Jackie Chan—The Young Master Comes of Age

China’s Biggest Soft Power Export, Then and Now

Once in a while, if you’re lucky, and paying the right kind of attention, events align to give you a clear view of the future. In 1995, I was in Los Angeles staying with a friend who produced independent films and had the trade magazines Variety and The Hollywood Reporter delivered to his door early each morning. One day, the front page headlines trumpeted New Line Cinema’s plan to distribute Jackie Chan’s latest film, Rumble in the Bronx, in the U.S.  I’d recently begun contributing to The New York Times Magazine, and so I called my editor. “There’s a guy in Hong Kong,” I told him. “You’ve probably never heard of him, but he’s going to be huge. I think you should send me there to write about him.”

I’d guessed correctly—the editor, who was knowledgeable on a wide range of subjects, had never heard of Jackie Chan. Despite Chan’s ubiquity across Asia and the real pandemonium that resulted anytime he made public appearances in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan, there was no World Wide Web yet in 1995, no Wikipedia, and no YouTube where one could easily call up scenes from films or appearances on talk shows. So it took some convincing—VHS tapes of Chan’s movies and copies of articles that had appeared about him in the cinephile press—but I got the assignment and went to Hong Kong that summer to accompany him for three weeks during the shooting of Thunderbolt, a street-racing action thriller whose $HKD 200 million budget made it the most expensive Hong Kong film had ever produced. My piece—a profile, attempting to encapsulate Chan’s extraordinary story, his unique talents as a performer and filmmaker, his popularity across Asia, and the perils he faced in trying to win acceptance among moviegoers in the West—appeared in the magazine in January of 1996, and helped introduce Chan to the U.S.

In the the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco were fantastic places to experience the golden age of Jackie Chan, John Woo, Tsui Hark, and the overall florescence of populist Hong Kong cinema. In New York, where I lived, you could see films both at Chinatown cinemas and revival houses, and the video emporia of Chinatown would sell you cheap VHS copies dubbed from the laserdisc releases of all the latest films.

I had come to Chan not because I was a kung fu geek, but because from childhood I’d loved Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and the clowns of silent cinema. The so-called “New Vaudevillian” performers of the ‘80s—Bill Irwin, The Flying Karamazov Brothers, Blue Man Group—and modern dance troupes like MOMIX, ISO, and Martha Clarke, who did pieces oriented toward pop spectacle, had gotten me excited about new ways to continue this tradition. When the New York Film Festival saw fit to include Chan’s Police Story in its 1987 program, I’d seen in Chan’s exuberant physical virtuosity a thoroughly modern, unaffected, and mainstream way to blend comedy, acrobatics, and dance to amazing and uproarious result.

Hollywood too had fallen in love with Hong Kong action and style, shamelessly plundering daredevil stunts, gags, even entire action sequences from Hong Kong films. The producer Barry Josephson, who started out in the ‘80s working for the action/thriller impresario Joel Silver (Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, The Matrix) once told me that Silver tasked a small crew of people to go through Chan’s and other Hong Kong filmmakers’ work on laserdiscs and create “greatest hits” reels of action and fight sequences for his directors and writers to study and crib from. (In some sense this was returning a favor: Hong Kong stuntmen took inspiration from Hollywood practices they observed during the 1966 location shooting of Robert Wise’s Boxer Rebellion drama The Sand Pebbles; Hong Kong makers of gangster movies had also studied carefully and then extravagantly sampled the innovative shootout sequences in Brian De Palma’s Scarface and Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon; and even Jackie Chan had remade the Frank Capra chestnut Pocketful of Miracles.)

My weeks in Hong Kong afforded me an intimate glimpse of Chan’s life and working methods. It was a momentous time to be observing and talking to him: he had the deal with New Line, the William Morris Agency (now known as WME), signed him and this meant he had a real shot at becoming a global superstar. Chan is not normally inclined to reflection. But on a couple of occasions after the day’s shooting had ended, he spoke late into the night with me about what it all meant and what he hoped for his career.

The Communist annexation of Chan may turn out to be one of the greatest benefits arising from the Hong Kong reunification sixteen years ago.

Last week, when Chan came to the U.S. on a promotional tour that included a stop at Asia Society, it was as someone for whom the intervening eighteen years had pretty much fulfilled the promise of that moment. Chan has become a global icon, a figure of incontestable international bonhomie, and a funnyman and action maestro whose art transcends language and culture. The U.S. success of Rumble, and, subsequently, that of the Rush Hour franchise (its three films have grossed over $1 billion in ticket sales around the world) established him as a star in the Hollywood pantheon, a true successor to Bruce Lee in the U.S. as well as at home, the only Chinese figure in popular culture who’s not regarded as some sort of imported novelty.

