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Archive for the ‘Hong Kong in Hollywood’ Category

Three Views On Chinese Movies In The 2000s: Part I

Having spent part of my Christmas holidays watching THE FOUNDING OF A REPUBLIC, my heart is bursting with patriotic fervour.  Compelled by the nationalist frenzy, I’ve decided to pay homage to “Father of the Nation” Sun Yat-Sen and his Three Principles of the Statue of Sun Yat-Sen at the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall in TaipeiPeople by looking at the 2000s in Chinese movies from three different perspectives: the Most Valuable Film of the 2000s, the Best Films and Personal Favourites of the Double Zeros.

Now that I’ve protected the Kozo Entertainment Group’s interests in the Mainland market (surely, with millions of sites to monitor, government censors can’t possibly have the time to read past the first paragraph), let’s start with perspective number one: The Most Valuable Film of the 2000s.

Based on the concept of the Most Valuable Player award in sports (those outside of North America probably know this award as “player of the match”), my pick for the Most Valuable Film of the 2000s wasn’t the most technically accomplished movie of the decade or the one that was most artfully rendered.  It is, however, an outstanding film that had a huge impact on Chinese movies in this past decade:  CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON.

Released in 2000, CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON is, to date, the most commercially successful and globally acclaimed Chinese film ever.  At box offices worldwide, it earned over US$213.5 million.  At various film awards across the globe, it won a staggering seventy-three awards and prizes.  At the world’s most prominent film awards, the Academy Awards, it won in four categories after being nominated in ten.

Besides making an impact internationally, CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON had a huge impact on the course of the Chinese movie industry.  After the Asian Economic Crisis of 1997, there wasn’t much interest in making lush, historical costume epics.  In between 1997 and the release of CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON, the only costume epic of note was Chen Kaige’s THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN.  Movies were mostly small budget affairs consisting of offerings like Milkyway Image’s crime films or Wong Jing’s exploitation flicks. The big money was reserved for commercially driven projects like the special effects extravaganza STORM RIDERS or the star-driven vehicle TOKYO RAIDERS.  Big-budget costume epics were viewed as risky ventures with little or no chance of financial return.  By making a profit of close to US$200 million (the film cost US$17 million to produce), CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON revived investment into big-budget costume epics and made the genre in vogue for major Chinese directors.

From left to right: Zhang Yimou, Feng Xiaogang, Peter Chan Ho-Sun

From left to right: Zhang Yimou, Feng Xiaogang, Peter Chan Ho-Sun

Take, for instance, Zhang Yimou, the man behind the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics.  Zhang’s three films before CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON made its splash were the low-key affairs THE ROAD HOME, NOT ONE LESS and HAPPY TIMES.  Zhang’s next three films: HERO, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS and CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER.

Before CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON, Feng Xiaogang was known mostly for making successful Lunar New Films for the Mainland market.  He stepped out of that genre by making THE BANQUET and THE ASSEMBLY.

Venturing into elaborate costume epics wasn’t limited to Mainland directors.  Tsui Hark, who had been off making “Hollywood” films like KNOCK OFF and TIME AND TIDE, came back with THE LEGEND OF ZU and SEVEN SWORDSPeter Chan Ho-Sun, famous for urban romances HE’S A WOMAN, SHE’S A MAN and COMRADES: ALMOST A LOVE STORY, threw his hat in the ring by directing THE WARLORDS and producing BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS.  For his first Asian movie since HARD BOILED in 1992, John Woo — renown for his slick modern action movies - made RED CLIFF and RED CLIFF II.

With the emergence of China as an economic power in the 2000s, it is possible to legitimately argue that investment in big-budget costume epics would have happened eventually but it is impossible to argue against the idea that CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON was a catalyst in the choices that major Chinese filmmakers made in the past decade.  There can be no doubt that the runaway success of CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON in late-2000/early-2001 set the table for Chinese filmmaking in the 2000s and is, undeniably, the Most Valuable Film of the decade.

Next time: The Best Films of the 2000s

BLOG POST EXTRA:

The impact of CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON wasn’t limited just to the Chinese movie industry, it had an effect on Hollywood as well.  Paying, once again, tribute to Sun Yat-Sen and his Three Principles (still with me Mainland censors?), here are three ways the afterglow of the film manifested itself in the West:

1. It made Zhang Ziyi a commodity in Hollywood.

Without her breakthrough performance as Yu Jiao Long, there is no doubt that in the minds of most people over here in North America, she’d be mostly anonymous.  Only people who had an interest in foreign films would possibly know of her and, even then, they may not remember her name.  Most people would have thought of her in this way: “… that plucky country girl from that Zhang Yimou film - what was it called?  THE ROAD HOME?”

