Tinseltown outsiders

Starting from January 15, England’s Film4 channel had aired a different Shaw Brothers movie for four Friday nights. These movies were 36th Chamber of Shaolin, King Boxer, Come Drink with Me and The One-Armed Swordsman. I then realized that if Johnnie To made his first Hollywood movie, Film4 would air his most appealing four movies to be shown. If he had adapted one of my novels, the movies that I would choose would be The Heroic Trio, Executioners, Fulltime Killer and PTU. Starting from March 18, Film4 aired a quadrilogy of Shaw movies for quadrupled Friday nights. These movies were The Boxer from Shantung, Return of the One-Armed Swordsman, Five Deadly Venoms and Eight Diagram Pole Fighter. I started to think about which Clarence Fok movies that Film4 would air to advertise his Hollywood début. These would probably be The Dragon from Russia, Naked Killer, The Black Panther Warriors and Special ID.

In a 1997 interview for the Cine Asia site, Wong Jing talked about the possibility of being a Hollywood director: “I would have to worry about a lot more money than here. I would work on a single movie for far too long, and besides, I would lose all of my existing privileges in H.K. I can easily produce in H.K. much more effectively, faster and more controlled. The Americans see the H.K. Chinese from the film sector mainly as very cheap labor, the low budget can be looked after more. It does not matter what and how these people used to work. Just look at Ringo Lam, Ronny Yu, Tsui Hark and even John Woo: you hire these people, put them in action movies and then forbid them to realize their style despite it being the reason for the offer. That said, I think I would have little problem with such a change, as I can adapt very quickly to new conditions and ways of working. Hollywood is just not my cup of tea.

Because I intend for Clarence Fok, Wong Jing, Jeff Lau and Johnnie To respectively (i.e. in that order) to adapt my novels, this article is a comparison piece. In particular is the case of U.S. box office statistics regarding Hollywood débuts of Hong Kong film directors; such analysis will prove to be welcoming instead of off-putting in terms of instilling confidence in Hollywood producers that they can exceed expectations. They are presented in chronological order instead of revenue order:

32,589,677: Hard Target (1993) by John Woo.
14,502,483: Maximum Risk (1996) by Ringo Lam.
11,438,337: Double Team (1997) by Tsui Hark.
21,382,456: Mr. Magoo (1997) by Stanley Tong.
27,052,167: The Big Hit (1998) by Kirk Wong.
32,368,960: Bride of Chucky (1998) by Ronny Yu.
8,276,228: The Love Letter (1999) by Peter Chan.
35,374,833: The Messengers (2007) by the Pang brothers.
480,314: DOA: Dead or Alive (2007) by Corey Yuen.

If it wasn’t for the Pang brothers financially exceeding Woo and Yu, DOA would’ve been released straight to DVD. Maybe it should’ve been directed by the director of The Transporter 2, who was also the real director of The Transporter but didn’t get credit because it was important for the movie to be taken seriously by martial arts movie fans. I think that every adaptation of my novels would gross at least 50 million in the U.S. of America. It’s going to take a lot of money to get Jing to come abroad. In 1993, he rejected Oliver Stone’s offer of 3.5 million U.S. dollars. In 1996, Jing bragged about already earning that much money.

There are 23 other contenders for Hollywood stardom (25 if you include Jackie Chan and Yuen Woo-Ping despite being already famous for directing Hollywood fight scenes). Mabel Cheung could easily do more than just Indie films. She could do female-driven films of a mainstream nature. Ann Hui could direct feminist Oscar bait. Tony Leung Siu-Hung could make the leap from being a Hollywood fight controller to a director of the sort of films which made a name out of Isaac Florentine. Stephen Tung, Yuen Tak, Philip Kwok, Ridley Tsui and Yuen Bun are other potential figureheads for direct-to-disc action movies.

After when Martial Law came to an end, it would’ve been good for Sammo Hung to direct episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He mixed fighting and scares with applaudable aplomb in Spooky, SpookyIn terms of cinema dramas (Oscar bait or otherwise), Wong Kar-Wai, Fruit Chan and Wai Ka-Fai could assume the mantle. Marco Mak, Alan Mak (no relation), Wilson Yip and Teddy Chen could direct thrillers. Dennis Chan, Alfred Cheung and Derek Yee could direct rom-coms. Nam Nai-Choi could direct fantasy and horror movies. Stephen Chow and Vincent Lee Lik-Chi could easily direct madcap comedies which eschew the melodramatic trappings which weigh down most of the Hollywood comedies.

