Film Discussion

From Hong Kong to the US: Filmmakers in Transition

In the 1990s, key practitioners and performers from the Hong Kong film industry were transitioning to the golden land of Hollywood – but why? The “Handover” was fast approaching and the film industry was imploding – but why? The Hong Kong film industry was imploding due to over-production of films in order to make the most money possible before the “Handover” – what’s the “Handover”? Back in December 1984, the United Kingdom and China signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration, of which confirmed the “Handover” of Hong Kong to China from control of the British in 1997.

A culture shock had occurred and it influenced one of Hong Kong greatest practitioners: John Woo. The change in culture influenced Woo to direct A Better Tomorrow – perhaps, the best film within the era known as Heroic Bloodshed – the unlikely star of the film was Chow Yun-Fat, who had recently transitioned from TV. Furthermore, A Better Tomorrow was both a financial and cultural success – it sold enough tickets for nearly one in three Hong Kongers to have watched it cinematically, and fans were dressing as Chow Yun-Fat’s character, Mark Lee – a 1980s example of cosplay!

As it is arguably Woo’s weakest of his Heroic Bloodshed hits, it was somewhat ironic that The Killer (1989) – also starring Chow Yun-Fat – was the film to capture the attention of American producers and audiences, however, The Killer shared a theme of the badge being the only difference between criminals and cops, as presented in Dirty Harry, thus audiences may have read the text of The Killer as homage to an American iconic hit, or the theme was just familiar.

With America’s attention in the palm of his hand, and growing concerns in both Hong Kong’s film industry and social landscape – the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre was traumatising, and received comment in both the films of Woo and Ringo Lam – after one more film, Hard Boiled (1992), the time was right to transition, and Woo did with a deal to direct Jean-Claude Van Damme during the height of his career in Universal Pictures’ Hard Target (1993).

Immediately though, Woo was plagued by both production and content issues. Production-wise, Woo was expected to complete Hard Target in roughly half of the time he had to complete his last film, Hard Boiled. Content-wise, Hard Target endured SEVEN re-cuts to accommodate the US’s more conservative censorship. Additionally, Woo was limited to the number of character deaths that could occur in a scene that succeeded a scene with five or so deaths. For example, if JCVD killed five guys in one scene, then he would be limited to kill two in the next.

Issues aside, Woo was successful in replicating a number of his aspects from Hong Kong – one notable example being the “double-gun” shooting from the central character. In Hard Target, the double-gunning mantle was successfully passed onto JCVD. The double-gunning visual though, is something that would then occur in Woo’s subsequent US films, thus he was continuously successful in replication.    

Ringo Lam – a fellow big-time player of Heroic Bloodshed and director of the ‘On Fire’ films – eventually transitioned to the US film industry in 1996, with Maximum Risk. Like Woo, Lam was dealt JCVD in a leading role, but for Lam, he had JCVD on the wrong side of Timecop (1994). Lam’s ‘On Fire’ films – City on Fire (1987), Prison on Fire (1987), School on Fire (1988) and Prison on Fire II (1991) – presented social issues in then-contemporary Hong Kong and the abusiveness of the various systems. Lam was inspired by the real world for his ‘On Fire’ films, especially City on Fire, as a heist in the film is based upon a real-life occurrence of robbers shooting their way out of a heist, to which amazed Lam. In contrast, nothing of any note is known to have influenced the director for Maximum Risk. Like Woo, Lam would have had content constraints, to which would have been disastrous, as his preceding Hong Kong action films were extraordinarily violent and gritty – especially Prison on Fire, involving an ear.

Ultimately, it can be argued that Woo and Lam are the polar opposites in regards to success in the American film industry. Woo’s transition was a success – by the end of the 1990s and into the early 2000s, he had directed hits such as: Broken Arrow (1996); Face/Off (1997) and Mission: Impossible 2 (2000) – the annual box office reports presented Woo as the director of the highest-grossing action film in the US in 2000. Furthermore, Woo’s success in transition also occurred in the form of a successful replication of majority of his style presented back in Hong Kong, though his American movies were not as grotesque, but definitely excessive – especially Face/Off. Remember Nicolas Cage in Face/Off?

Now, Lam on the other hand, wow, his career in the US was, essentially, a complete flop. His sole US film in the 1990s – and to date, his only theatrical US film – Maximum Risk failed to replicate the same enthusiasm, energy and entertainment from his Hong Kong catalogue, and failed at the box office also. This poor start for Lam rattled him to the point where he didn’t direct another US film for five years, and he retreated to Hong Kong.

Tsui Hark, another master of the Hong Kong film industry, experienced very similar despair as Lam – a box-office flop with JCVD. Hark’s US debut and collaborative debut with JCVD was 1997’s Double Team – yes, that weird film with Dennis Rodman… – and succeeding that, and concluding his spell in the US, was the direct-to-video Knock Off in 1998. Having felt that his time in the US was a failure, Hark retreated.

There is a fine beauty that Woo, Lam and Hark all had their collaborations with JCVD in the 1990s, though Woo collaborated at the right time, whilst the latter transitioners were handed Woo’s cast-off – a post-prime, direct-to-video-bound, JCVD. The moral back in the 1990s was that timing mattered.

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