. To put its success in perspective, it made just over 32 million dollars, whereas Brett Ratner’s Rush Hour made just over 141 million.

There is a general consensus among Jackie Chan fans including his critics that his Chinese made films are better than his Hollywood made ones. I think Jackie Chan himself agrees with this consensus. Even though Chan has directed several movies on his home soil, he only gets hired as an actor in Hollywood. So why has Chan not attempted to direct a Hollywood film? I imagine that Hollywood union rules might prevent Chan from creating and performing more outlandish stunt sequences that his Chinese films are famous for.

I’m not sure if he has ever been offered a directorial job in Hollywood, but I doubt it based on the domestic box-office of the movies he has directed. This leads to a contradiction because the box-office doesn’t correspond with critical opinion. For example, The Legend of Drunken Master for which Jackie Chan was uncredited for directing was highly praised by critics including Roger Ebert, yet it only grossed just under 12 million dollars. And the widely panned The Tuxedo managed to gross just under 51 million. Maybe you can’t underestimate the drawing power of Jennifer Love Hewitt?

Perhaps there is a disparity between the general populace and film lovers when it comes to enjoying films from a different culture. Some film lovers have criticized Hollywood studios for tampering with foreign made films before releasing them in America. Film lovers can’t seem to acknowledge that Hollywood studios need to make the changes in order to appeal to the general populace.

I’ve noticed that corny humor scenes tend to get trimmed from American releases. Ever since I had seen Bruce Lee’s Return of the Dragon aka The Way of the Dragon in theatres back in the early ’70s, I had heard that the foreign version had a longer running time with more Bruce Lee scenes. Twenty years later, the foreign version became readily available here as a VCD, so I got to see what I was missing. Major disappointment! The Bruce Lee scenes were of him being like Charlie Chaplin’s tramp character. There was a scene with a naked woman, but it was rather gratuitous unless one thinks there wasn’t enough footage to establish that Bruce Lee’s character was a country bumpkin.

Tightening the narrative is the goal of re-editing foreign releases. I admit there is a certain charm to some of the human interaction in Asian films, but I can understand how the general populace would find these scenes boring. There’s an irony to this because here’s what Chan had to say about Rush Hour: “They like talking too much in America but in Asia they like to fight more in the films.”

Supposedly, the Chinese Triads, crime organizations, have insinuated themselves into the Chinese movie business. Over the years, Chan has managed to become a revered and respected figure in the movie industry, and he knows how to deal with the Triads. Because Chan’s films always make money in Hong Kong and China, I think Chan has total control and only really has to answer to himself. In a movie he directed called Dragon Lord, there’s a complex badminton game scene for which Chan supposedly shot 2,900 takes! I really wonder if this story is apocryphal. If it is true, I wonder how many days were spent on it.

His humbleness endears himself to movie crews. He is known to get involved in all aspects, even going so far as to take a broom in hand when a set needs sweeping. The slowness of a Hollywood set has always bothered him. Then again, I don’t think a Hollywood studio would allow any director to shoot 2,900 takes of a scene.

He has mentioned that one difference he has noticed is that Hollywood filmmakers like to intersperse plot scenes in between fight scenes. Hollywood filmmakers think Western audiences need the action to be paced. Chan prefers to keep the fight scenes going which he does in the movies he makes in Asia. Perhaps his fans appreciate the breathless action pace of his Chinese films.

Some fans have noticed that Hollywood filmmakers tend to shoot action scenes close-up with quick edits. This is an in vogue style that tends to use hand-held shots. Most of the appeal with Jackie Chan’s style has to do with the actual skills that he uses and that are best appreciated when the camera is stationary and pulled back from the action. Here’s what Chan had to say about the action in Rush Hour with an unintentional swipe at Chris Tucker: “I felt the style of action was too Americanized and I didn’t understand the American humor.”

