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Hong Kong goes West - When Hong Kong film makers attempt to break the Western market - part 2

Darren Murray
Hong Kong goes West - When Hong Kong film makers attempt to break the Western market - part 2

Moving into the 1990’s Golden Harvest would once again make an attempt for American success. Unfortunately their first American made film of the decade was the poor China O Brien (1990), an attempt by Golden Harvest to launch star Cynthia Rothrock as a star in her native country.

Golden Harvest had previously worked well with Rothrock on the Hong Kong productions of Yes Madam (1985), Millionaires Express (1986), Above the Law (1986), Inspector Wears Skirts (1988) and The Blond Fury (1989).

From a business stand point it makes sense why they would choose Rothrock to front China O Brien. The main issue is how director Robert Clouse chooses to shoot the action, showing that he hadn’t learned anything since his Enter the Dragon days, if anything growing more inept. Even bringing in martial artist Richard Norton, who Rothrock had worked with in the past on Millionaires Express and The Magic Crystal (1986), can’t save the film from mediocrity.

There was more ineptness to come, as China O Brien was shot back to back with its sequel, China O Brien 2 (1990), which offered up more of the same and proved to be just poor as the first film. The main mystery of these films is why Robert Clouse would be asked back to direct, as everything after Enter the Dragon has been a financial failure. Even China O Brien 1 & 2 ended up being released straight to video.

Golden Harvest would at least have the release of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) to fall back on. Made as a co-production, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would go on to become one of the most successful films of the year and also be the second highest grossing independent film ever made at the time of its release. Distributed by New Line Cinema, Teenage Mutant Turtles has definitely dated since its production but still holds up surprisingly well, with the puppet work from Jim Henson being preferable over the new CGI versions in the recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014).

The same can’t be said for the two sequels that followed in quick succession. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Turtles in Time (1993) both make the mistake of trying to be more kid friendly and take away any interest the first film had garnered.

Ng See-yuen’s Seasonal Film’s would once again be in the American market, producing No Retreat, No Surrender 3: Blood Brothers (1990), an in name only sequel to their earlier hits. Once again starring Loren Avedon, No Retreat, No Surrender 3 is closer in style to part 2 than the original film. The film isn’t wholly successful due to some behind the scenes problems and some poor direction.

The film was directed by Lucas Lowe (Lo), taking over from a departing Yuen Kwai. Lowe was a last minute replacement for Kwai and his shooting style was quite different, with Lowe preferring improvisation. He still shoots the action well, although this is partly to do with the involvement of Hong Kong action director Tony Leung Siu Hung.

Lucas Lowe would continue to work with Seasonal Films on their next feature, the poorly titled King of the Kickboxers (1990). Basically an imitation of the earlier Jean Claude Van Damme hit Kickboxer (1989), King of the Kickboxers still has some elements in its favour that make it worthwhile viewing, with excellent fight scenes once again choreographed by Tony Leung Siu Hung. There is also a great bad guy turn from Billy Blanks and a scene stealing supporting turn from Keith Cooke of Mortal Kombat (1995) fame.

Lowe would make one more film for Seasonal Films. American Shaolin (1992) would be the weakest of the three films he would make, although like his other two films features well done action scenes this time choreographed by Yuen Kwai and Yuen Tak.

After the release of Hard Boiled, director John Woo took an offer from Universal pictures to make a Hollywood movie. He went through a number of scripts before deciding on Hard Target (1993). The film wasn’t an easy transition for Woo, with Universal having doubts on his suitability to direct an American feature. They even hired director Sam Raimi to co-produce the film with the idea being if John Woo didn’t work out, Raimi could take over directing duties. In addition to Woo moving stateside, his usual producer Terence Chang followed suit and went with him.

Hard Target, although not vintage John Woo, turned out to be an excellent action movie with well shot action scenes and a great bad guy role for Lance Henriksen. It also gave Jean Claude Van Damme one of his best leading roles. I may be biased in regards to Hard Target as it wasn’t only the first Jean Claude Van Damme film I saw but the only John Woo film available in my country at the time.

Originally Woo had wanted Kurt Russell to play the lead role before settling on Jean Claude Van Damme. Universal also made Woo make a number of changes to the film to get the film down to an R rating, to the point that Woo submitted six different versions of the film. In addition Van Damme also hired his own editor to make his own preferred cut of the film, with it mostly focusing on close ups of Van Damme. Eventually Woo was able to get an MPAA accepted cut released after making many cuts.

