Zany zeitgeist

2003 was the ultimate year for looking forward to watching a bunch of Hollywood movies which had Hong Kong talent in front of and behind the camera. Cradle 2 the Grave starred Jet Li, who was choreographed by Corey Yuen (who is mostly Jet’s partner in perfect crime than Jason Statham’s). Then there was John Woo’s Paycheck, which was his unforeseen Hollywood swansong. Shanghai Knights (the unexpected sequel to Shanghai Noon) featured a belated fight between Jackie Chan and Donnie Yen (who was originally optioned to fight him in Drunken Master II circa 1993). Bulletproof Monk had Chow Yun-Fat being instructed by Stephen Tung, Andy Cheng and Corey. The latter redone the finale because the original seemed lacking when compared to the previous action sequences. In Hell was when Ringo Lam succeeded in directing Jean-Claude Van Damme in what was, without any argument, the latter’s then-best film. Belly of the Beast had Tony Ching Siu-Tung directing Steven Seagal. These movies, alone, are enough to suggest an aligning of the stars (especially in the overt cinematic sense). Elsewhere, Yuen Cheung-Yan (the brother of Yuen Woo-Ping) was the choreographer for two movies whose violence was truncated for the cinema release – Daredevil and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.

As a side-note, Charlie’s Angels was almost made in 1998. Michelle Yeoh was attached to star (this was before being replaced by Lucy Liu), but with Stanley Tong as the director instead of McG. As to why Stanley was replaced, he was attached before Mr. Magoo turned out to be quite the flop. Usually, worldwide sales can turn things around. This didn’t turn out to be the case. As to why he was attached in the first place, Rumble in the Bronx was a hit for New Line Cinema circa 1995 (it reached number one in its opening weekend). First Strike (another Jackie vehicle) proved that he could helm a Bond-style adventure. Conversely, 2003 was when things got too commercial for H.K. cinema. Dragon’s Claws (despite Yuen Woo-Ping having no involvement with it) was re-released on DVD with a black/green cover to coincide with The Matrix Reloaded. By the time that The Matrix Revolutions was released in November, Dragon’s Claws wasn’t exactly trending. Tarantino picked up on this because he used a music cue for Death ProofSammo Hung wasn’t all that relevant when it came to mainstream attention. He coordinated Jackie in The Medallion, which was ignored.

The most unique of the 2003 credentials was Freddy vs. Jason being directed by Ronny Yu. What the Internet Movie Database doesn’t tell you is the total process of when things went down. Asian Cult Cinema is a forgotten magazine that would give you info that wasn’t included in audio commentaries. One such example is that Yu attended his first meeting for the film in May of 2002. In Vancouver, they started prepping in July 1. They then began filming on September 1. They finished shooting by the end of November. Ronny’s knowledge of both franchises was the first installments of each one. Before revealing what the project was, his lawyer and agent (same guy) said to him: “We have a project here that represents the American horror icon, and they are interested in you doing it.”

After revealing what the project was, Ronny’s representative went on to say: The fans have been waiting a long time. It took them ten years to get the story right. This is a good opportunity for you to make another mainstream American motion picture.”

Like what happened with Bride of Chucky, the studio head and executives didn’t mind that Ronny hadn’t seen the entries of each saga. They wanted some fresh input (foreign cinema was all the rage). As far as they were concerned, he wasn’t going to be making so much a direct sequel but a standalone film. Despite seeming unanimous in his response, he spent half of a month watching all the movies so that he would be familiarized with what he was undertaking. Robert Englund gave a crash course on Freddy. What wasn’t unanimous was the philosophy of genre. In Hong Kong, genres are constantly mixed in a way that may seem mismatched to the untrained mind. In Hollywood, most studio execs would freak out if a foreign film-maker revealed that he wanted to make a film that was a 33.3% balance of horror, action and comedy.

With Bride of Chucky, it was a case of having 50% emphasis on horror and comedy because the concept of a slaughtering doll is camp in a way that doesn’t allow for a lot of action. As such, Freddy vs. Jason was slightly more serious. Comedy-wise, Ronny wanted the killers to be the straight men to the teenagers. Another gimmick is that Freddy is Jason’s Frankenstein. The only thing left to be desired is a rejected ending involving Pinhead (from Hellraiser) damning the pair. While some may not miss this extraction, I feel that it would have added to the kitchen sink atmosphere that Yu was striving for. For instance, he feels that the first act of the film is like The Silence of the Lambs. Because of the genre-mixing, Ronny wasn’t able (nor willing) to film as much sex as the other movies. He strove for the final fight scene to be as classic as the finale of Rocky.

As tempting as it would seem to perceive him as a director for hire (a workman director), the movie still has that motif of abandonment and empowerment i.e. fathers abandoning their sons in a way that strengthens the bond between mothers and sons. Ronny wasn’t consciously abiding by this motif but he recognized the parallels with The Bride with White Hair (1993) and Warriors of Virtue. Subconsciously, it plays out to the extent that one of the teenaged girls has a father who invented a drug that was supposed to stop Freddy from subverting dreams. Another influence is the colour scheme of Zhang Yimou’s Hero except Ronny was more subtle by being sparing. Freddy’s dream world is tinged with red. Jason’s world is tinged with green, but steel blue at night. Analytical aficionados will know that Ronny had already attempted something similar with The Phantom Lover (1995). Sepia tones were employed for the past whereas red was used for the passion of the love story.