And in his more diplomatic comments on his on-line diary for Rush Hour 3: “During lunch time, I had to edit with Brett and our editor, Don Zimmerman. The basic editing is done, but they just wanted to make sure I was happy. They especially wanted me to take a look at the action scenes, because they wanted my approval. I gave them some feedback. They don’t know all the editing tricks that I’ve learned through the years. There are so many that I use for filming. I’m glad they asked me for my contribution because there I have so much experience I can share. When I was done, I went back to the set.”

Chan’s The Medallion, directed by Gordon Chan, has a documented history of Hollywood interference. Gordon Chan who had directed Jet Li’s Fist of Legend has said that the resulting film is now the “cinematic equivalent of a Chinese-cooked hamburger”. But one wonders if the Columbia executives may have had legitimate reasons for sending a Hollywood “whiz-kid”, Doug Aarniokoski, over to Hong Kong to film new scenes. It must be said that Gordon Chan’s rough cut of the film supposedly did stray from the shooting script. And one can’t argue with the demand for a title change from its original title, “Highbinders”. According to rumors, Gordon Chan may not have gotten along with action director Sammo Hung. Maybe Doug Aarniokoski wasn’t the best choice to do re-shoots. His only notable full director stint is for Highlander: End Game. And even though his Second Unit Director / Assistant Director credits are somewhat extensive, there’s nothing really notable. The Crow: City of Angels?

Jackie Chan’s latest film playing now in Hong Kong is Shinjuku Incident about a Chinese immigrant who gets himself involved with the Yakuza. It’s directed by Tung-Shing Yee aka Derek Yee whose recent film Protégé obtained accolades in Hong Kong. Like Chan’s last couple of Asian made films, this film probably won’t get a North American theatrical release.

For some time now, Chan has stated that he would like to do more drama. With the realization that the stunt work isn’t getting any easier as he ages, this seems like a good idea. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is a market for a non-action Jackie Chan film. Occasionally, Asian films come up with interesting stories. Martin Scorsese’s remake of Infernal Affairs as The Departed immediately comes to mind. Someday, Jackie Chan may make a great action film with an interesting story, but it’s probably a sure bet that the film won’t be made in Hollywood.

  • Very interesting perspective! I love Jackie Chan. He should be given an opportunity to do whatever he wants. He is a team player. It’s always surprising to me that even some of our greatest legends in film still face rejection. I guess it makes the success story so much more intriguing when released. But sometimes is just a shame. I know of some other top directors that still have this problem. Even Tim Burton. If it were up to me, I would create a Tim Burton studio and say, “Go TO Town.” He brings dreams to life for the American audience!

  • anonymous

    “Asian Directors Always Fail In Hollywood”?
    Let’s consider Ang Lee. He was born in Taiwan, not American soil and his films have seen success, in both of the ways you specified, critically and financially. Ang Lee directed both “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” and “Brokeback Mountain.” “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” was nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Director (Ang Lee), 4 of which it won and it also won a Grammy. “Brokeback Mountain” was nominated for 8 Oscars, winning 3, including Best Director for Ang Lee. “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”‘s gross revenue worldwide has been $213,525,736 and “Brokeback Mountain”‘s is $178,062,759. Ang Lee was also in TIME Magazine’s 100 People Who Shape Our World 2006.
    Another Asian director is Zhang Yimou, who was born in China and has directed three Oscar nominated films.
    There are Asian directors that have seen enormous success in Hollwood, but granted there aren’t that many. On the other hand, I don’t see many Western directors scoring it big in Bollywood.

  • Maopheus

    Ang Lee is the one exception but I guess you could argue that he made his fame directing mostly American-backed or financed movies. I know that with the international nature of film-making nowadays it’s sometimes hard to attribute “nationality” to a film. However Jackie Chan was a huge star in Hong Kong and Asia and if he had never made an American movie he would still be a huge star so I guess that’s the distinction. Ang Lee made a couple nice movies in “Eat Drink Man Woman” and “The Wedding Banquet” but those movies really allowed him to get decidedly non-Asian oriented movies like “Sense and Sensibility” and “The Ice Storm”. Chan as a director can’t really be compared to Lee as a director because Chan is like Sly or Clint (in his early days) as a director. He only directs movies that he himself stars in. Now Clint of course has the respect now that he can direct anything he wants even if he is not an actor in it. I don’t think Chan would ever be able to do that.

