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 ProtÃ©gÃ© 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.