Instead, CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON planted her firmly into the consciousness of movie fans.  From 2001 to 2004, she probably had her pick of “compelling hot babe” roles in Hollywood action films.  Her fame certainly helped land her the lead role in MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA and got her membership into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

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2. It deluded people into thinking that Ang Lee was the right person to direct HULK

In January 2001, at the height of the CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON phenomenon, Ang Lee was contacted by Universal Pictures/Marvel Studios to direct HULK1.  While many viewed CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON as a straight-up wuxia action film, it was, in reality, a human drama film with wuxia touches.  It wasn’t about the quest for a sacred sword or a hard-core tale about revenge, it was about a young girl finding her identity and the unfulfilled love between two warriors.  CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON had more in common with past Ang Lee films like PUSHING HANDS, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY and EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN than classic wuxia movies like COME DRINK WITH ME or DRAGON GATE INN.

Predictably, HULK fizzled at the box office and Ang Lee returned to his human drama roots with the widely acclaimed BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN.

3. It helped the box office success of HERO in North America

Despite two years of dithering by Miramax, the company which owned North American distribution rights to HERO, the film opened on 2,031 screens and took in US$18 million on its opening weekend.  The result set three milestones at the time2:

  • Best end of August opening
  • Second best opening for a foreign language film (behind THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST)
  • Widest release for an Asian film

None of that happens without the momentum and goodwill created by CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON.  It’s unfortunate that HERO squandered it all with that intellectually stimulating but emotionally disheartening ending.  While HERO went on to make US$53 million in North America, subsequent releases did not open nearly as wide and, as a result, did not do as well.  HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS took in US$11 million while KUNG FU HUSTLE earned US$18 million.

It’s hard to blame Zhang Yimou or HERO for the result, the ending was an artistic choice.  It’s just unfortunate that the film was positioned as a mainstream movie even though it had an art film ending.  People go to mainstream movies to be entertained, they don’t go to learn lessons or have intellectual constructs presented to them.  AVATAR has made US$1 billion because, at its heart, it’s old-school entertainment.  The good guys beat the bad guys and the guy gets the girl.  If entertainment value was sacrificed for greater emphasis on environmental protection and the virtues of nature, AVATAR tanks.

The ending of HERO, which told viewers that unification and peace for the people are more important than personal vengeance, was fine as an intellectual argument but unsatisfying as a capper to a kick-ass martial arts movie.  Let’s say OCEAN’S ELEVEN was released in 2010 in the current economic environment.  Wouldn’t it leave a bad taste in viewers’ mouths if Danny Ocean and friends decided to turn themselves in and return their score after their elaborate scheme because they didn’t want to see the workers in the hotel and casino lose their jobs?  I think that the ending of HERO soured many, many moviegoers on the genre and effectively killed any mainstream momentum that CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON fostered.

Image credits: Taiwan Tourism Bureau (Sun Yat-Sen statue), Star East Asia (Zhang Yimou), China Daily (Feng Xiaogang), Ming Pao (Peter Chan Ho-Sun), Universal Pictures (HULK)

FOOTNOTES:

1 “From ‘Tiger’ to U’s ‘Hulk’ for helmer”.  Variety.  January 12th, 2001.

2 “‘Hero’ Soars to Late August Record”. Box Office Mojo.  August 29th, 2004.

Swirling Sharks, Fading Dragon

If you’ve been following the Hong Kong entertainment circle with me ever since I put up my first website on Xoom way back in 1997, you’ll know that I enjoy tracking the ups and downs of sports just as much as I enjoy tracking the ins and outs of HK entertainment.  Both have the ability to take me on wild rides that offer the highest highs and the lowest lows.  Watching Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) kick Cao Cao’s butt in RED CLIFF this summer gave me the same “hell yeah!” buzz I felt last December when I watched the New England Patriots achieve a perfect 16-0 regular season record.  Conversely, the deep disappointment I felt when the combined talents of Jet Li, Andy Lau Tak-Wah, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Peter Chan Ho-Sun amounted to an Brandon Changunderwhelming result in THE WARLORDS mirrored the disappointment I felt when the Patriots failed to complete a perfect season by losing to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.