At the lower end of the spectrum, producer Ng See-yuen’s Seasonal Films would once again give a Hong Kong director a chance to direct an American feature, like he had in the past with No Retreat, No Surrender director Yuen Kwai.

Superfights (1995) was the American debut of director and fight choreographer Tony Leung Siu-Hung, who had previously worked on Seasonal Films No Retreat, No Surrender 3: Blood Brothers as fight choreographer. Like that film, Superfights features a number of excellent fight scenes throughout. Unfortunately the film doesn’t have a great deal going for it other than good action with lead Brandon Gaines, a karate black belt, being a terrible actor with only the supporting actors being slightly better. Superfights is still worth watching for the excellent fight choreography and the enjoyable cheesy nature of the film.

Luckily, Tony Leung Siu Hung would follow up Superfights with Bloodmoon (1996), an excellent martial arts B movie. Starring Gary Daniels, Chuck Jeffreys and the late Darren Shahlavi, it is evident that Bloodmoon has a low budget, but it still proves to be one of the most enjoyable American made films from Seasonal Films and a great showcase for the three main stars of the film, although Shahlavi’s costume leaves a lot to be desired. Also look out for Wrestler Rob Van Dam, who had previously appeared in Superfights, as one of Shahlavi’s opponents.

During this time Hong Kong bit player Robin Shou would end up being cast as Liu Kang in the movie version of Mortal Kombat, which also marked director Paul W.S. Andersons’ Hollywood debut. Today the film is looked down upon, but upon release was a box office success and had decent if not excellent reviews.

The majority of the action involved is better than normal for an American martial arts movie at the time, with only the odd move by non-martial artists letting the film down. It also gave Robin Shou a chance to headline a film for a change as in Hong Kong he was mostly a supporting player, most memorably in films like City War (1988) and Tiger Cage 2 (1990).

Unfortunately Mortal Kombat was followed by a dreadful sequel which throws away any goodwill the first film may have garnered. On a lighter note, Shou had a co-starring role in the Chris Farley comedy Beverly Hills Ninja (1997) in the same year. It may not be high art, but is a masterpiece compared to Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997).

Considering John Woo’s experience with a Hollywood studio during the making of Hard Target, it is surprising that he would go on to make further Hollywood films. Following Hard Target he would direct the by the numbers Broken Arrow (1996). A straightforward action film that doesn’t have  much in the way of John Woo’s signature style, Broken Arrow is saved by a great villainous role for John Travolta, which works as a teaser for the later Face/Off (1997).

Between directing Broken Arrow and Face/Off, Woo quickly turned out the pilot episode of Once a Thief (1996), based on his Hong Kong film of the same name. The feature length episode was released as a standalone movie in the UK, with a title change to Violent Tradition. Although restrained by its television level budget, there is more John Woo signature style evident here than Broken Arrow. Woo also brought in Hong Kong star Michael Wong to feature as the main villain.

The pilot of Once a Thief led to a television series, which only lasted for one season. Some episodes are better than others but the show is still worth a viewing, featuring direction work from John Woo’s regular editor David Wu. The television series also brought back Michael Wong briefly towards the later episodes.

John Woo wasn’t the only Hong Kong director to try and transition to Hollywood at this time. Ringo Lam would make an attempt, also making his first Hollywood film with Jean Claude Van Damme. Maximum Risk (1996) pales in comparison with most of Ringo Lam’s Hong Kong films, but features enough of what fans had come to expect from him, with impressive camera work, gritty action scenes and a better than usual Van Damme.

It was Jean Claude Van Damme’s choice to hire Ringo Lam to direct Maximum Risk, which from a performance stand point paid off. It would appear that Ringo Lam brings out the best in Jean Claude Van Damme. Financially the film didn’t fare as well, turning out to be a failure domestically, although it managed to perform well in Europe. Considering Maximum Risk is one of the better made Van Damme films, it was released straight to video in most countries.

Previous Van Damme collaborator John Woo would follow up his Once a Thief pilot by what would become his best Hollywood feature, Face/Off. Woo had been offered the script for Face/Off previously but turned it down due to the strong sci-fi element. He would come back to it once the more science fiction aspects of the plot were scaled back. Giving both Nicolas Cage and John Travolta two of their best roles and finally getting a chance to show Hollywood what he was capable, John Woo had made an action masterpiece, only bettered by some of his Hong Kong works.

