Peter Chan

LONDON — For someone who’s spent a sizable chunk of his life outside Hong Kong, and has never quite fit into overseas perceptions of its industry as action-oriented, Peter Chan now appears about to vault another cultural barrier, this time Stateside.

Practically unknown in the West outside a small band of aficionados, Chan is quietly set to become the first Hong Kong helmer to direct a non-action movie for a U.S. major — Universal’s recently greenlighted “Susie and Hercules,” a “Bringing Up Baby”-like love story between a hard-nosed attorney and a female primatologist who specializes in gorillas.

While compatriots like John Woo, Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark, Kirk Wong and Stanley Tong have been reinventing their actioner skills for American auds, Chan has been quietly pursuing a career that’s been solidly based on relationship movies, often with Western parallels. “The thing that surprises me most here is that being Chinese is no longer an issue when it comes to discussing projects,” Chan says, referring to the initial barrier-busting by his Hong Kong colleagues. If there is such a thing as a second U.S. wave by H.K. filmers, Chan is well positioned at the forefront.

Born in 1962 in Hong Kong, of Chaozhou parents, Chan moved with them at age 12 to Thailand, where he spent his teens in Bangkok’s overseas Chinese community. After a spell studying in the U.S., he returned to his native Hong Kong in 1983, by which time the territory’s New Wave of young directors — from local TV and overseas film schools — already were making their mark.

While overseas, Chan had kept up with developments in H.K. cinema. “When I returned home, I didn’t feel like an outsider — more a piece of a puzzle that wasn’t really in place. At the time, there were so many people to look up to — directors like Allen Fong and Ann Hui, for example.”

Chan earned his stripes first as a second assistant director (and translator) on John Woo’s Thai-lensed actioner “Heroes Shed No Tears,” and then spent the best part of the ’80s traveling overseas as production manager on three Jackie Chan vehicles, “Wheels on Meals” (1984, shot in Spain), “The Protector” (1985, in U.S.) and “The Armour of God” (1987, Yugoslavia, Austria and France).

Also a producer

In 1989, he joined newcomer Impact Films as a producer, marshaling through the successful buddy-cop dramedy “Curry & Pepper” (1990), among others. Producing has always been an equal part of Chan’s career — he’s steered some 14 pics to date, including his own — and it was as both producer and director that he made his helming debut two years later.

Made for Impact, “Alan and Eric: Between Hello and Goodbye” (1991) confidently staked out Chan’s territory as a filmmaker, even down to his choice of memorable English titles (which bear no relation to their snappier Chinese ones). At a time when the local industry was about to enter a phase of flamboyant swordplay pics and sex ‘n’ violence shockers, Chan and scripters Barry Wong and Chi Li came up with an almost Euro-flavored, “Jules and Jim”-like relationship movie, set in H.K. and San Francisco, and centered on two friends (Alan Tam, Eric Tsang) and the ditzy girl (Maggie Cheung) between them.

Chan acknowledges the Truffaut influence, plus that of U.S. carbons like “Willie & Phil,” and admits his tastes range outside the Japanese-influenced, on-the-nose pop culture of Hong Kong.

Those tastes, and his ability to draw fresh performances from established stars, were again in evidence in the ensemble comedy “Tom, Dick & Hairy” (1993), co-directed with Li, which he describes as “a conscious mixture of a whole generation of accessible, Woody Allen-like movies. Chi and I are both huge Allen fans.”

UFO sighting

The pic, which scored well at the box office, was made under the banner of UFO (United Filmmakers Organization), which Chan, actor-producer-director Tsang and producer Claudie Chung has set up in 1992 “to preserve the spirit of independent filmmaking.”

For cash flow reasons, UFO finally merged with local major Golden Harvest in 1996, but Chan & Co. still remain active in the shingle.

Chan’s next outing as helmer, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father” (1993), about a guy who falls into a “time hole” and revisits his dad in 1963, plays like a Hong Kong cross between “Peggy Sue Got Married” and ’60s Cantonese cinema (then in retro vogue). Elaborately shot and structured, the pic has a nostalgic dream-like quality, which Chan revisited in “The Age of Miracles” (1996) and which forms the emotional core of his latest pic, “Comrades, Almost a Love Story” (1996).

Between times, however, came Chan’s biggest box office success, “He’s a Woman, She’s a Man” (1994). The near-the-knuckle romantic comedy took the local trend for gender-benders and came up with a barbed satire on Hong Kong’s music industry, in which a young woman (Anita Yuen) poses as a man to become a pop star and finds herself falling for — and reciprocally stirring — the jaded composer (Cantopop star Leslie Cheung) who “discovers” her.

The sexual complications play well in modern terms, but also recall classical Chinese opera in the use of an in travesto partner.

Chan was leery of making a sequel to a film that was so self-contained, but eventually bowed to co-producer Golden Harvest’s wishes when he saw the chance of making a homage to one of his favorite movies, “Two for the Road.”

Shot and edited in a rapid five weeks, “Who’s the Woman, Who’s the Man” (1996) looks at the central couple’s live-in relationship as Yuen’s character is forced to maintain her male persona to the outside world while warding off gossip that her partner is gay.

Though the movie didn’t equal the original in critical and commercial success, Chan says it’s now his favorite, and in many ways most personal, movie of the pair.

The upside to “Who’s the Woman” was that, in return, Golden Harvest greenlighted “Comrades,” about which it initially had been cool.

Shot back-to-back with “Who’s the Woman,” and showered with awards in East Asia, this warm-hearted, acutely observed study of two Mainlanders (Leon Lai, Maggie Cheung) falling in and out of love during 10 years in Hong Kong and the U.S. is Chan’s crowning achievement to date, informed by an almost Lelouchian sensibility for the dense weave of parallel fortunes and star-crossed fates that bind people across a lifetime.

Included in Berlin’s Panorama section last February, “Comrades” was a hearty sendoff for the helmer prior to temporarily relocating to Los Angeles to explore opportunities Stateside.

As well as having Universal’s “Susie and Hercules” at script stage, he has another U.S. project in discussion, two movies being produced back at UFO in H.K., plus two further directing chores in development — an Hong Kong/Japan-set love story and an epic study of Thai Chinese who went back to the mainland in the ’40s and ’50s

Global outlook

Chan doesn’t subscribe to the gloom-and-doom scenario of Hong Kong talent being “lost” to Hollywood. “I totally believe in the ‘globalization’ of filmmaking. I can make movies here in the States but my base is still in Hong Kong,” he says.

“The old, golden days of Hong Kong cinema, when it was a self-contained industry of its own, are over; the place has now become a talent pool of filmmakers who can have truly international careers, on both sides of the Pacific.”