Another thing that intrigues about sports and HK entertainment is seeing how prospective talents succeed or fail.  Watching prospects go to brilliant careers, middling careers or just plain washing out is always interesting.  Seeing how the likes of Peyton Manning and Lewis Hamilton succeed while the likes of Ryan Leaf and Hector Camacho Jr. turn into busts is just as fascinating as tracking the chain of events that led Edison Chen Kwoon-Hei of Vancouver to idolhood and the chain of events that kept Brandon Chang Cheuk-Nam of Toronto (right; you may remember him from such films as THE TOUCH and SILVER HAWK) in relative obscurity.

I go into this long preamble because sports and the entertainment circle intersected for me again recently when I read that a “re-imagining” of THE KARATE KID is in the works.  Rumours about a remake involving Will Smith and his son Jaden had been swirling for more than a year but talk died down after Smith’s publicist issued a denial.  Now that the rumours have turned out to be true, I wonder if another part of the early talk — that Jackie Chan will be taking the “Mr. Miyagi” role — will also come to fruition.  As a longtime fan of Jackie Chan’s work, I hope that this portion of the rumour is false because, if he takes part in the project, I think his career will effectively “jump the shark”.  The idea of Jackie Chan doing a version of “Mr. Miyagi” makes me think of sad sights in sports like David Beckham going to America to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy, Michael Jordan putting on a Washington Wizards uniform,  Emmitt Smith signing with the Arizona Cardinals and Wayne Gretzky playing for the St. Louis Blues.  Though there may have been good arguments for all those moves, they each signalled to fans that these once dominant figures in their respective sports were no longer great.  If Jackie Chan pulls a “Mr. Miyagi”, fans who have been admiring his work since his DRUNKEN MASTER and SNAKE IN THE EAGLE’S SHADOW days will look back years from now and say to themselves that this is when Big Brother Jackie moved on to the “senior tour” portion of his career.

Jackie Chan

I bet some of you are now thinking: “What’s he talking about?  Jackie Chan’s career has already jumped the shark!”  True, legitimate arguments can be made that Jackie Chan is no longer great.  Instead of making memorable high energy action films like DRUNKEN MASTER II, he’s doing voice work for cartoon monkeys and churning out bland, forgettable work like RUSH HOUR 3 and THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM.  Combined with some off screen stuff that have chipped away at his star power, his celebrity certainly doesn’t cast as large a shadow as it did during his heyday of the late-1980s/early-to-mid 1990s.

Nevertheless, there’s still some fire left in the aging dragon.  ROB-B-HOOD, his last “Hong Kong movie”, was a step up from a sub-par THE MYTH and the dreary NEW POLICE STORY.  The upcoming THE SHINJUKU INCIDENT shows some potential as Chan collaborates with the usually solid Derek Yee Tung-Sing (ONE NITE IN MONGKOK).  Despite mediocre reviews, THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM still pulled in over US$20 million on its opening weekend so the “Jackie Chan brand” here in the West is still reliable.  As a result, he’s currently on location in New Mexico shooting a new Hollywood film THE SPY NEXT DOOR.

Why, then, would participating in a KARATE KID remake cause Jackie Chan’s career to jump the shark?  Because at this point in his career, Big Brother Jackie can’t afford to be associated with any box office bombs and a KARATE KID remake has huge potential to be a box office bomb.  Consider the following:

- Apart from rare instances like OCEAN’S ELEVEN in 2001, remakes are usually known for being either commercial or critical failures.  Take, for example, remakes like THE PINK PANTHER (2006), PLANET OF THE APES (2001), GET CARTER (2000), PSYCHO (1998) and ALFIE (2004).  Jackie Chan himself was involved in one as AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (2004) was largely panned by critics and bombed at the box office.

- The buzz surrounding the remake is overwhelmingly negative.  Go to any discussion board about the project and note that the majority of posts question the need for a remake of THE KARATE KID.  Also, note how many times the words “vanity project” pop up.

- The original movie succeeds because it had an unique chemistry and was able to delicately balance schmaltz and action.  Recreating that sort of “mojo” will be very difficult.

- On a film discussion board, one Jackie Chan fan expressed optimism that a remake has solid potential. The poster argues that Will Smith is the only bankable superstar left in Hollywood and that he consistently makes good business decisions. He also holds out hope that the reported Chinese investment in the remake will mean that Chinese martial arts should get a good spotlight and scenes showing the “Chinese Mr. Miyagi” teaching kung fu should look really cool — especially if the “Chinese Mr. Miyagi” turns out to be a serious character who uses “Pai Mei teaching techniques”.