  • TheAllKnowingGod

    A couple of reasons why his Hong Kong movies are better than his American.

    1.) In America they spend months on the talking scenes and weeks on the action scenes. In Hong Kong they spend weeks on the talking scenes and months on the action scenes.

    2.) Hong Kong stuntmen are better than American stuntmen. American stuntmen are trained to take a fall. Hong Kong stuntmen are trained to take a fall, do acrobatics and martial arts. Their skill and agility make for much more exciting and spectacular action scenes.

    3.) Jackie Chan knows how to direct action unlike the American directors who direct his movies. As much as they like to say Jackie has control on his American films – he doesn’t because America is a completely unionised industry. Editors edit films, cinematographers set up shots. No one else is allowed to do it. Whereas in Hong Kong Jackie was doing everything he possibly could – acting, directing, editing, choreographing, stunts, even his own theme songs.

    4.) No Chris Tucker.

    Also the reason why Drunken Master II only made $12 million is the same reason why most foreign films make little to no money in America – it was buried by the studio. It was released in a crowded market on only 1,000 with little advertising.

    You could also say why didn’t Infernal Affairs make as much as The Departed or Rec as much as Quarantine.

    It’s because Hollywood studios don’t want foreign films taking up space in theatres that could hold their own films. Sad but true.

    Drunken Master II was also released in America 6 years after it was originally released in Asia. Most Jackie Chan had already seen it by then.

  • TheAllKnowingGod

    Also the villains in Hong Kong films are trained martial artists – Ing-Sik Whang, Jang Lee Hwang, Yuen Wah, Benny Urquidez, Dick Wei, Ken Lo who can actually fight with Jackie and creat spectacular scenes.

    In America bad guys are usually fat gangster types or Max Van Sydow – neither of which can pose any threat to Jackie or help create spectacular fights.

  • EJ

    Reasons why JC’s Hong Kong movies are less successful in North America:

    1) Editing with a hatchet – American releases of Chan’s HK movies, especially prior to 2000, are generally much shorter than the original. You simply can’t remove so much of a story without hurting it. A prime example is The Myth (though admittedly the original has some significant flaws) where the battle near the end is edited to the point of being completely incomprensible. “Project A” is another good example.

    2) English dubs: Quality varies from movie to movie, but even the best dubs can’t avoid a stilted quality. It’s even worse in the earlier movies before JC started dubbing his own parts. I’m not sure what accounts for this. I’ve heard people say it’s because the dubbing actors only know their own parts, not the story.

    Other possibilities:

    Perhaps it has to do with the focus on making the English dialog match the actors’ mouth movements. The rhythms of Cantonese are very different from English and this additional requirement must make translating the dialog very difficult.

    Another factor may be the artificiality of the dubbing process. There’s no interaction between the voice actors, they’re just sitting in a studio speaking to the screen (& the dub techs).

    In some cases, it’s also the poor skills of the voice actors. And for some reason, a lot of the dubbed voices sound very phony even where their expression is good. There’s also some serious differences in accent between different voice actors: Actor A has a Chinese accent, Actor B is working too hard to sound American, and Actor C really does sound American. This is only my opinion, but I think some consistency might help.

    While I’m thinking of it, can anyone tell me why so many of the women voice actors speak in such strangely high voices? Are they breathing helium? The original women actors don’t speak like that, so why do the women voice actors do it?

    I understand that American audiences don’t care for subtitled movies, so there’s really not much to be done. It is a pity that the problems with the dubbing can’t be solved, though. I’d love to be able to enjoy these movies as much in the English version as I do in the subtitled version.