Perhaps Zhang was the inspired one after all. I’m sure that all the H.K. film fans will agree that Freddy vs. Jason is the best 2003 U.S. effort involving H.K. film talent. Ronny strived to elevate the slasher genre by working with the best cameraman and art director that he could find. To their credit, the studio didn’t demean him by dismissing him as turgid. The ambition was reflected in the box office when it became the most successful movie of either franchise until the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street was released in 2010 (the box office take slightly usurped Ronny’s record). Regardless, his movie was better. The concept was actually fresh. It’s a testament to his talent that he didn’t want the movie to be reliant on CG (computer graphics as opposed to CGI meaning computer-generated images).

He even cited Ang Lee’s Hulk (also 2003) as an example of what should have been a wire-assisted bodybuilder. The I.D. crisis of that blockbuster made him feel confident about what he had with Freddy vs. Jason. For all of his artistic attributes, he understands that you have to please the target audience. Once you strive for that, there is no such thing as writer’s block. Wanting to appease the H.K. fandom was also necessary because he wanted Freddy’s fingers of death to have similar bloodletting like the swordplay of old movies. Ronny believes that you should only reinvent someone’s property if it’s a smaller movie with not much happening in the way of audience expectation. His English is good enough for him to tap into what was being said online after the announcement of the project.

It was much to his fortune that Ronny didn’t cop out by making a PG-13 movie – a decision that would soon plague Wes Craven’s Cursed, which was originally scheduled to be released in the same month as Freddy vs. Jason (August). Had it been released, Freddy vs. Jason may have been commercially plagued (especially since Christina Ricci is the hottest and most famous of the women in both movies). The studio suits behind Freddy vs. Jason suggested that the rating may take off the pressure in the film predictably not being much of a hit. This backpedalling may have something to do with the fact that they heard through the grapevine that Cursed was going to be a ground-breakingly gory werewolf movie that would do for the werewolf genre what Scream did for slashers.

Ironically, the studio behind Cursed decided to go for a PG-13 retrofitting because they panicked at the thought of losing out to Freddy vs. JasonRonny thinks that shaping a horror movie to appeal to a broader audience was cripplingly ambitious. People outside of the target audience wouldn’t purchase tickets if the word of mouth from loyal fans (the Fangoria demographic to whom both movies catered) wasn’t inviting. The average soccer mom, Joe six-pack or hipster wasn’t going to be interested in watching it. Watering something down to appeal to non-horror fans means that you’re not pleasing anyone. Even taking this into account, Freddy vs. Jason was still marred by problems. Ronny is gracious enough to say “the original actor dropped out” in relation to Brad Renfro being disallowed to play Will because of his heroin addiction, which he tried to substitute with alcohol to the extent that he went missing for a week (the addict was found in an Arizonian rehab).

As for the banishment of Kane Hodder (who played Jason in more than one movie), it was Ronny’s idea instead of the New Line Cinema superiors (the figurative yellow man denied it because the fans would hate him instead of NLC). The official announcement was that Ken Kirzinger was taller (an exaggeration), but the reality was that it was cheaper to have Kane’s stuntman play the role from beginning to end. If it was New Line’s idea, Kane would not have returned for Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday and Jason X. Bearing in mind that Ronny has done enough action films to realize how economical it is to cast a lead actor who can do stunts. The company policy, via Ronny, tried to justify getting rid of him by lowballing him with the excuse being that the ambitious scope of the project meant that there had to be economic cut-backs.

David Wu (the editor of Bride of Chucky) was Ronny’s first choice to edit the movie but he became busy as a TV director, so Ronny hired Mark Stevens because he edited Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth. Much to his surprise, the studio supervisors stayed away from him once he first showed them the dailies. One of the endings which didn’t make it into the final cut was when the teens win by killing the titular terrors and live long enough to walk away. Ronny didn’t like it. The safe studio didn’t want to use it because it took away from extending the franchise. Back to David in 2003, he saw Bad Boys II before Ronny did. Wu told Yu that the story structure was much like the popcorn movies made by Cinema City. This makes sense given that the car chase at the beginning is identical to the one in Jackie’s Police StoryThe old guy in the above photo is Robert Shaye. He is the N.L.C. CEO. Rob, being something of a H.K. film fan, was instrumental in the casting of Donnie Yen for Blade II. It was also Rob’s idea to have him be the film’s fight choreographer.

With all the commotion surrounding the popularity of Chinese celebrities in 2003, I was (and still am) surprised that Wong Jing never made a Hollywood movie. Such a conceit was a given, since he was given a few opportunities (some unannounced projects) yet he rejected them because he felt that Hollywood didn’t need him. He (and H.K. cinema) would’ve benefited from it. More of his movies would be re-released on Blu-ray (or even DVD) and screened on television (especially H.K. non-action cinema in general). On Jing’s Facebook fan-page (which was removed in 2014), a man named Julian Keogh had typed in 2010: “If Wong Jing’s movies were exposed to a Western audience, they would be happier and healthier people. I hope it happens one day – in my opinion, there’s more laughs in 5 minutes of his movies than entire scripts from Hollywood.”


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