Gordon Liu as Pai Mei in KILL BILL VOL. 2

Setting aside the question of Will Smith’s business acumen, while there is some validity to the argument that a re-imagining of THE KARATE KID with a serious tone might be cool (this type of re-imagining worked out great for remakes like BATMAN BEGINS and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA), the star is going to be 10 year-old Jaden Smith so odds are the film is going to be more like SPY KIDS and less like KILL BILL 2.  Put it this way, it’s doubtful that the Cobra Kai-type bullies are going to be burying Jaden Smith alive forcing him to fight his way out using one-inch punch technique.

Chinese Fortune Telling SticksAdd all that up and you don’t need a tube full of Chinese fortune telling sticks to figure that this remake is more likely to be jeered than cheered.  Yes, the project may bring a big paycheque and yes, there may be some prestige in being associated with Will Smith but if THE KARATE KID remake bombs and THE SPY NEXT DOOR bombs then whispers that Jackie Chan has “lost it” and is “over the hill” will become a chorus.  Someone in Big Brother Jackie’s camp needs to point out the downside of being involved with the remake and urge him to stay far, far away from it.  Instead, his camp should urge him to go back to his roots and re-establish his core fan base by going ahead with a third ARMOUR OF GOD movie.  Like John Elway, Jackie Chan should cap a remarkable career by going out on top doing what he does best for the team that everyone associates him with instead of signing up to play out the string on some foreign team.

Image credits: Han Entertainment (Brandon Chang), Associated Press (Jackie Chan), Miramax (Gordon Liu/Pai Mei), Dragon Gate Shop (Fortune Telling Sticks)

On The Axis Of Global Film Financing

A scouting report on the Hong Kong entertainment circle content in the new Oliver Stone film W. for those of you who are interested but not interested enough to fight through the crowd going to HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 3 then sit through an 131 minute biopic about George W. Bush.

W.
Official Site: http://www.wthefilm.com/
Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Josh Brolin (George W. Bush), Elizabeth Banks (Laura Bush), James Cromwell (George H. W. Bush), Richard Dreyfuss (Dick Cheney), Thandie Newton (Condoleezza Rice), Jeffrey Wright (Colin Powell), Teresa Cheung Siu-Wai (Reporter/”Miss China”), Maria Chen Chai-Ping (Military Aide)

Synopsis (from the official site): Whether you love him or hate him, there is no question that George W. Bush is one of the most controversial public figures in recent memory. In an unprecedented undertaking, acclaimed director Oliver Stone is bringing the life of our 43rd President to the big screen as only he can. W. takes viewers through Bush’s eventful life — his struggles and triumphs, how he found both his wife and his faith, and of course the critical days leading up to Bush’s decision to invade Iraq.

Movie Poster for W.PRE-CONCEIVED NOTIONS: When I first heard about this film late last year, my inclination was to skip it.  I follow the news and, like Sarah Palin, I read all the papers so I’ve had my fill of George W. Bush and the American political scene with its 32-month long presidential election process.  But then, I read on Kenixfan’s blog, A Pessimist Is Never Disappointed, that Gillian Chung Yan-Tung had a small role in the film as an exotic dancer.  Now, I definitely had to see the movie.

After a little research, I learned that Gillian Chung wasn’t going to be the only HK personality in the movie.  Teresa Cheung (aka Teresa Chiang Siu-Wai, the former Mrs. Kenny Bee) has a small role as a reporter while Elena Kong Mei-Yi (江美儀) and Maria Chen (陳霽平 aka Maria Chan Chai-Ping) also, according to Chinese media reports, have bit parts.  Chung likely owed her part to the fact that Albert Yeung Sau-Sing’s Emperor Multimedia Group is one of the financial backers of W. and is credited with being one of its executive producers.  Likewise, Teresa Cheung, Kong and Chen probably have parts through their involvement with Global Entertainment Group — another of the film’s financial backers.

Armed with this information, bookmakers in the Republic of Sanneyistan set the over/under for “number of lines that Gillian Chung has in the movie” at 0.5.  I’m betting 50 Sanneyistan dollars on the under.  If a real bookmaker had that line, I have a feeling I’d make a killing on that bet.  What would I do with the winnings?  I’d head directly for Casey’s Sandwich and Ice Cream Emporium where I’d buy more of their delicious, but seasonal, pumpkin ice cream.  It’s really, really good but, alas, really, really expensive.  Honestly, I think it’d be cheaper to develop a crack cocaine habit.

