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Hong Kong’s chopsocky stars try U.S. translation

He can wrestle on burning coals, jump off rooftops, even water ski behind a hovercraft, but Jackie Chan has yet to find an audience in America. It’s been a decade since Warner Bros, distributed the flop “The Protector,” which paired the Hong Kong action star with Danny Aiello. But today, a slew of Hong Kong actors and directors – including Chan – are ready to add some Eastern spice to Americans’ steady diet of action movies.

Although Hong Kong action films – mind-bendingly violent but laced with slapstick – trace their roots to the Mainland Chinese cinema of the 1930s, they are antipathy of the upscale Mainland arthouse films currently gaining worldwide critical acclaim.

While not the darlings of Cannes, the Hong Kong action filmmakers have nevertheless developed an influential cadre of supporters in the U.S. – among them director Quentin Tarantino, Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein and New Line Cinema chairman Bob Shaye. Meanwhile, the commercial success of Hong Kong director John Woo in the U.S. has helped break down barriers at the major studios.

In January, New Line Cinema will release Chan’s “Rumble in the Bronx” on a whopping 1,000 screens nationwide. And in the second half of 1996, Miramax Films will follow with platform releases of two classic Chan titles, “Drunken Master II” and “Crime Story.” Quentin Tarantino will launch his Miramax imprint, Rolling Thunder, with Wong Kar-Wai’s “Chungking Express,” a tale of Hong Kong cops dumped by their girlfriends. And John Woo’s follow-up effort to “Hard Target” is Fox’s big March action movie, “Broken Arrow.”

There are plenty of obstacles for Hong Kong filmmakers in the U.S. Few of them speak English well enough to direct Western stars. And the peculiar mix of action and comedy in Hong Kong films may not go over with U.S. auds.

The influx of chopsocky will occur against a backdrop of the studios tentatively opening their gates to genre maestros like Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam, who is best known in Hollywood for “City on Fire.” Almost no one has actually seen that Hong Kong gangster film, but it is famous as the pic from which Quentin Tarantino liberally borrowed for his “Reservoir Dogs.”

Lam and Hark have both met with Jean Claude Van Damme recently about directing studio action movies he is slated to star in. And last week, Lam closed a deal to direct Van Damme in Columbia Pictures’ “Bloodstone,” which, much like the Van Damme hit “Double Impact,” will turn on the conceit of twins separated at birth.

“Quentin Tarantino has been a good publicist for Hong Kong movies and Hong Kong directors,” says Lam, who has directed more than a dozen films, none in the U.S. “And a lot of the Hollywood action movies that I have seen lately are clearly borrowing from Hong Kong… the pacing in ‘Bad Boys,’ the display of physical ability in Steven Segal and Jean Claude Van Damme’s movies.”

Van Damme has been a veritable Ellis Island for Asian directors yearning to break into the U.S. market. The benefits go both ways: Hong Kong directors elevate the action sequences and add artistic credibility to Van Damme’s films, while the star’s box office weight increases the directors’ commercial potential.

But besides Van Damme, some of the past summer’s fresher action films like Paul Anderson’s “Mortal Kombat” and Robert Rodriguez’s “Desperado” helped sell this sensibility to mainstream Hollywood; both films were informed by the Chinese cinema’s penchant for over-the-top action.

Neither Rodriguez nor Anderson have had to jump through the same hoops their Chinese brethren have. Two years after “Hard Target’s” release, Hong Kong directors still confront the same studio executive concerns that Woo wrestled with five years ago when Universal execs were debating whether to have him direct the negative pick-up.

Today, more studio executives and producers have watched the work of Asian directors at festivals or on videocassette, but only a handful of executives are willing to champion their cause. Fox’s former president of worldwide production, Tom Jacobson, was one of the first to chase down Woo and sign him to a two-year exclusive producing deal with that studio.

Language remains the primary concern. In studio parlance, “Let’s take a meeting” has become a euphemism for ‘ Why don’t you come into the office and show me how good your English is.” Lam, for example, went to college in Canada and is proficient in English. But Woo only spoke in broken phrases when he made “Hard Target.”

Style is also an issue.

“The perception used to be that these directors could only make cheap-looking kung fu films,” remembers Chris Godsick, who was Woo’s agent until last year when he joined Woo and the director’s longtime producing partner Terence Chang in their Fox-based company. “It’s just starting to get easier for directors like Ringo Lam, Wong Kar-wai and actors like Chow Yunfat because foreign, and particularly the Far East, has become a more important part of a film’s profit equation.”

“Aside from the director’s command of English, studio executives are always worried about the sensibility of the story,” adds Terence Chang. “In a Hong Kong movie, the sensibility may be fantastic and extravagant, and it may not cross over.”

The shotgun blast of Jackie Chan releases coming in 1996 will be an interesting test case for whether this “fantastic and extravagant” sensibility will appeal to a mainstream audience. Since Chan’s onscreen persona combines the fisticuffs of Bruce Lee with the balletic slapstick of a Buster Keaton, no one really knows whether domestic audiences will accept the action-comedy hybrid – even if smartly marketed.

Audiences that are unfamiliar with Chan’s oeuvre may not know what to make of his penchant for engaging in slapstick in the midst of a fist fight. Much of “Drunken Master 11’s” action sequences feature Chan fighting in what is known as “the drunken style,” a curious martial arts form in which the fighter’s deadly moves mimic the lazy, stumbling gait of a souse.

New Line is betting that the American setting of the Vancouver-lensed “Rumble in the Bronx” will make it the appropriate crossover vehicle for Chan. The movie has been dubbed. And the trailer will work along the lines of “Who Is Jackie Chan?”

It will make the key point that Chan does his own stunts – which in “Rumble” include leaping from a tenement roof across an alleyway into an adjacent building’s window an entire floor below. The outakes that run with the credits in all of Chan’s film will speak to the veracity of the stunts as one clip actually shows the arrival of paramedics to treat the star’s broken leg.

“The timing could not be better for this type of movie. At the Toronto Film Festival, the Wong Kar-Wai screening was packed,” says New Line Cinema’s VP of acquisitions Mark Ordesky. “And as far as we’re concerned at New Line, we’ve never heard of ‘The Protector.’ This is not ‘the second coming of Jackie Chan,’ but the ‘coming of Jackie Chan.'”

Part of New Line and Miramax’s affection for Chan is based on nostalgia that Shaye and the Brothers Weinstein have for watching Bruce Lee’s movies as young men.

“Harvey caught that wave of moviegoing where you watched a Bruce Lee movie in an auditorium with your buddies, and you left the theater karate-chopping one another,” notes Miramax VP of acquisitions Mark Tusk.

But Miramax and New Line have much less at stake when they bankroll a chopsocky title. They are merely acquiring titles for distribution at less than $1 million a pop for the U.S., which is a far cry from underwriting a $40 million production as the studios are.

Regardless of who ends up distributing their films, the Hong Kong cinema veterans are more than happy to come work here. Aside from occasional complaints about loss of autonomy in the studio system and the fact that Asians are often cast as villains in U.S. movies, the chopsocky auteurs desperately want to work here for reasons that have little to do with the British protectorate reverting to Mainland control in 1997.

“On the last film I made, the star got paid $2 million U.S., and the entire budget was $4 million. This is becoming the standard,” says Ringo Lam. “After you have paid the star, that doesn’t leave much left over for the production.”

Lam may be in for a surprise when he gets a look at Sylvester Stallone or Jim Carrey’s salary.

Derek Elley in London contributed to this report.

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