There are some nods to Woo’s earlier works such as the use of doves, Mexican standoffs and even having the finale take place in a Church ala The Killer. Woo had stated that having actor Michael Douglas involved as a producer helped him, as he actually listened to Woo’s ideas and gave him the needs to incorporate them into the final film. The only main drawback from the film is some noticeable stunt doubling in the film’s otherwise excellent action scenes.

Another Hong Kong star would attempt to break the Western market in this year, although this time it would be a female. Michelle Yeoh had been impressing Hong Kong audiences for years with films like Yes Madam (1985), Police Story 3: Supercop (1992) and Heroic Trio (1993). The producer of the James Bond films obviously took notice and cast her as their latest “Bond Girl” in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). Unlike previous Bond Girls, Yeoh didn’t need rescuing and got involved in almost as much action as Bond.

As well as co-starring Yeoh, Tomorrow Never Dies involved other Hong Kong based talent with action choreography from Philip Kwok who worked on Yeoh’s fight scenes in the movie. Tomorrow Never Dies would turn out to be one of the best Bond films from the Pierce Brosnan era, with Michelle Yeoh nearly stealing the show. It is only really let down by an underwritten villain role for the otherwise excellent Jonathan Pryce.

Like John Woo and Ringo Lam, another successful Hong Kong director would also make the transition to Hollywood in 1997. Unlike Woo and Lam who went on to make gritty action movies, Ronny Yu’s first Hollywood feature was the fantasy Warriors of Virtue (1997). Similar in style to Golden Harvest’s earlier Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, although this time round its giant Kangaroo’s that are doing the fighting. The film is extremely silly, but should appeal to young children.

Compared to his earlier work on the classic Bride with White Hair (1993), the film would be considered a failure. Yu does try to inject some of his Hong Kong influence over the film in terms of the action, and the practical effects work is impressive. He also has the bonus of having ace cinematographer Peter Pau who makes the film look great, and also employed Hong Kong editor David Wu, who had worked with Yu previously, to cut the action.

Like Ronny Yu, director Stanley Tong would take a surprising turn in his career, with him choosing to direct a movie version of the popular cartoon Mr Magoo cartoon series. Mr Magoo (1997) would turn out to be one of the poorest and ill-advised Hollywood debuts to come from a Hong Kong director. Not even the excellent Leslie Nielsen could save it, and there is nothing in the film that would make you realise that this was from the same guy that gave us Rumble in the Bronx only two years before.

It would seem Jean Claude Van Damme is a big fan of Hong Kong cinema as his next film after Maximum Risk brought another Hong Kong master to America, this time director Tsui Hark, making his Hollywood debut with Double Team (1997), an extremely loose remake of the television show The Prisoner (1967). Opening to terrible reviews, Double Team still manages to entertain due to Hark’s over the top directing style and features a number of excellent action scenes, choreographed by the legendary Sammo Hung.

As well as having Sammo Hung to choreograph the action, Tsui Hark employed Peter Pau as cinematographer, who helps set the tone of the film with his colourful photography. Other Hong Kong talent came in the shape of actor and fight choreographer Xin Xin Xiong, who faces off against Van Damme in a brief fight scene.

The main issues with the film are a terrible supporting role from Dennis Rodman and an underwritten role for Mickey Rourke, who stars at main villain Stavros, although Rourke did get himself in ridiculous shape for his role. At this point in his career he was probably glad for the work.

Tsui Hark and Van Damme would continue to collaborate on the following years Knock Off (1998), an inferior action vehicle which features Van Damme in the unlikely role as a fashion designer employed by the C.I.A. to find out who is smuggling microscopic bombs in the lining of jeans (I’m not making this up). He is backed up by an especially annoying Rob Schneider and Hong Kong star Michael Wong.

Once again Tsui Hark brought in Sammo Hung to choreograph the action, although a lot of the footage shot ended up on the cutting room floor. The action shown is still very well done, but everything else in the film is sub-par, and is definitely one of Tsui Hark’s poorer films. The same can’t be said for Van Damme who unfortunately has made worse films since Knock Off.

