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Hong Kong to Hollywood

Hong Kong to Hollywood

Articles - Directing

Uma Thurman stars in director Quentin Tarantino’s
Hong Kong-influenced
Kill Bill (2003).

Hong kong films once ruled their domestic box office,
but that seems like a long time ago. In recent years the film industry
there has had to come to terms with the lagging popularity of its
homegrown product in the face of Hollywood’s relentless onslaught.

Ironically, in contradiction to the slide in gross
receipts and self-esteem, new Hong Kong films and talents have been
earning international recognition—even in the difficult-to-crack
American market. A new creative surge from across the Pacific is
leaving its mark on Hollywood, as audiences in the United States
have learned to appreciate the unique excitement of Hong Kong cinema.

The Hong Kong film industry came of age during the
’60s and ’70s, with a typical export being heavy on martial arts
action and light on production value. But Hong Kong distinguishes
itself with strong brand image. The internationally acclaimed talent,
grand choreography and stunt tradition and mastery of the action
genre are a winning formula—for which there is constant demand
in the American market.

An average of 141 local films were released each year
in Hong Kong over the past decade, but—with the downturn in
the economy in the last half decade—the number of films produced
locally has fallen substantially. Of the 383 films approved for
public exhibition in 2001, only 126 were local productions. Surveys
reveal that locals prefer non-Hong Kong films in spite of the commonality
of language and culture that their own films offer. Nevertheless,
Hong Kong is a major worldwide exporter of motion pictures of all
genres, and ranks first in proportion to its population. Hong Kong
pictures have a major presence in Korea, Taiwan and throughout Southeast
Asia—and action flicks have been the most successful of these
films for export from Hong Kong to the United States.

In recent decades established Hollywood directors
such as Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone have credited the influence
of the Hong Kong film style on their work. In fact, Hong Kong films
have probably been more influential on Hollywood than any other
international cinema of the past several decades. Miramax Vice President
of Publicy Hiromi Kawanishi states flatly that “the success of action
and martial arts movies from Hong Kong over the past 30 years has
had an incredible effect on mainstream Hollywood films.”Kawanishi
is currently working on three upcoming Hong Kong-influenced releases—Quentin
Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Zhang Yimou’s Hero and Stephen
Chow’s Shaolin Soccer.

Stephen Chow writes, directs and stars in Shaolin Soccer, the biggest box office hit ever in
Hong Kong.

Clearly, Hong Kong films have surpassed their cult
status. Hong Kong superstars have stormed the U.S. to the point
where their influence is now beginning to define aspects of Hollywood
itself, with the internationalization of Hong Kong talent, such
as Chow Yun-Fat, Jet Li and John Woo continuing to raise the profile
of Hong Kong cinema. Yes, crossover popularity means that homegrown
stars are beginnning to act in English, but the bright side for
the Hong Kong film industry is the constant turnover that makes
room for budding new talent. The effect is that Hong Kong cinema
culture stays alive and vibrant. In fact, it’s this reputation for
innovation that has always made Hong Kong cinema so distinctive.

In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the most
prominent recent hit with significant Hong Kong origins, it was
more than just the action that attracted international audiences.
They also found a compelling story line with intriguing characters.
The tale of mystery, love and revenge, as conveyed in the poetic
dialogue, proved irresistible to Americans in spite of the fact
that these sentiments were conveyed in subtitles. Hong Kong is increasingly
becoming known for its comedy, with the groundwork laid by Jackie
Chan and the new inroads being made by Stephen Chow. While Jackie
Chan (Rush Hour, Shanghai Knights) is the most renowned
contemporary Hong Kong star in the West, writer-director-actor Chow
has been ruling the Hong Kong box office with such locally-produced
comedies as The Tricky Master and The King of Comedy,
and now seems poised for stardom in America. As a result of its
crossover, a higher standard of technical and creative novelty are
now expected of the Hong Kong film industry.

Although Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is
an international film by virtue of the fact that main elements were
assembled worldwide, the film has deep Hong Kong roots. It stars
Hong Kong’s Chow Yun-Fat and the choreography of Yuen Wo Ping. Peter
Pau won the Oscar in 2000 for cinematography. Tim Yip was nominated
for an Oscar for costume design and won the award for his art direction.
With its best foreign language film Oscar, Crouching Tiger has inspired other Hong Kong moviemakers who want to break into
the international marketplace, as well as opened the minds of a
broader Western audience to the cinematic offerings of the East.

Crouching Tiger is not the only Hong
Kong-related production that has gained wide recognition and exhibition internationally.
More and more Hong Kong films are being picked up for distribution in the U.S.,
including Johnny To’s Fulltime Killer. Hong
Kong companies like Emperor Multimedia Group and
Media Asia were very active at Cannes in 2002, forging
international relationships and selling their product to the United
States. A survey of some of the latest international movies with
a Hong Kong connection should give pause about any dire predictions
for Hong Kong film.

