While some HK movies are now blockbusters in the global market, such accomplishment is only a recent phenomenon. It all started with Bruce Lee’s career in show business in the late 1960s, first on TV, later in films. His trademarked high-flying kicks and acrobatic moves made him a Chinese cultural icon in Westerners’ eyes.
After Lee’s death in early 1970s, nobody had been able to take up his role for nearly two decades. While HK movies remained successful in Asia, they failed to make a dent in the Western market. Maybe there was a huge cultural gap that had yet to be bridged before American and European audience could understand, never mind appreciate our movies. But by mid-1990s, the HK film industry, with its success in Asia as a dress rehearsal, was ready to take on Hollywood.
Jackie Chan was the first HK actor who cracked the North American market. In 1995, he teamed up with Hollywood talents and showcased his acrobatic sequences in “Rumble in the Bronx”, a movie about New York City. While well received by the film critics, the film was no blockbuster. It was not until he teamed up with American comedian, Chris Tucker, in “Rush Hour” that Chan became a Hollywood star. In “Rush Hour”, Jackie punches the bad guys and Chris delivers the punch lines. This American-Chinese collaboration proved so successful the duo repeated it in Rush Hour 2 and 3.
A typical Jackie movie does not have much of a story line. But the moviegoers don’t care. They come to see Jackie flip into cars, flop out of trains, and beat the bad guys to a pulp. The combination of Jackie’s goofy look and the clever fight scenes, punctuated with comic relief, finds its way to the western v iewers’ hearts. Body language is universal and needs no further translation.
Jackie Chan’s success has opened the door to a different type of action filmmaking. The secret ingredients of HK cinema give the standard Hollywood formulas a new twist. The backing of major American studios and the guarantee of a worldwide distribution does not hurt either. “Hongywood” is now ready to take on the world.
Following Jackie Chan’s success, HK directors and actors rushed to Hollywood to try their luck. Jet Li was the next action hero who literally leaped into the world market. Not wanting to remain in Jackie’s shadow, Li has created a new genre: techno kung fu flicks. In “The One”, Li combines Chinese martial arts with high tech gadgetries to push the plot to a new edge. The triumph of his hand-to-hand combat over Western weaponries gives the film a surrealistic, dark, urban consciousness that becomes a standard formula for his movies.
Other talents in the HK film industry, from producers, directors to technical staff, have also used Western-Chinese collaboration to make a splash in Hollywood. John Woo’s talent in orchestrating “bullet ballets” landed him the director’s role in major Hollywood releases, including “Broken Arrow”, starring John Travolta and Christian Slater. This Chinese-American partnership was later repeated by actors like Chow Yun Fat and Michele Yeoh, in box office hits like “Hard Broiled” and “Tomorrow Never Dies”. When Ang Lee’s film, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, became an international hit, Chow and Yeoh became household names overnight.
Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was a major breakthrough for the HK movie industry. It presented the Western audience with an all-out Chinese story, complete with Chinese subtitles. No doubt Ang Lee’s talent and the breathtaking cinematography had something to do with the film’s success. But perhaps the film also came on the scene at the right time. It has managed to bridge the east-west cultural gap in the movie industry, just when the world is getting more smaller.