    3) Promotion – specifically the lack of it. Of course, after cutting a movie half to death and then finishing it off with a mediocre-to-bad English dub, it’s no wonder they don’t want to spend much on promoting it.

    All that being said, I do think there are cultural differences, particularly with regard to humor, that may play a part in JC’s Hong Kong movies being less successful in the US than they are in Asia.

    Finally, I gotta say it: I liked Rush Hour 1 & 2, really liked Shanghai Noon, and really, really liked Shanghai Knights (I believe they gave Chan control over the action scenes in Shanghai Knights: that may have something to do with it.)

  • Dan

    Another possible reason why JC’s Hong Kong movies, along with most other foreign films for that matter, aren’t successful in the US is that the general movie-going populace (the lowest common denominator folk) have shit taste in movies. These are the people that make movies like Paul Blart and Fast and Furious box-office smashes, which encourages Hollywood to keep cranking out said shitty movies. It’s a sad cycle.

    As for JC, I love his 80’s and early 90’s movies for their action and JC’s charisma. I didn’t see any of his American movies, except for Rush Hour 1, because they look pretty atrocious–Rush Hour included. JC should be happy with his legacy, but you can tell he’s frustrated by his lack of success stateside. Any new movies he makes, Asian or American, sadly wouldn’t really appeal to me because, at his age now, he’s not capable of the insane action and fight scenes of his prime. At least we can still watch his classics.

    Great topic Reed and looking forward to your Wong Kar-Wai post.

  • Hey, thx for your great comments, people. I must admit that I wasn’t really satisfied with the way I constructed my argument. I was hoping for input that you people thankfully provided.

    I completely forgot about Ang Lee. I love his films. Even The Hulk! I’m glad I didn’t put “Always” in the title of my post.

  • It’s not called The Hulk, it’s called Hulk. Why is this important? Because it shows why Ang Lee rules.

  • anonynome

    it always boggles my mind why people defend jackie chan and claim hollywood is screwing him over? really? so hollywood put a gun to the heads of jackie’s family to force him to do the shanghai knights movie, the rush hour movies, etc? i think not. jackie voluntarily whored himself out to hollywood, then in turn bashes his own films whenever he can. dude, if you don’t think they’re good, why do you do it? simple: he wants the money. basically, jackie chan is like a hooker who begs you to let her give you a handjob for $20 bucks, then when it’s done, complains that you made her give you a handjob. quit yer bitchin’ (and the rest of you, quit yer defending).

    p.s. so no asian director has made it in hollywood? how many western actors or directors have made it in hong kong or asia? this is like complaining about hollywood stereotyping asians in nerd/lab or gangster roles. look at all your hk movies and they stereotype westerners in gangster/asshole roles, too. same bullshit, different continent.

  • Oh, is the Ed Norton version called The Hulk? Thx for the correction, Henrik. I guess dropping the “The”s (I don’t know how to properly punctuate this) makes “Fast & Furious” rule.

    anonynome, in Jackie’s defense (ha ha), he has to rely on what the Hollywood people think will appeal to the general public. He goes in with the best intentions, but he still has the right to criticize the result. I write these posts knowing that people like you will have differing opinions, but I still have the right to think your thought processes lack refinement.

    Hollywood has a certain mystique around the world, I think. Some foreigners dream of winning an Academy Award. I don’t think many Americans have dreams of making it in Hong Kong or Asia unless they can’t get work in America.

    It’s funny that you mention stereotyping, because I’ve never thought about how Westerners are kind of one-dimensional villains in Asian films. I guess Americans are self-confident (or maybe arrogant) to think that their stereotype in Asian films isn’t important. Maybe Westerners should be offended. If an Asian made a birth of Christ film with Asian actors, would the Vatican be offended?

  • This article is a bit over-generalized and reveals a fair amount of conceitedness as a well. “Always” is never a word you should use, especially in an article based mostly on opinion. There aren’t many big name Asian Directors to begin with, so its hard to base an opinion on such a small body of people. Moreover, most of the directors you have mentioned are from China, specifically. Asia, would also include Korea, Japan (Akira Kurosawa) and India.