Directed by Hong Kong’s Cory Yuen, The Transporter is a Hong Kong-style action film with an English male lead (Jason
Statham), a Taiwanese female lead (Shu Qi) and a French
producer (Luc Besson) that was shot in France. But the film was
produced in English and released theatrically in the United States.
Similarly, Ronny Yu’s The 51st State, which was released
by Sony Screen Gems in October 2002, is an American production starring
Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Carlyle, but reflective of the Hong
Kong tradition through the influence of its director.

Stephen Chow’s comedy, Shaolin Soccer, was
the biggest box office hit ever in Hong Kong. Miramax picked it
up at Cannes for U.S. release in spite of the fact that most of
the locally-referenced, English-dubbed humor will roll right between
the legs of American audiences when it’s released in April (though
it did make a splash at its AFI Fest premiere at the ArcLight Cinema
in Hollywood). Chow’s 1997 film God of Cookery was bought
for remake by Fox and is set to star Jim Carrey. Chow was even initially
supposed to direct this new A-list remake of his own film. “I like
to make movies that people in both the East and the West can enjoy—that
is the perfect formula,”says Chow.

In 2003, miramax will also release Zhang Yimou’s Hero,
starring Jet Li and featuring the work of one of the most important
creative force in Hong Kong, DP Christopher Doyle. His breathtaking
cinematography has distinguished numerous films, including Wong
Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love. Hollywood has not overlooked
Doyle’s contributions—his camerawork has been the cornerstone
of Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence, Jon Favreau’s Made and Gus Van Sant’s Psycho. Doyle is one of the silent—but
vibrant—forces defining Hong Kong cinema today.

Quentin Tarantino’s latest undertaking, Kill Bill,
is an unabashed homage to the Hong Kong and martial arts genre starring
Uma Thurman. Shot at the Beijing Film Studio and featuring Sonny
Chiba and David Carradine, Kill Bill is a sword-swinging,
blood-letting revenge piece that attempts to evoke the old-fashioned
style of the Shaw Brothers’ action films by commissioning choreographer
Wo Ping to re-enlist 20-year-old material. “I want this to be the
Apocalypse Now of kung fu movies,”says the director.

After premiering at Sundance in 2002, Justin
Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow found distribution
with MTV Films, and is slated for release in February.

The wave-making independent American film Better
Luck Tomorrow
is a microcosmic example of how Hong Kong cinema
has gotten under the skin of Hollywood motion picture culture. Written
and directed by Asian-American moviemaker Justin Lin, this shot-in-America
indie with an all Asian cast depicts the sometimes depraved life
of a group of suburban high school students. Bucking the conventional
wisdom in Hollywood that films with Asian-American leads—much
less an all-Asian-American cast—cannot achieve great heights
in American cinema, Better Luck Tomorrow was accepted into competition
at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, where it found distribution
through MTV Films. Better Luck is now slated for theatrical release
in the U.S. in February. Says Lin, “The title of the film, Better
Luck Tomorrow
, was inspired by [John Woo’s] A Better Tomorrow and [Wayne Wang’s] The Joy Luck Club.”It could be argued
that the impact that other Asian and Hong Kong product and talent
has had on the American film establishment and consumer sensibility
was enough to open the door for the theatrical release of this provocative,
Asian-American-themed film.

Writer-director Wayne Wang (The Center of the
World
, Smoke) is currently riding the wave of his
latest studio outing, Maid in Manhattan. Starring Jennifer
Lopez and Ralph Fiennes, the romantic-comedy is a departure from
his typical art house fare. Though born and raised in Hong Kong,
Wang studied film in the United States. After learning the basics
of the craft in his home country, he returned to the U.S. to establish
himself as a director. Conscious of the duality of
his identity, Wang says that “As much as I’m both Chinese and American,
as much as I live on the west coast and the east coast, as much
as I make independent films and studio movies, I really like being
contradictory and having those two worlds.”

The concept of a “Hollywood” movie
commonly refers to the mass-distributed, formulaic motion pictures
that comprise international cinema. That used to mean English-language
acting, American stars and mainstream themes. Crouching Tiger,
Hidden Dragon defied those conventions with Asian leads speaking
Mandarin in a period martial arts drama that was produced with elements
from various non-Western countries. Times have changed. The next
big thing out of Hollywood could well be an English-dubbed movie
about kung fu soccer misfits in Hong Kong.

“It’s a very exciting time to be involved in Hong
Kong movies,”says Hong Kong producer Philip Lee (Hero, The
Emperor and the Assassin
). “In Hollywood there is a ridiculous
amount of interest in our movies right now.”One could say that Hong
Kong films are a force that is redefining the identity of Hollywood
itself. As Stephen Chow’s character in Shaolin Soccer likes
to declare: “Ho!” MM

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