GREAT CHINESE FILM INVASION of 2004hinese films have always been a guilty pleasure. We liked seeing Asian faces on our heroes but were a bit embarrassed to be seeking affirmation across the Pacific. That changed in 2000 when a Chinese martial arts flick grossed $100 million to become the year's most profitable release, foreign or domestic -- then went on to win gleaming respectability in the form of four Oscars.
The fact that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon did it with Chinese locations, Chinese actors, English subtitles and a skimpy $12 million budget heralded a Chinese martial arts renaissance. Suddenly, it was considered financially smart and culturally chic for major Hollywood players to go sniffing around for Chinese projects.
2004 will prove whether American audiences are truly ready to step up to the box office and shell out eight-fifty a head for subtitled Chinese fare. This year no less than four major, critically-acclaimed movies made for Chinese audiences will jostle with Hollywood products for shelf life on American silver screens. All are essentially in the wuxia tradition -- larger-than-life clashes between warriors who possess legendary prowess. Two of these films translate the genre into modern-day settings. All are certified blockbusters in their native lands.
Introducing a Kung-Fu Jim Carrey
(March 26, 2004)
First off the block will be Shaolin Soccer, starring Stephen Chow, an actor widely considered the Chinese equivalent of Jim Carrey. Chow plays Sing, a onetime Shaolin monk who has been collecting garbage for a living since the death of his master. Sing's prodigal kicking leg impresses Fung, a legendary soccer coach who has fallen on hard times. Fung sees in Sing hope for redeeming his fortunes by winning a $1 million soccer tournament. They form a team by bringing together Sing's former Shaolin brothers who too have been struggling in variously demeaning secular trades. The team's mounting successes set up the ultimate batttle against a formidable force of steroid freaks fielded by Fung's arch-rival Hung.
The loopy, cartoonlike action sequences are every bit as entertaining as those in any wuxia film -- with an added exaggeration factor that slyly holds the genre up for laughs even while milking its crowd-pleasing appeal. Its modern-day urban setting adds some refreshing new twists to hackneyed wuxia elements. This action comedy broke Hong Kong box office records when it was released (as Siu Lam Juk Kau) in the summer of 2001. It has since become a cult classic. Miramax bought up worldwide distribution rights in May of 2002. The film has the potential to win millions of new fans for the rubber-faced Stephen Chow who, besides starring in it, produced, co-wrote and co-directed.
Zhang Yimou's CTHD
(April 16, 2004)
The international success of CTHD inspired Chinese director Zhang Yimou -- venerated for artistic integrity -- to try his hand at a wuxia flick. Thanks again to CTHD's success, Zhang had little trouble raising $31 million to make Hero, based loosely on the story of Qin Shihuang, the ruthless emperor who unified China for the first time in 221 BC. The fight sequences revolve around a potent but nameless warrior (Jet Li) retained to protect the emperor against three assassins. Two of those are played by award-winning Hong Kong stars Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung. The historical grounding doesn't inhibit the fantastic fight scenes expected of a wuxia film. It shares in common with CTHD young beauty Zhang Ziyi and a score by Tan Dun, the composer who won an Oscar for CTHD.
It's safe to call Hero the biggest film ever made in China. Its implicit message -- that unity sanctifies any amount of bloodshed -- won the enthusiastic backing of China's top leadership. Its mid-December 2002 premiere was held in the Great Hall of the People. It became the top grossing domestic film of all time in China and for the year in Hong Kong and several other Southeast Asian nations. Its box office success was validated in April 2003 by seven awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards in April of 2003, the same number that went to the critically acclaimed cop drama Infernal Affairs (see below). PAGE 2