Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Jackie Chan

This is an extract from 'FIFTY CONTEMPORARY FILMMAKERS' edited by Yvonne Tasker and published by Routledge in 2002.

The book is a series of selected essays on fifty different filmmakers and the essay on Jackie is an interesting perspective. It is also interesting to compare this view with the views on the other filmmakers. If you are interested in film it is an interesting read, even if slightly outdated.


More so than even Bruce Lee or John Woo, Jackie Chan has come to represent the global image of `Hong Kong Cinema'; a hyperkinetic, breathless national cinema fashioned by impossibly limber and fearless performers, and by prodigiously inventive choreographers (Chan, significantly, is both). `No Fear. No Stuntman. No Equal', proclaimed the English-language posters for Rumble in the Bronx, underlining both the supposedly 'universal' aspects of his films and those qualities Hollywood could not deliver. Built into this, however, is the implication that Hollywood once did deliver such 'uncomplicated' pleasures, as is evidenced in numerous references to silent cinema (Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd) or classic Hollywood musicals (those of Gene Kelly, in particular). This casts Chan as Hollywood's `lost innocence', an alternative to 'high concepts' and (most importantly) special effects - his admirers often portray him as a filmmaking throwback, a cinematic idiot savant ± `cliff-hanger, kung fu and Keystone cops all in one'. Certainly, the silent cinema/Hollywood musical comparisons, while limited, stand as a reminder that there is more to cinematic pleasure than the classical `well-made film'. In Chan's oeuvre, with some exceptions, the text is the set-piece - no Chan book, his autobiography included, is complete without a list of his ten best fights or ten best stunts. This suggests a kind of `cinema of attractions', or what David Bordwell calls an 'ecstatic cinema', which transports spectators 'into a realm of rapt, electric apprehension of sheerly pictorial and auditory momentum'. The danger is, however, that such accounts can easily conspire with a patronizing `trash aesthetic', celebrating Hong Kong as 'a cinema of mindless pleasures'; never mind the quality, feel the stunts. Chan's ingenuous persona, vulnerability, and mixture of comedy and action have been celebrated as an antidote to the machismo and heartless irony of western action cinema, an anti-Schwarzenegger and Tarantino rolled into one. Although such accounts are well meaning, they are sometimes a little light on considerations of Chinese masculinity and heroism or on the context for Chan's persona. Steve Fore is a bracing exception, seeing Chan's films as a negotiation of `certain contradictions characteristic of Hong Kong culture', mediating between a need for individual action and `respect for the value of nurturing a group orientation based on altruism and humility'. This is a considerable part of Chan-fandom, too - magazines like Screen Power: The Jackie Chan Magazine emphasize his work for charity, his love for and friendliness towards his fans qualities which support rather than contradict his bravery and martial arts skills. There are generic precedents for this - Chan has made two films about the virtuous kung fu legend, Wong Fei-hung (albeit in an early, mischievous, incarnation), the epitome of social responsibility.

References to Keaton, Chaplin and Kelly point to another key aspect of Chan's public persona, namely the star-auteur as performative genius. Chan's filmography encompasses a multiplicity of filmmaking roles - director, producer, choreographer, stuntman, co-head (with Willie Chan) of Golden Way films - and his role is rarely confined to performer alone. Behind-the-scenes projects like Jackie Chan: My Stunts explore his `creative process'(improvisation and brainstorming with his stunt team, a choreographic emphasis on 'rhythm' and tempo) and promote the stuntman as star, choreographer as auteur, self-endangerment as popular art. Chan's reputation hinges on `control', even over those films which he has not nominally directed; several of his directors have walked off his films, willingly or otherwise. The failure of his early US vehicles, The Big Brawl and The Protector, is popularly attributed to the precise lack of this `control', to the blind hubris of B-movie hacks who thought they knew better. Relatively speaking, he is one of Hong Kong's most expensive filmmakers; costly period re-creations, international settings, but more importantly for the legend, fights which take months to film, multiple takes and, of course, lengthy stays in hospital. Mr. Canton and Lady Rose (a re-creation of 1930s' Hong Kong, inspired by Capra's A Pocketful of Miracles, 1961) and Operation Condor (a rambling desert adventure filmed in Morocco and the Sahara), in particular, have taken on the reputation of expensive follies de grandeur, not least because Golden Harvest subsequently reigned in his excesses.