The ‘90s saw Chan publish his autobiography and make a feature-length documentary, both making the details of his extraordinary rags-to-riches story well-known in the West. He became a regular on Letterman, Leno, and Jimmy Kimmel; a sought-after advertising pitchman; and the star of his own kids’ cartoon show. And he did so without leaving Asia behind. Parallel to his Hollywood output, Chan kept up producing, starring in, and sometimes directing Hong Kong films. He stretched out into drama, romance, and comedy, and oversaw an even more widespread branding empire and a charitable foundation that gives to children’s causes, medical services, and disaster relief efforts. He remains now, as he was when I met him, an absurdly busy human, ever in motion, a jolly goodwill ambassador for both Hong Kong and the mainland who seems never to sit down to a dinner that isn’t some sort of ceremonial banquet.

Which is not to say there has not been an embarrassing outtakes reel. While Chan devotes himself to the charity foundation that bears his name, and gives his time and face to humanitarian aid and public cleanliness campaigns, fans have been chagrined to see the Chinese tabloid press—who, as a rule, make Rupert Murdoch’s infamous “Page Six” seem as decorous as The New York Review of Books—revel in Chan’s episodes of public drunkenness, the “Dragon Seed” scandal in which actress Elaine Ng Yi-Lei gave birth to Chan’s extramarital daughter, derogatory comments about Chan’s son Jaycee’s show business career, and the time paparazzi thought they'd caught him in a make-out session with mainland superstar actress, director, and blogger Xu Jinglei.

Of even greater interest and occasional cause for concern has been the mainland’s deployment of Chan to advance Chinese soft power. The Communist annexation of Chan may turn out to be one of the greatest benefits arising from the Hong Kong reunification sixteen years ago this week. Since before any of his films were officially shown on the mainland, pirated VHS tapes had made Chan a star there; he has toured the country regularly, he promoted and sang at the 2008 Olympics (and subsequently in a solo concert at the Bird’s Nest stadium); and is a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference—a Communist Party advisory organization that recruits high-profile civilians, including other celebrities such as Stephen Chow, Zhang Ziyi, and Yao Ming. His latest Hong Kong movie, CZ12, reprising his earlier, Indiana Jones-esque Armour of God films, is premised on the repatriation to China of ancient artifacts seized by foreign powers during the Opium War, and spotlights some superfluous nationalist posturing. Additionally, Chan has relocated his office from Hong Kong to Beijing, and announced the construction of a Jackie Chan Museum in Shanghai. At last week’s Shanghai International Film Festival, the powerhouse Beijing film studio Huayi Brothers  announced a partnership with Chan on his next two films. Cultural promotion is one thing, but more problematic for some of his fans are his occasional pronouncements criticizing the Taiwanese government, derogating Hong Kong for its internal disorder, or expressing the necessity for authoritarian rule. This may be one reason for CZ12’s disappointing showing in Hong Kong, where it grossed HKD$11.5 million HKD (US$1.5 million) at the box office, compared with the roughly US$138 million it earned on the mainland, making it the second most popular Chinese film of 2012, behind the comedy Lost in Thailand.

Still, it’s hard to imagine Chan’s ever becoming entirely a Communist Party tool: he will always be a symbol of Hong Kong spirit and D.I.Y ingenuity, and his life’s work celebrates the triumph of the little guy, the indomitability of the plucky individual. As a member of the Hong Kong Film Director’s Guild, Performing Artistes Guild, and Stuntman Association, Chan has done important work on their behalf, and has led organized show business protests against triad interference. A coherent political stance will never be his strong suit, and while I would pay eager attention to anything he had to say about comedy, timing, physical conditioning, martial arts choreography, or filmmaking, I tend to think that anyone looking for political wisdom or guidance from Chan (who has repeatedly voiced regret at his lack of education and historical knowledge and context) pretty much deserves what they get.

China’s embrace of Chan as a cultural ambassador points to another domestic shortcoming: there was no homegrown pop superstar capable of fulfilling this function, no one possessing both extraordinary talent and the bountiful good will and expressivity to crystallize China’s image abroad.

At the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Asia Society, Chan straddled past and future, presiding over screenings, respectively, of CZ12, which opens in U.S. theaters later this summer, and of Drunken Master II, his 1994 masterpiece. In a pre-screening Q&A with Asia Society Film Curator La Frances Hui, he was in top form, as supremely entertaining as he is in front of large gatherings and small, regaling the audience with behind-the-scenes stories of his famous stunts—explaining, for instance, that he pumps up his own adrenaline beforehand by yelling “aaahhhhhhh!” at the top of his lungs, or that the secret to the scene in Drunken Master II in which he slides across a pit of burning coals was accomplished by packing his butt in ice cubes. Most revealingly, he spoke of his admiration for Hollywood technology, admitting to a prejudice in favor of Western storytelling modes. According to Chan, Chinese filmmakers are less capable of telling their own stories than we are. “Use Western eyes to introduce China [to the world],” he said, “Better than Chinese eyes introduce China… We make so many [versions of] Mulan. But Disney makes Mulan, then everyone knows it!” (And, for what it’s worth, The Forbidden Kingdom, Chan’s 2008 collaboration with Lion King Director Rob Minkoff and Screenwriter John Fusco, contains one of the more credible and compelling renditions of fantastic Chinese mythology thus far realized on screen).

