The Afro-Asian buddy genre

Instead of going into sociological analysis mode like many film historians, I will provide a list of the movies which you can see for yourself. However, I will go into detail about the poster which I used as the cover. It was taken from a film called Drive. It was made in 1995 and released on American video in 1997. Like a Hong Kong cinema fan once said: It was deprived of a mainstream U.S. theatrical release. Theatrically, it was surprisingly huge in Japan, where it was released as Demolition King. Ultraviolet would have been a slightly bigger hit if it was released in Japan as Demolition Queen. Back to Drive, it broke box office records in Russia. It also did top business in Holland. Had it been released in the way that it should have been, The Matrix would not have gained the impact that it had (since part of that movie’s appeal was that it supposedly had better martial arts fights than any American movie).

Even Brett Ratner told the director (Steve Wang) that Rush Hour would not have been as big of a success had Drive been given a stateside cinema release that was non-niche. Brittany Murphy was a better foil to the male duo than Elizabeth Peña was. As for other popular buddy movies of the same ilk – The Dynamite BrothersWay of the Black Dragon, Kung Fu ExecutionerSun Dragon, The Tattoo Connection and Cradle 2 the Grave. The first movie in that list is worth singling out because the concept of doing a martial arts version of The Defiant Ones foreshadowed Drive in having a Chinese guy and a black guy being handcuffed together, although one particular stunt in Drive owes a debt to a handcuffed scene in Jackie Chan’s Police Story III: Supercop.

In the February 1980 issue of Fighting Stars, a representative of the Eternal Film company (Alice Hsia) had this to say about Sun Dragon being set in the depression of the `30s: “We thought it would be more interesting to show because in those days, there were Chinese here, and blacks – everybody was struggling – even the white people. We wanted to know how they dealt with their problems and differences – their intolerances – and to show the harmony that is possible between all kinds of people. The idea of the film is that people work hard, and races work hard and, at first, maybe they didn’t get along that well. But at the end, at least some of them did. Some did try to understand and help each other.”

Interestingly, Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold is one of the few martial arts movies (if there are any more) to feature a Chinese woman sidekicking with a black woman. I recommend a 2009 book titled Racial Stigma on the Hollywood Screen: The Orientalist Buddy Film. Jackie Chan’s African-American following is such that Rumble in the Bronx was changed (unrealistically) in terms of the race dynamic. Chan wanted to change the street gang’s ethnicity from black (what the producers wanted) to mixed (one film critic joked that it was like Star Trek). It remains to be seen if he chose to star in Rumble in the Bronx instead of Sammo Hung’s Don’t Give a Damn because of the latter’s anti-black racism, which harks back to a scene in a 1992 H.K. movie titled Invincible (a military-themed thriller featuring Billy Blanks).

Sammo claimed that it was the Taiwanese investors who insisted on the racist humour. It’s a possibility that the inclusion was an attempt to compensate for Chan’s absence. Despite Jet Li being a national institution in Taiwan (where he’s known as the Kung Fu emperor), Cradle 2 the Grave (co-leading a rapper) grossed not much more than the equivalent of H.K.$ 4 million (ouch). Rush Hour having a bigoted black star explains why the H.K. box office result was 13 million (Chan’s movies usually gross more than H.K.$ 30 million). The threequel grossed H.K.$ 8 million. Before Rush Hour, Jackie was to be with Wesley Snipes in a movie titled Confucius Brown. It was going to be an interracial buddy comedy. It never get off the ground, so Wesley joked that it was reincarnated as Rush Hour. Sammo’s Martial Law would end up being the TV imitation.

As to why that Confucius Brown never happened, it could be because of a negative Cantonese slang term called African Buddhist monk (the Chinese pronunciation of black guru which sounds like detestable). After Jackie rejected the chance to be in it, Wesley approached Michelle Yeoh. The only Afro-Asian martial arts movie with a unisexual couple is Romeo Must Die. In 1997, Tsui Hark wanted to make a Las Vegas action comedy starring Whoopi Goldberg and Stephen Chow. Most (if not all) black-driven movies don’t do all that well in H.K. e.g. Wesley’s Blade grossed H.K.$ 3 million. Blade 2 (which Donnie Yen coordinated and appeared in) grossed less than 1 million. Blade: Trinity did slightly better but still short of a million. Bad Boys 2 grossed H.K.$ 1 million. Then there’s the matter of racism towards black people in H.K. movies.

The ensuing H.K. films depict racism towards blacks – Way of the Black Dragon, The Tattoo ConnectionEbola Syndrome, Sixty Million Dollar Man, License to StealCyprus TigersChicken a La QueenMack the KnifeLove Generation Hong Kong, Royal TrampCasino Tycoon II and Dummy Mommy Without a Baby. If this list is the dirty dozen then a baker’s dozen would have to include The Good, the Bad and the Beauty. It’s only in the world of H.K. cinema that black men are perceived as being more likely to rape than white ones. It’s a wonder that some black martial arts actors, like Winston Ellis, had careers over there.

As for the pictured movie otherwise known as Chinatown Capers (1974), the context is no more racist than the scene in Silver Streak (1976) where Richard Pryor teaches Gene Wilder how to go undercover. Martial arts movie fans often wonder why Jim Kelly or Ron Van Clief were not cast in Lee Hoi-San’s role in Enter the Fat Dragon, but you have to understand that Western martial arts movie performers often make the mistake of being too hard with their strikes or even blocks (as Jim claimed when talking about starring in The Tattoo Connection). Ron had this problem, but Jim didn’t when he was co-starring in Enter the Dragon (as claimed by Bolo Yeung when comparing his conduct on this movie with that on The Tattoo Connection).

Still, Wesley Snipes would have experienced a renaissance had he made his comeback in H.K. movies. In a way, it would have made more sense for Donnie to fight him instead of Mike Tyson in Ip Man 3. Given the overpopulated popularity of Blaxploitation and Kung Fu culture in the seventies, if Bruce Lee had lived then we may have seen him teamed up with Richard Pryor. To make it as bankable as possible, it would have needed to be set in the white gambling world where the story goes from working-class hoodlums to high-class hustlers. A good title for it would have been Black JackSolid Heir. The second part of the title being a reference to Bruce being a pugilistic heir to a fortune that can only be won through a game of solitaire.

Tsui’s idea to unite Whoopi with Stephen is more inspired than the original plan to have Stephen play Kato in Seth Rogen’s remake of The Green Hornet, although I still feel sorry for Stephen given how long and how much he has been a fan of Bruce. Back to Whoopi in a way that ties in with H.K. racism, Anita Mui and Anita Yuen dressed up as her in Who’s the Woman, Who’s the Man?

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