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Chan, Yeoh return to teach & preach

Hong Kong profits from action stars' returns

HONG KONG — Only the industry’s biggest name could have gotten this off the ground.

At $35 million, Jackie Chan starrer “Highbinders” is Hong Kong’s most expensive film ever. For most local producers, any budget over $5 million is virtually unthinkable, but Chan’s presence on the film’s Bangkok set means this is no ordinary Hong Kong film.

For Chan, things in Hollywood have never been better. But he’s still jam-packing his schedule to help old friends back home. “I have to remember where I came from,” Chan says, taking a break between scenes on the “Highbinders” set. “I try to help the Hong Kong movie business, and people really respect me for that.”

He’s not the only one. Hong Kong’s movie industry is showing its first tentative signs of rebounding from a prolonged and dramatic slump. And stars like Chan are coming home to help.

“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” star Michelle Yeoh’s first self-produced project, “The Touch” (which she also headlines), is in post-production after a China shoot last autumn.

Like “Highbinders,” it features all-English dialogue and a cast and crew that mixes Hong Kong and international talent.

Worldwide view

Both pics make no secret of their global ambitions. The accepted wisdom was that the collapse of Hong Kong’s traditional southeast Asian markets meant local filmmakers had to downsize their projects. Chan and Yeoh are showing that there’s a ballsier, big-picture way to do business.

Making a Jackie Chan film into an international hit may sound like a no-brainer, but doing so presents huge challenges for an industry that specializes in seat-of-the-pants productions.

It is still common for a Hong Kong film to start shooting with only a sketchy script or none at all. Even the best-organized productions have their problems. One Hollywood veteran staffing an ambitious local pic claims the film’s talent is being “squashed by organized chaos” in the Hong Kong production office. He adds, with some disappointment, that on an operational level, there’s still “a reluctance to learn the best of Western filmmaking.”

Big-budget professionalism will take time to filter through the local filmmaking community. Like missionaries, Yeoh and Chan are preaching a gospel only faintly heard in Hong Kong before now: Get organized. Finalize the script before production. Storyboard every scene. Hire a good production designer. Design a marketing campaign well in advance. Says Yeoh: “All these things can be done here. We just need the discipline.”

Right ‘Touch’

Yeoh has reason to be confident about her pic. “The Touch” — which also stars Ben Chaplin — is a $20 million epic helmed by Oscar-winning “Crouching Tiger” cinematographer Peter Pau, and Miramax has U.S. distribution rights.

The script was nailed down before the shoot started; filming finished on time and on budget. Even so, the pic’s two-year gestation period provoked regular snickers in the Hong Kong press, as well as speculation that the whole project had gone off the rails.

Yeoh counters that time-frame was remarkably fast in Hollywood terms — and that her use of Hollywood practitioners to score, edit and touch up the film’s script “will eventually change the industry out here.”

Success for these new Hong Kong-Hollywood hybrids requires tempering the unruly nature of the Hong Kong industry without taking away the spontaneous spirit that has produced classics in the past. Most arbiters of the new professionalism are adamant that it won’t result in bland films that could have come from anywhere.

Says Thomas Chung, executive producer of “The Touch”: “We want to utilize the best of the East and the West.”

For her part, Yeoh also hopes to provide a reason for other Hong Kong talent to get excited about working back home: “We don’t want the creme de la creme of our industry just going to Hollywood.”

Converts

This new method of local moviemaking is already winning influential converts. Gordon Chan, the director of “Highbinders,” says, “I’ve been in this business for 20 years, but doing things this way is so new to me. I’ve learned so much, and I’m going to introduce the methods I’ve learned here back home.”

As CEO of Emperor Multimedia Group, Chan will be overseeing 18 new productions this year. That means the lessons shouldn’t take long to pass on.

In any case, Hong Kongers have a reputation of lightning-quick adaptation to any successful new regime. If “Highbinders” and “The Touch” score big at the box office, Yeoh and Chan won’t sound like such alien preachers after all.