C. Bay Milin
Jackie Chan stands on top of a table during a public discussion prior to a film screening at Asia Society, June 11, 2013.

The pioneering, freewheeling hybrid of martial arts, action, and comedy epitomized by Drunken Master II was on ample display this week in a retrospective running through today at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. Part of Subway Cinema’s 12th annual New York Asian Film Festival, the retrospective accompanies a Lifetime Achievement Award for Chan, and is designed to remind local audiences of the unique talents, and thoroughly crowd-pleasing Hong Kong films that brought Chan to global attention in the first place. “We want to position these not just as Black Belt Theater,” says Subway Cinema co-founder Grady Hendrix, “but as works of cinema worthy of being celebrated.”

Being able to see a 35mm widescreen print of The Young Master, Chan’s first film, made when he was twenty-six and visibly burning with desire to show off his speed, agility, precision, and (even then highly developed) comedy chops to the world is an opportunity that comes too rarely these days; ditto the titles from his amazing run extending from the mid-80s through 1994, encompassing the Police Story series, Project A parts I & II, and the original pair of Armour of God films. They are a special treat and nothing short of electrifying in a crowded auditorium. On top of everything else, Chan is a director with a voluptuous camera sense, and the mise-en-scène and cutting in Operation Condor, Miracles, and Drunken Master II are a joy in themselves.

And yet, even the highpoints of these films underscore the only real way in which Chan’s career from Rush Hour forward has failed to realize its potential. Regardless of who is in the director’s chair, all of Chan’s Hong Kong films are credited as “A Jackie Chan Film,” and his signature is unmistakable; they were made with his complete control. During our time in Hong Kong in 1996, just as he was poised to begin his Hollywood rise, Chan told me that in Hollywood his dream was to work with people at his level, A-list co-stars and directors. If Steven Spielberg or James Cameron or Francis Coppola had wanted to do something with him, he said he would be willing to do it for free; if a comic actor he admired like Danny DeVito would have considered co-starring with him, Chan would have leapt at the chance. Instead, the Rush Hour movies are entertaining, but require relatively little from Chan; the films Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights make him straight man to Owen Wilson; and the less said about The Tuxedo and The Spy Next Door the better. In Hollywood, it was not until Shanghai Knights in 2003 that Chan was even asked to choreograph the action scenes himself. Meanwhile, his Hong Kong productions, even as they explore a variety of genres, have lacked the drive and coherence that mark his earlier work. He has seemed tired, lacking in spark, going through the motions.

Late one night in 1995, while talking to me about his life, Chan said to me:

Nothing more important than movies. Marry always tomorrow, day after tomorrow. Girl, always some other girl, prettier than some other girl. The movie you cannot make mistakes. Because you finish today, when you say, “Yes!”—after editing, the movie, it keeps long time. It keeps 1995 for a long time. Whatever you see is 1995. You get the girl, 1995, after five years, there’s different. The twentieth century already, it get old. The movie, it never get old.


And while I can’t say I want to advocate emulating this approach to one’s personal life, that degree of dedication is what seems to have gone missing. Now, of course, what does he have to prove? And he also deserves some slack: Rush Hour was made when he was forty-three, and this past spring he turned fifty-nine—during those years there was bound to be a slowdown. But with someone as brilliantly inventive as Chan, there remains the hope that he is still capable of new surprises and delights.

Luckily, that turns out to be the case: as his age catches up to him and his ability to be an action hero starts to wane, Chan has begun to turn his attention to his acting. In The Karate Kid remake, he has tremendous chemistry with his co-star Jaden Smith, and despite the schtick of ancient jokes and textbook tugging-at-the-heartstrings, he executes his role impeccably. Additionally, the Hong Kong production Shinjuku Incident, from 2009, is a compellingly gritty drama about Chinese lowlifes in Tokyo and a real departure for Chan because for the first time he plays a bad guy, a low-level gangster. And in Little Big Soldier, his second most recent film, in which Chan has to transport Wang Leehom back home to collect a reward, he marries character drama to extended martial arts set-pieces, all of which he choreographed himself, and each so elegantly virtuosic as to recall Fred Astaire, chock-full of tiny grace-notes and drive-by comic bits. For his fans, this side of Chan, like his greatest films, will never get old.