Finally, Billy Tang could direct chillers (the middle ground between thrillers and horrors). That’s all for the 23 candidates, but there are two guys who became famous in Hollywood if not for directing entire movies. On the strength of his name increasing the budget for Kill Bill after the disappointment of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, Yuen Woo-Ping should’ve been receiving top-drawer (i.e. mainstream martial arts) opportunities like Dragonball Evolution, Elektra or The Last Airbender. Jackie Chan might as well have directed The Karate Kid. It would’ve been the best way to symbolize himself passing the baton, especially in light of Will Smith rejecting the opportunity to be choreographed by Woo-Ping in The Matrix.

Katherine Heigl had this to say about Bride of Chucky (a.k.a. Child’s Play 4) for a 1998 issue of Femme Fatales (she had her own two pages halfway through the female lead’s article):

“There’s actually a lot of comedy in it. It’s very dark and twisted. The humour gives it an edge. I love Ronny as a director and a person. I think the lighting and the way it’s being shot is Alfred Hitchcock in a sense. It’s unique and almost beautiful – though definitely eerie. For some reason, I love all the blood and stuff. I was really excited that I was going to get a wound and everything because I didn’t get a wound when I did Under Siege 2. I haven’t really had any experience in my life that I can relate gore to, but I’ve had death and tragedy in my life, so I have to recall all that into my character as Jade.”

Contrast that with Jennifer Tilly’s initial apprehension in the 1999 issue of Videoscope (circa springtime):

“When my agent first called up and said – Do you want to do a Child’s Play movie? Of course, I said – Absolutely not. Because people associate horror roles with something you do at the beginning of your career or the end of your career. But my agent was saying it’s not like that. They want to make a really cool movie. With the horror films being really big right now, it’s a good way to reach another audience – like a young, hip audience. So he sent the script over and I read it. I’ve never seen any of the other Child’s Play movies. I thought it was really clever, funny, fresh and kind of unexpected.”

Ronny directing Heigl and Nick Stabile:

If the aforementioned quartet of directors reject their respective opportunities, the other directors in this article would be queried next. I have a rule that the only H.K. directors who I would consider are the ones who have yet to direct a U.S. movie. In doing so, this makes me comparable to Jean-Claude Van Damme a.k.a. the human green card (as he was known by Jeff Yang) because of bringing over John Woo, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark.

H.K. cinema is definitely worth investing in for U.S. studios wanting to capitalize on China’s economy. In mid-September of 2000, a South China Morning Post article was released regarding Samuel L. Jackson working with Ronny Yu for The 15st State (a.k.a. Formula 51). He is a self-confessed Hong Kong movie fanatic. It was a passion that started back in 1976 when he first appeared on the Broadway stage: “You could go to see a Hong Kong movie for one dollar in the afternoon after you finished a matinee. So I went and I went again. Pretty soon, I had a habit.”

16 years ago, Jackson owned about 500 H.K. titles on DVD and even sent fan mail to Chow Yun-Fat: “We’ve been exchanging things for years. We’ve been sending each other posters, photographs, videos, because I guess we’re both fans. I met him for the first time last year and saw him again just last night and we talked again.”

A lifted section from Chang Cheh’s memoir should make do for a wrap-up:

“The American system imposes strict prohibition on over-budget. A director who fails in the box office might still be given a second chance, but one who exceeds the budget will be shown the door in no time. It is because Hollywood film-makers understand that even the best director had his share of bad days but over-budgeting is an unforgivable human error. Hong Kong film-makers reviewed the story of John Woo and believe that’s how he managed to establish his place in Hollywood. Nonetheless, the generous budgets of Hollywood studios would allow any film to be completed satisfactorily without going into the red, not to mention the reserves written in the budget. Even Woo couldn’t avoid exceeding the budget while shooting in Hong Kong in the past.”

Chang didn’t even work in Hollywood yet he fared better. Out of all the H.K. directors who worked there, Ronny was the one with the most spoiled grapes:

“Woo does Face/Off, I do Bride of Chucky. Woo does commercials for Nike, I do spam for pool cleaning AQUABOT.”

In conclusion, if you want to make a successful movie in the West that’s in the H.K. vein then the production would need five elements (à la Earth): a H.K. writer, a H.K. director, a H.K. action director, a H.K. cinematographer and a H.K. editor. That’s four corners of a world and a core in between them.

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