Chinese filmic talents—and box office receipts—in Hollywood have come a long way since Bruce.
Two warriors, Nameless and Broken Sword, fight in the middle of the lake. They glide through the air, walk on water, and execute acrobatic stunts in a dance-like, sword-fighting routine. The fusion of colors and graceful swordplay are addicting visual feasts.
Admittedly, kung fu has given Chinese cinema not just an extra kick (pun intended), but also its own distinct identity. It was also a free pass to a culturally sensitive American cinema.
The entry into the US of Chinese movies was a Cinderella story. Bruce Lee, the first Chinese actor to catch the fancy of American producers, was recruited to work in Hollywood. The martial arts superstar later appeared in a hit American TV series as Kato, the kung fu fighting sidekick of American superhero The Green Hornet. Since then, there has been a special place for Asians (Chinese talents and productions, in particular) in American cinema.
The poetic story lines and elaborate fight choreography make Chinese movies refreshing, giving the average moviegoer a break from the formulaic storytelling and plot development that Hollywood periodically falls into. A Chinese movie today will most likely not only achieve a US theater run, it will also compete with American films for a slice of the US box office.
Chinese Films in America
From Bruce Lee to Zhang Yimou and Ang Lee, Chinese artists have proven they can create films that elevate moviemaking to high art, which has gained them a devoted following among American audiences.
Movies like Chen Kaige’s Together and The Promise, Andrew Lau Wang-keung and Alan Mak Siu Fai’s Infernal Affairs, Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers, Riding Alone for a Thousand Miles, and Curse of the Golden Flower, and Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 are among the top grossing Chinese films in America.
Another top grosser, Stephen Chow’s internationally acclaimed Kung Fu Hustle debuted in fifth spot in the US box office. It is filled with martial arts techniques and the type of comedy Jackie Chan movies are famous for. The film went on to become the third largest grossing Chinese film in America, earning a total of US$17,104,669 (117,254,216 yuan).
Hustle is a follow up to Chow’s 2001 blockbuster Kung Fu Soccer. The story of camaraderie and unity pits residents of Pig Sty Alley, a community deep in Shanghai slums, against members of the Axe Gang. It also received accolades from American-based award giving bodies like the Boston Society of Film Critics, Florida Film Critics Circle, and the Golden Globes.
Zhang Yimou’s masterpiece Hero (Ying xiong), with its star-studded cast led by Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, and Zhang Ziyi, also hit it big with American audiences. The movie examined morality and true leadership through the eyes of its two main characters, Nameless (Jet Li) and King (Tony Leung). The story revolves around how Li’s character murdered the most wanted assassins who threatened the unification of China.
Beneath the layers of color, glamor, and graceful fight scenes is the film’s message—the end justifies the means—delivered in a narrative style pioneered by Akira Kurosawa in Rashomon. Yimou possibly wanted viewers to ask themselves what makes a real hero.
The movie raked in US$53,583,486 (367,320,155 yuan) in America and surprised everyone as it went straight to the top spot in the US box office when it was released, beating Collateral and The Bourne Supremacy in the process. Hero also gathered nominations and awards from the Chicago Film Critics Association, the Golden Globes, and the Oscars.
Leading the pack is Ang Lee’s unforgettable epic set during the Qing dynasty, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wo hu cang long). The movie stars Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, and Zhang Ziyi, who all get caught up in a complex web of displaced priorities. Lee’s depiction of love, life, and tragedy, juxtaposed with high energy kung fu, won the hearts of audiences and critics worldwide.
Earning US$128,067,808 (877,917,631 yuan) in the US alone, the movie reached number 10 in the Hollywood box office charts, leaving much to spread around after production costs amounting to a paltry (by Hollywood standards) US$15,000,000 (102,826,500 yuan).
Crouching Tiger received nominations and awards from the ASCAP Film and Television Music Awards and the American Cinema Editors. At the 2001 Oscars, it bagged awards for Best Art Direction, Cinematography, Music, and Best Foreign Language Film.
Stealing Chinese Artists?
American producers who gambled on Bruce Lee by bringing him to the US won big time. This paved the way for more Chinese artists to go Stateside—from actors to directors to fight choreographers. Soon, other Hollywood outfits followed suit and brought in Asian talents, who helped them come up with sure-fire, silver-screen hits. Following are some recent examples.
Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha landed fifth in the 2005 box office charts and grossed US$57,010,853 (390,815,098 yuan). The lead roles in Memoirs (a peek into the lives of female entertainers of early Japan) were given to a group of Chinese superstars led by Zhang Ziyi, Michelle Yeoh, and Gong Li. The movie was criticized for cultural disrespect, but the producers claimed the cast was chosen based on talent.
Chinese directors, meanwhile, have also created a niche in Hollywood. Their skills in delivering lively action sequences and effectively tackling diverse subjects have wowed audiences and brought windfall profit to producers.
John Woo created the blockbusters Face/Off, Paycheck, and Mission Impossible 2. Ang Lee had Sense and Sensibility, Hulk, and the controversial and critically acclaimed Brokeback Mountain.
Wong Kar-wai now has one foot in the door. After My Blueberry Nights last year, he is now working on The Lady from Shanghai, a remake of the 1947 Orson Welles classic of the same title.
To date, the biggest Hollywood movie that banked on Chinese artists is The Forbidden Kingdom. Directed by Rob Minkoff, the movie showcased Chinese superstars Jet Li, Jackie Chan, and high class martial arts. It made US$52,040,293 (356,741,413 yuan) in the US alone.
Despite their Hollywood success, Chinese film artists continue to make Chinese films. Ang Lee has done Lust, Caution (Se, jie) and John Woo is scheduled to do 1949 and Chi bi. The same goes for Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li, and the rest.
China is well on its way to gaining economic superpower status. So it isn’t hard to imagine that it could someday be in the same league as cinema giants France and Germany. And if it continues its winning streak, especially in Hollywood, a Chinese city could easily turn out to be the world’s next movie capital.
print ed: 11/08