Chan's popularity is one of the paradoxes of global popular culture; for most of the last twenty years, he has managed to be a cult figure and an international superstar at the same time. Prior to Rumble in the Bronx (released in the US in 1996), he was little more than a cult figure in the West, a cult fostered since the early 1980s by Chinatown cinemas and video rental. Meanwhile, no Chinese New Year would be the same without a new Jackie Chan film. Ìn Asia . . . I am Jurassic Park. I am E.T.', Chan claims. But in another sense that is precisely what he is not - `We are very poor . . . The only choice I have is dangerous stunts.' However, this statement is not entirely true - as witnessed in the lavish spectacles Tsui Hark and Wong Kar-wai deliver on smaller budgets - but there is something irresistible about the 'real' body pitted against the tyranny of the digital, the Drunken Master versus the Titanic. But Chan is no cinematic primitive - his control over camera placement and (largely invisible) editing is as meticulous as his control over bodies in motion, and his multiple takes often function as 'action replays' of jaw-droppingly 'real' (read: dangerous) on-set events. Rather, Chan has astutely gauged those elements of Hong Kong cinema that Hollywood cannot absorb or copy. He is fond of chiding American stars for not doing their own stunts and American stuntmen for being too slow. But he also differentiates himself from other, more stylized, Hong Kong filmmakers, especially those who do incorporate technology visibly into action scenes or foreground the artifice of cinema - the invisible wires, MTV-cutting and undercranking of 'new wave' martial arts films such as Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China series. For Chan, cinema is in the service of the body.

In Renee Witterstaetter's entertaining hagiography, his filmography constitutes an autobiography of his body - its performative achievements and à chronological account of every broken bone and crushed head, broken finger and twisted knee'.8 Few Hong Kong filmmakers have enjoyed Chan's longevity. His career spans the most significant period in Hong Kong cinema - from the Mandarin-language kung fu films of the 1970s (Hong Kong cinema's first global export) to the 'new' Cantonese cinema of the 1980s and 1990s, which looked to Hong Kong itself for its thematic and narrative content; from the island's 'economic miracle' to the turmoil generated by the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration returning sovereignty to China. There is a set-piece in most Chan films where he is attacked from all sides, parrying furiously, receiving as many blows as he successfully blocks or returns - the culture-shock of rapid modernization and urban transformation translated into a flurry of high-impact action. Neither the hand-over of Hong Kong to China nor his belated success in Hollywood has stopped him making successful films in the now depleted Hong Kong cinema; the dust had barely settled on Rush Hour before he was making the more locally oriented New Year film, Gorgeous. Unlike émigré Hong Kong filmmakers, he continues to work in both industries, a truly transnational figure.