The role played by Michael Wong was originally going to be played by Jet Li, who decided to co-star in Lethal Weapon 4 (1998) instead. Although Lethal Weapon 4 does have the odd racist joke, it was still a better career move for Li than Knock Off, with him getting to make a real impression in his few fight scenes that are peppered throughout the film. Joining him for this sequel was fight choreographer/director Yuen Kwai who Li had worked with on multiple occasions. Kwai was in charge of each of the fight scenes that Li took part in.

Lethal Weapon 4 also has small supporting turns from other recognisable Hong Kong stars such as Eddy Ko, who was the lead in John Woo’s Heroes Shed No Tears (1986), and also Conan Lee of Tiger on the Beat (1989) fame.

Lethal Weapon 4 would turn out to be the last part of the original series, and although not the best in the series ends on a considerably high note, partly due to the inclusion of Jet Li.

As well as Hong Kong losing Jet Li to Hollywood, it was to be hit by another blow with the announcement that Chow Yun Fat would be following suit. Chow had not made a film since Peace Hotel (1995), so fans were eager to see what Hollywood had in store for him. It is a shame that it would turn out to be something as straightforward as The Replacement Killers (1998), a well-made action thriller which still feels like a knock off of every Hong Kong action film you will see.

As a straight forward action thriller The Replacement Killers gets the job done, but offered nothing new for fans of Chow Yun Fat, casting him in the familiar role of a hitman with a conscience. In addition to Chow Yun Fat, fellow Hong Kong actor Ken Tsang has a prominent role as the films main villain.

The film is well directed by first timer Antoine Fuqua, although there is nothing here to show that he would go on to helm films like Training Day (2001) and Brooklyn’s Finest (2011), although his later film Olympus Has Fallen (2013) is clearly in the style of The Replacement Killers.

The Replacement Killers was executive produced by John Woo and Terence Chang, with Woo even offering some assistance to Fuqua in the direction of the films action scenes.

Woo and Chang, along with actor Wesley Snipes would also produce another Hong Kong director’s Hollywood debut which was released in the same year, The Big Hit (1998). Directed by celebrated director Kirk Wong, there was a lot of expectation on The Big Hit from his fans. Made in 1996 but shelved until 1998, it received harsh criticism on release due to the juvenile humour and un-even tone of the film.

In fact The Big Hit is more like a Hong Kong film than some other Hollywood attempts, fitting in with the everything but the kitchen sink style of film making that is so popular in Hong Kong. The main issue with this was that this wasn’t the type of film Kirk Wong was known for, as films like Crime Story (1993) and Rock N’ Roll Cop (1994) displayed a much grittier style than anything in The Big Hit. 

Kirk Wong would end up retiring as a film director after the failure of The Big Hit, only working on one other project since, the television movie The Disciples (2000), which he removed his name from.

After multiple attempts to break the American market, Jackie Chan finally had a major success with the release of Rush Hour (1998). Chan had previously starred in Rumble in the Bronx (1995), a Golden Harvest release set in the U.S. Rumble in the Bronx was given a major cinema release in America, and although heavily cut by New Line Cinema who distributed the film, it went straight to the number one spot.

This paved the way for Chan to star in Rush Hour, a buddy cop action movie co-starring Chris Tucker which turned out to be one of Chan’s most financially successful films at the time of its release. Featuring well-choreographed action scenes and great chemistry between the two leads it is no surprise the film was a hit, although it still not up to standards of Chan’s best Hong Kong films. The success of the film led to two sequels and a sub-par television series.

Speaking of television series, CBS also looked to introduce a Hong Kong star to an American audience. Martial Law (1998) originally started out as an idea to spin off the movie Police Story 3: Supercop into a television series. Director Stanley Tong even asked Jackie Chan if he would be interested in starring which he declined, deciding to focus on film work.

The show was then reworked with Sammo Hung, who led the show as Sammo Law. Making up for the abysmal Mr Magoo, Stanley Tong directed the pilot episode of the series which features a number of Hong Kong style fight scenes. The show would turn out to be good fun but not without its faults, due to the limitations put on Sammo Hung and his control over the fight scenes.

The show also went through major changes throughout, changing a number of the cast members to cut costs and introducing Arsenio Hall as Sammo’s partner, which was an attempt to emulate the success of Rush Hour. The show was finally cancelled after two seasons due to high production costs and Sammo Hung’s dissatisfaction with the shows scripts.