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AFTER THE MOVIE: No more beating around the bush.  Let’s get directly to the only thing most of you care about: Gillian Chung’s role in the movie.  Just one problem, Gillian Chung’s part did not make the final theatrical cut so fans of Ah Gil will have to wait to see if she makes the extras on the DVD.  However, she did film scenes as an exotic dancer for the film.  In the first week of July, Chung did fly to Shreveport, Louisiana to shoot her part.  If you want photographic evidence, Twins fan Twins Evolution posted clippings from a July edition of a HK magazine showing Chung in her costume (left, click on picture for larger image).  He also posted a “stalkin’ the stars” photo essay of Chung and her EEG handler spending two hours at a Shreveport Wal-Mart.  Related photos:

The back of Gillian Chung’s costume

Gillian Chung in Shreveport with her handlers

Gillian Chung texting while in a Shreveport Wal-Mart

Gillian Chung shopping at Wal-Mart

Chung has yet to speak publicly about being left out of W. but Charlene Choi Cheuk-Yin, Chung’s Twins bandmate turned media surrogate, downplayed the omission.  At a promotional event for Moov on October 15th, Choi responded to questions about Chung and W. by saying: “It doesn’t really matter because the most important thing is the valuable experience she got just from working on the movie.” ¹

As for the other HK personalities who had parts in the movie:

- Teresa Cheung (who doubled as an executive producer of the film): Has a couple of lines in an appearance as a reporter at a White House press conference towards the end of the movie.  Wanting to take her question but not knowing her name, Bush refers to Cheung’s character as “Miss China”.

- Maria Chen (aka Chan Chai-Ping, a contestant in the Miss HK 1995 Paegant won by Winnie Yeung Yuen-Yee): Appears as a military aide in a scene near the end of the film.  She has no lines as she stands behind Bush while he visits injured soldiers at a veterans’ hospital.

- Elena Kong Mei-Yi: Filmed a scene as an “Asian reporter” but, like Gillian Chung, did not make the theatrical cut.

ABOUT THE MOVIE: W. is an Oliver Stone film so, technically speaking, it’s very well made.  Even though the subject matter doesn’t lend itself to flashy filmmaking, there are, nonetheless, some very cool-looking shots and transitions.  The acting is first-rate but uneven.  Josh Brolin captures not only George W. Bush’s mannerisms but the force of his personality as well.  Buried under a wig and makeup, Thandie Newton is unrecognizable as she takes on a thankless role as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.  On the other hand, James Cromwell and Scott Glenn make no attempt to mimic the real George H. W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld respectively.  Glenn’s Rumsfeld is especially disconcerting.  It’s hard to connect Glenn, who stands over six feet tall, to the diminutive 5′ 6″/5′ 7″ Rumsfeld familiar to everyone through years of news coverage.

Backed by the work of investigative reporters like Bob Woodward, James Risen, Ron Susskind and Jane Mayer among others², W. does not offer revisionist history like Stone’s previous presidential films JFK and Nixon.  Instead, it offers a mostly straightforward depiction of George W. Bush’s rise from legacy kid fratboy to the 43rd President of the United States.

The only questionable part of the portrayal is the film’s contention that the primary motivation behind Bush’s political decisions (be it running for political office or the invasion of Iraq) was to get approval from a cold and aloof father.  More time has to pass and more insight has to be gained before an argument like that can be made.  It’s one thing to show information gleaned about closed door meetings from tell-all books, it’s quite another to show supposition about what’s in a man’s mind and heart.  Perspective from the passage of time and insights from biographies have to emerge for the argument to become credible.  Otherwise, it’s just speculation.  Still, the “daddy issues” aspects of W. aren’t as preposterous as conjecture found in other historical dramas.  Take, for example, Borte going to a Tangut outpost to rescue Temudjin from slavery in MONGOL or Cao Cao going to war in RED CLIFF because he has the hots for Xiao Qiao.

Lin Chi-Ling as Xiao Qiao in RED CLIFF

Whether you’re for W. or against W. will depend largely on your interest in American politics, if you find the subject fascinating then there’s enough in W. to keep you engaged.  If you’re thawed towards American politics, this movie isn’t going to unthaw you.  You’d probably be better off spending your money on expensive but delicious artisan ice cream made with in-season ingredients.

¹ Sina.com article “蔡卓妍丟行李險淚灑機場 力挺鍾欣桐好萊塢新戲” from October 17th 2008

² Simon Houpt, “Walking in Dubya’s shoes” from The Globe and Mail, October 20th 2008

Image credits: Ixtlan Corporation (W. movie poster), Lion Rock Productions (Lin Chi-Ling)

 
 
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