Chan's career grew out of an already dying genre, the kung fu film. His earliest star vehicles were lacklustre period films for former Bruce Lee director Lo Wei, and his breakthrough came in two kung fu comedies directed by Yuen Woo-ping, Snake in the Eagle's Shadow and Drunken Master. In the latter, he reinvented folk hero Wong Fei-hung as a pre-legend juvenile delinquent ± in one scene, he sees off an opponent by farting in his face. Both films were variations on the 'master-pupil' theme, which had been popular since the mid-1970s and which was being given an increasingly comic twist. His early films as director were essentially reworkings of his breakthrough hits, made with the larger budgets Golden Harvest could provide, but the failure of Dragon Lord suggested that even comic martial arts films had run their course for now. Subsequently, he was instrumental in creating a hybridized comedy-action film with hair-raising stunts and meticulous choreography, but Chan never lost sight of the martial arts film's 'difference' from western spectacle, its performative virtuosity and the centrality of the body-in-motion. By the time of Project A, the emphasis was equally on the body-in-danger - falls from clocktowers, hanging from a moving bus by an umbrella handle (Police Story) or dangling from a helicopter (Police Story 3) - all injuries replayed in end credits out-takes. If one looks for evidence of `maturity', then Project A is indisputably Chan's breakthrough film. Not only is it more enjoyable than any film has a right to be, but it displays a penchant for period re-creation and a new interest in Hong Kong rather than the kung fu film's mythical China. The film is set in turn-of-the-century Hong Kong and pits Chan's coastal guard Dragon Ma (aided by Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung) against a conspiracy of pirates and corrupt British officials. This is where the 'silent cinema' comparisons begin ± the film includes a virtuoso comic bicycle chase and a Lloyd-inspired clocktower sequence. There is a new variety to the fight choreography, too, ranging from riotous bar-room brawls to an extended fight with the pirate leader full of hyperbolic sound effects, slow-motion leaps and Peking Opera acrobatics. The sequel was equally good, mixing elements of farce and anti-Qing dynasty revolutionaries.

Chan developed another series with Police Story, usually seen as his riposte to the 'rogue cop 'posturing of The Protector. The stunts are as breathtaking as ever - Part 1 is the final word on the pleasures of breaking glass and demolishing shopping malls. However, in some respects, the film only differs from its counter-model in execution, and, notwithstanding the comedy and Chan's vulnerable persona, it is striking how close parts of the film are to being `Dirty Jackie'. The generosity and `social responsibility' of Chan's period films only patchily appears in the modern-day ones - what are we to make of his character's destruction of a refugee shantytown during a car chase as Part 1's opening `spectacle', or the grotesquely stereotyped deaf-mute heavy in Part 2? The Armour of God, an Indiana Jones-type adventure filmed in Europe, represents another important development in that Chan's films began to transmute into travelogues with intermittent action scenes. This film almost (literally) killed Chan, but it is almost unwatchable (not least for its racism) until the final twenty minutes. Operation Condor was an expensive sequel and one excess too many for Golden Harvest, but Chan was displaying a growing weakness for colourless internationalism with yawning longeurs in between his films' set-pieces. Although not critically well received, Rumble in the Bronx holds an important place in the Chan biography. Fore provides an illuminating account of how it was modified for and promoted to US multiplexes - the new version played down Chan's physical comedy (always a sticking point in his `crossover') and those self-effacing aspects of his star persona that conflicted with him being a straight action performer.9 Rush Hour seems more comfortable with both the 'nice guy' persona and the comedy, even if the latter is toned down (especially in comparison with Chris Tucker's mugging). Interestingly, the action is the casualty; Chan had to work with American stunt co-ordinator Terry Leonard for reasons of both safety and expense. The film captures the dilemma of absorbing Chan into Hollywood - he is not only a conventional star, but also a filmmaking process. Rush Hour displays an 'idea' of Chan - dangerous stunts made safe, choreography slowed down to incorporate western actors - rather than the 'Jackie Chan' exported from Hong Kong. The film's fight scenes largely consist of a series of `moves' rather than the elaborate compositions of his Chinese films.

Chan's career overlaps significantly with that of Sammo Hung Kam-bo. Hung was the oldest member of the 'Seven Little Fortunes', the Peking Opera troupe in which Chan trained as a child. Hung, like Chan, is a prolific star, director, producer and choreographer, and a key influence on the Hong Kong action film. Chan and Hung appeared together in numerous films including the all-star Lucky Stars series, Dragons Forever and Chan's own Project A, usually accompanied by a third 'Little Fortune', the agile Yuen Biao, and sometimes by a fourth, wiry Yuen Wah, as the villain. Collectively, they represent the last generation of Peking Opera performers to make their mark on popular cinema. Hung is as talented as Chan and their styles have some similarities, but he is even less of a conventional leading man (one film title tells all - Enter the Fat Dragon) and has not enjoyed the same level of adulation. Hung, Chan and another important choreographer-director Yuen Woo-ping represent an intermediary stage in martial arts cinema. Bruce Lee had consolidated a demand for 'real' martial artists, both in front of and behind the camera, and this 'authenticity' was guaranteed by extended takes and wide framing of the action. Hung, Chan and Yuen shifted this 'authenticity' away from the kung fu itself to a new kind of hard physical action, away from recognizable styles (Snake, Tiger, Crane, etc.), and towards a mixture of operatic tumbling, gruelling street fighting (with real contact and impossibly painful landings) and self-effacing comedy.