The first season is when the show was at its best, featuring a number of excellent fight scenes throughout. It also had Sammo Hung going up against B movie stars like Mark Dacascos and Olivier Gruner. A good deal of the fight scenes in the first season were choreographed by Andy Cheng, a member of the Jackie Chan Stuntman. Sammo Hung had worked with Cheng the year previous on Mr Nice Guy (1997), which Hung directed.

After the critical failure of Warriors of Virtue, Ronny Yu would go in the opposite direction by directing the horror sequel Bride of Chucky (1998). Probably the best of the Childs Play (1988) sequels, Bride of Chucky had Yu working to the best of his abilities, getting the tone of the film absolutely right, with the film essentially working as a comedy.

Like Warriors of Virtue, Yu also had the expertise of Peter Pau and David Wu working on the film once again. In regards to David Wu, he was also working as a director at this time, working on the television show Power Play (1998)

Nearing the end of the decade Chow Yun Fat would manage to fit in two very different films in the same year. First came The Corruptor (1999), a much better showcase for Chow’s talent and not just an excuse to have him shoot a gun. There is still enough action to keep fans happy, although it must be noted that James Foley handles the dramatic scenes better than the action scenes.

Including good supporting roles from the likes of Mark Wahlberg, Brian Cox, and Byron Mann, The Corruptor was a step in the right direction for Chow Yun Fat. The Corrupter was also produced by Oliver Stone who has stated on a number of occasions being a big Hong Kong movie fan.

In addition to The Corruptor, Chow Yun Fat would co-star with Jodie Foster in Anna and the King (1999). Based on the story of the King of Siam and his relationship with Anna Leonowens, Anna and the King is a well made drama with great production values. It doesn’t have a lot to recommend to fans of Chow’s more action orientated work, but gives him a great chance to show his dramatic skills in a Hollywood production. Like the earlier The Replacement Killers, Ken Tsang also has a supporting role. The film was unfairly compared by some to the musical The King & I (1956), which also covered the same story but in a completely different way.

Rounding out 1999 was the release of the Wachowski brothers The Matrix (1999), which would become one of the most influential sci-fi films in Hollywood. The introduction of the bullet time effect has been copied multiple times since, as well as the use of wire-work in the films action scenes, which has went some way in ruining certain American action movies due to its over-use. The reason the fight scenes in The Matrix work is because it is set in a fantasy world parallel to our own, so such things are possible.

The fight sequences are excellently choreographed by Hong Kong choreographer Yuen Woo Ping, and although he has done better work, it is a major accomplishment for a Hollywood production. Yuen Woo Ping would return for the films inferior sequels, with only his action scenes being the saving grace of the films.

Donnie Yen, who was somewhat of a protégé of Yuen Woo Ping also travelled outside of Hong Kong to work as a fight choreographer, although this time it wasn’t Hollywood that came calling. The German television company RTL hired Yen to carry out fight choreography on the television show Codename: Puma (1999).

Originally starting out as a feature length pilot, heavily influenced by Die Hard (1998), Codename: Puma has some excellently choreographed fight scenes with lead actor Mickey Hardt being especially impressive. Yen must have enjoyed working with him as he cast him as one of the villains in his later directorial effort Twins Effect (2003). The pilot also features a role for British martial artist Mike Lambert, who has appeared in a number of Hong Kong films in his career, such as Thunderbolt (1995) and Black Mask (1996)

The success of the pilot led to a short lived television series, which retained the services of Yen but was let down by its evidently low budget, and the acting limitations of its lead actor.

Israeli director Issac Florentine had been working away in the DTV market for a number of years at this point, with one of his last films of the decade being the Dolph Lundgren actioner Bridge of Dragons (1999). Its main point of interest here other than its well-directed action scenes, is a supporting role for Hong Kong starlet Valerie Chow (credited as Rachel Shane). Chow had co-starring roles in a number of Hong Kong films, the best of these being Wong Kar Wais classic Chungking Express (1994) and Yuen Kwai’s Hero (1997).

In most of her Hong Kong films, Chow is mainly there as window dressing, and Bridge of Dragons is no exception, although she does get involved in a good deal of the action.

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Cynthia RothrockGolden HarvestHollywoodHong KongJackie ChanJean Claude Van DammeJet LiJohn WooNg See-yuenRichard NortonRingo LamRobert ClouseSeasonalYuen Kwai

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