    It goes without saying that movies that come out of Asia (read: China) need to be adapted to a North American audience. And vice versa, when North American films have to be adapted to an Chinese audience. And please don’t use “general public” without putting it in context. The “general public” is NOT the United States of America. Although Hollywood dominates the film industry, lets not create a view that America is the ONLY source of motion picture entertainment.

    To anonynome, your language is vulgar and warrants no attention from anyone. It’s like arguing with a ditch pig. Really.

  • Lets not forget that a Motion Picture is primarily a financial enterprise. Particularly when you are talking about Hollywood. Producers are mainly looking at how movies can be commercially viable, and usually they aren’t as good artistically (with certain exceptions) as they are at making a buck. Elements of Chinese action films get lifted and put together into a North American film in piecemeal fashion — which does NOT a good film make.

    No matter what gimmicks are thrown at a movie-going audience, you can’t fool them into thinking they are watching Ben-Hur when it’s bloody schlock.

  • Will, not to belittle you, but I don’t understand some of your comments. You’re reacting as though you didn’t read my article although I admit I’m constantly being told that I’m a poor communicator. In any case, I’m writing this from the perspective of someone in Canada, and I know that people are different between cultures, but some things do cross cultural barriers. I’m sure someone could make a film that could be a blockbuster in both North America and Asia. Actually, can anyone provide an existing example?

    Oh, and I hope you would be wrong in your statement that there aren’t many “big name” Asian directors unless you’re making a biased statement from a non-Asian perspective.

  • pete

    I thought anonyme made a lot of sense. Will – you’re a prude. Anyways, LOLs at people trying to treat films as some sort of analysable, high-brow art from. It’s just movies you idiots.

  • James

    The original “Saw” was directed by an Asian director. Along with Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou as mentioned earlier. While there aren’t that many, its an improvement over a few decades ago where there isn’t any at all.

  • I didn’t realize James Wan was born in Malaysia. For some reason, I thought he was born in North America. Maybe he left Malaysia at an early age?

    I wonder why the studio didn’t go to James Wan to make the sequels. Maybe the studio thought the success of Saw was due to the idea and not the director? Or did Wan decline to be involved with the sequels?

  • lynxx

    How about Ang Lee, John Woo, and the peerless Sammo Hung?

  • lynxx (and James), I’ll admit that when I originally thought of writing a series of articles on Asian directors, I completely forgot about Ang Lee. I like his work very much although I was disappointed in “Lust, Caution.” Perhaps I should get around to writing an article called “Why Ang Lee is the Only Asian Director to Succeed in Hollywood.” (BTW, I know I’m generalizing (probably).)

    My article was intended to point out why Asian directors don’t succeed in making films in Hollywood. I don’t think John Woo has succeeded with his Hollywood films. And I don’t think Sammo Hung has ever directed a Hollywood film. I agree their Asian films do have cult followings in the West though.

  • andrew wang

    Chinese Film directors ,actors and their movies are very popular in USA, Europe and World now.

  • martin fennell

    face off was a terrific movie

  • Seri

    In response to your quote. “I can’t think of a single Asian director who has succeeded in Hollywood.”

    The Taiwanese director Ang Lee (of Crouching Tiger fame) did fabulously well in the Hollywood with Brokeback Mountain, Ice Storm, and Sense and Sensibility.

  • @Seri: Yes, I conceded to overlooking Ang Lee. I even liked his version of the Hulk. After having his “Taking Woodstock” largely ignored, it looks like he has another hit with “Life of Pi.”

    @martin: I enjoyed Face/Off. Looking at Rotten Tomatoes, I didn’t know that this film was so highly regarded. For some reason, I thought critics had panned this movie.

    @andrew: It’s been two years since your comment, but I don’t get the impression that Chinese or Asian films are very popular right now although Walmart is making recent films readily available.