Hung and Yuen, however, have shown more willingness than Chan to adapt their styles, including working with wires and special effects on 'new wave' martial arts films (Yuen even worked on the Hollywood science fiction movie, The Matrix, 1999), and Hung has subsequently forged an unexpected Hollywood career in the Rush Hour-inspired television series, Martial Law.

More recently, Chan's most frequent collaborator has been Stanley Tong, the director hired to make cheaper Jackie Chan films. Rumble in the Bronx and First Strike are undistinguished - although no worse than Sammo Hung's Mr. Nice Guy (1997). However, Police Story 3: Supercop stands out for the role it offered to Michelle Yeoh. Women are unreconstructedly 'girlish' in Chan's films and he has under-used such stars as Maggie Cheung and Brigitte Lin in thankless roles. But in Police Story Yeoh performs a stunt to match any of Chan's - landing a motorbike on a moving bus - and her tough mainland cop is the best thing about the film. Chan's best 1990s' film was a more fractious collaboration with Shaw Brothers veteran, Lau Kar-leung (Mandarin name: Liu Jialiang). Lau is the epitome of 1970's style authenticity, and the glorious Drunken Master II saw Chan performing genuine southern kung fu moves as well as the eponymous `Drunken Boxing'. Thematically, the film bore some similarities to the Once Upon a Time in China films (which also dealt with Wong Fei-hung) - colonialist villains, Wong Fei-hung's coming of age - but the style was very different. Chan has likened Lau's style to 'classical music' - 'very traditional' - and his own to 'jazz',10 and Lau reportedly walked off the set before Chan's trademark masochistic finale, walking across hot coals and drinking industrial alcohol to counter the super-kicking skills of villain Ken Lo. But the film is more seamless than Chan might like to think and offered two incongruously old-fashioned figures giving the 'new wave' a run for its money.

Chan's abilities are still formidable, but he is also the most trapped of Hong Kong filmmakers, his transglobal mobility notwithstanding. At best, what Hollywood seems to be able to offer him is a new status as a brand-name for a type of spectacle it cannot actually produce. Even in Hong Kong, it is uncertain where he can now go, beyond jumping off bigger buildings or fighting in new locations. Who Am I? is the most ambitious of his recent films, but it is too location-conscious and under-scripted to capitalize on its premise of an amnesiac Chinese secret agent. Gorgeous is a more low-key film - a romantic comedy and the first Chan film to acknowledge that he is not getting any younger. None the less, the websites, fan clubs, video and DVD re-releases, and the box-office figures for Rush Hour, tell a very different (and equally important) story: Jackie Chan is clearly nowhere near his sell-by date.


Anonymous said...

Who am I? - Under scripted??? what crap. It's a masterpiece.
Sometimes I think these writers/film critics just want to justify their paycheck by giving negative opinions. Jackie's acting is terrific. So is the story. I'm as mesmerized by it now as when I first watched it. The only complaint I have is that it doesn't show enough of the time in Africa while he's healing. (which I think were edited out due to time constraints) I own the US (cutup) version and the HK version - which is much better.

SuperChanBlog said...

Well in one sense all of Jackie's films are under scripted as they are not necessarily character or plot driven. That does not mean to say that they aren't still conveying a story, it just isn't in a very verbal manner.

A better analysis of Jackie's movies can be found here:

although the article only looks a few movies specifically, it is one of the more insightful analyses I have read.

Post a Comment


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.