Road Test: First in a series tracking hit foreign pics as they venture beyond their home market

Jackie Chan may be a Hollywood fixture these days in films like “Shanghai Noon” and the upcoming “Rush Hour 2,” but back home in Asia, folks still yearn to see the Chinese superstar in his familiar milieu, speaking in his own tongue.

Asian auds flocked to see Chan’s latest outing, “The Accidental Spy,” as it dominated biz during the Chinese New Year vacation — although the pic didn’t kick butt everywhere. Produced by Chan’s longtime Hong Kong studio, Golden Harvest Entertainment, “Spy” grossed $3.3 million in 13 days on 38 screens in Hong Kong, in its second lap beating “Cast Away’s” $933,000 in seven days at 16 houses.

That’s a propitious sign for Miramax, which last November pre-bought rights for North America and the rest of the world outside Asia to the $20 million production helmed by Teddy Chen.

As only about 25% of the film is in English, the deal represents a sizable gamble by Miramax, which intends to introduce it to foreign buyers at this month’s American Film Market and to U.S. exhibs at next month’s ShoWest convention.

It’s the priciest pic thus far from Golden Harvest, whose execs are delighted with the B.O. results since it began its regional rollout Jan. 12 in Taiwan.

Yet they admit receipts have not been as strong as they expected in Malaysia, although it was the top-grossing title during Chinese New Year, beating “Vertical Limit” by a big margin.

And one Thai cinema exec was unimpressed with “Spy’s” perf there.

“The results have been disappointing, as perhaps the expectations for a Jackie Chan film are so much higher after his forays into Hollywood films,” says the exhib, who asked not to be identified.

“The film is very formulaic and doesn’t deliver anything new,” he continues, adding, “I still think he has cachet here, but maybe now in a different format, a little slicker and more Western. ‘Rush Hour 2′ is highly anticipated and it will be received somewhat differently (than) his traditional Chinese films.”

Golden Harvest head of distribution, Teerachai Triwongwaranat, has a different view. “Most Asian people prefer to watch Jackie Chan in his own style,” he says. ” ‘The Accidental Spy’ has done much better (in the region) than ‘Shanghai Noon.’ “

Triwongwaranat blames widespread piracy of the title on video compact disc (VCD) for its below-par B.O. in Malaysia. Irving Chee, general manager of Malaysia’s Golden Screen Cinemas, agrees, noting VCDs began flooding into the country nearly two weeks before the pic’s theatrical preem. Authorities suspect the film was copied from prints sent to China.

“The film did reasonably well over Chinese New Year but wasn’t as big as we expected,” Chee says.

As for its prospects Stateside, Miramax is hoping the revival of interest in foreign-language films sparked by “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” will pay off.

The distrib is waiting for Golden Harvest to deliver the film and has not yet scheduled a release date for the U.S., but Rick Sands, chairman of worldwide distribution, has seen the pic on videotape and vouches, “It will be very commercial. We will release it on a wide basis in North America and internationally. Jackie Chan is a worldwide star and this film has great production values.”

Chan made a lightning visit to Hong Kong Jan. 14, arriving at dawn for a four-hour press junket with reporters from around Asia, followed by a late-afternoon gala preem sponsored by a watch company (which also uses the actor to promote its wares) and a charity screening that evening. He caught a flight back to L.A. late the same night.

Tiger Beer sponsored previews in Malaysia, Singapore and Shanghai, says Triwongwaranat, who avers such deals are valuable not only for the fee paid by the sponsor but also because these screenings reach diverse people, not the usual first-night crowds.

Already, “Spy” has outgunned “Shanghai Noon” and “Rush Hour” in Hong Kong, although it’s behind his previous Chinese-lingo hits “Who Am I” (1988) and “Mr. Nice Guy” (1997).

Golden Harvest has not sold the pic yet to Japan, a market where Hong Kong films usually are relegated to a handful of screens.

Triwongwaranat is negotiating with two Japanese distribs and says he’s confident he’ll soon close a deal that will guarantee a wide release for “Spy.” Through Jan. 28, the pic had fetched $1.8 million in Taiwan, $1.3 million in Singapore, $853,000 in four days on 200 screens in China, $697,000 in Thailand and $658,000 in Malaysia.

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