Chasing the Dragon: Are Foreign Martial Arts Movies Making a Comeback?
by Anthony Kaufman
You can't walk into a multiplex these days without seeing the impact of the martial arts film. From "The Matrix" to "Charlie's Angels" to Quentin Tarantino's upcoming homage to the genre, "Kill Bill," the handiwork of Hong Kong fight choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping and his Asian contemporaries are everywhere. Jackie Chan and Jet Li get top billing on American screens. And John Woo is among Hollywood's A-list directors. But arthouses may be a different matter: what ever happened to the invasion of foreign lingo martial arts films in the wake of that wuxia juggernaut "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"?
Well, it's here and it isn't. Currently feeding fans of Hong Kong old faves such as King Hu's "Come Drink With Me" and Zhang Che's "One-Armed Swordsman" is the UCLA Film Archive's touring series "Heroic Grace: The Chinese Martial Arts Film," which plays through February 2004 around the country. Furthermore, Miramax recently announced it had licensed video rights to 50 titles from the famous Shaw Brothers' library -- the luminary HK producers whose output is legendary in size and scope (and is well represented in the UCLA retro).
But what about contemporary films? At the 2001 AFM market, Miramax (again) stepped up to the plate, acquiring two titles: Tsui Hark's "The Legend of Zu," which was renamed "Zu Warriors" and sent to video, and the Sammo Hung starrer "Flying Dragon, Leaping Tiger," which is currently waiting in the wings for a video/DVD release. Miramax's late 2001 theatrical re-release of Yuen Wo-Ping's 1993 feature "Iron Monkey" garnered considerably wider exposure, grossing over $14 million in ticket sales. And "Hero," Zhang Yimou's highly anticipated martial arts historic epic -- the most likely to follow in "Crouching Tiger"'s footsteps -- won't get released in the U.S. until next year, according to Miramax.
In the meantime, the mini-major will deliver "Shaolin Soccer," opening August 15, a highly-shorn English-dubbed wide-release soccer-meets-chopsocky comedy, which Variety called "a kinetic audience-pleaser drained of its emotional content." Perhaps not exactly the poetry meets action of "Crouching Tiger," but that's not what its distributor intends.
"It's not really arthouse," says Matt Brodlie, a senior VP of acquisitions at Miramax Films, who was instrumental in the "Shaolin Soccer" and Shaw Brothers buys. He says the target audience for most of these films consists of action fans, Asian filmgoers, teens, and the "comic-con" crowd. He also notes the Stephen Chow farce is the latest in a long line of Asian acquisitions with widespread appeal that predate "Crouching Tiger." "Harvey and Bob really love these movies," he explains. "We've been buying them for awhile and we've done well by them."
While a bulk of Miramax's profits come from DVD and video sales, Brodlie dismisses the notion that the theatrical releases are mere staging grounds to raise the profile for ancillary sales. "With the ones we've chosen to go out with, we put a lot of money and post-production work into getting them ready for a theatrical release, and we're willing to take the risk," he says. But aside from those classic re-releases like "Iron Money" and 2000's "The Legend of Drunken Master," Miramax hasn't had a breakout martial arts success, arthouse or otherwise.
"I don't know if 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' was a fluke," says critic David Chute, who is currently working on a book about Chinese martial arts movies. "That's kind of the big question," Chute says. "'Hero' might be a good test, but I can understand why Miramax is waffling. It has a pumped-up visual rhetoric that might actually get some bad laughs in the States."
Cross-cultural acceptance may be the biggest roadblock for the export of further titles in North America. As Chute says, "It may just be a kind of cultural arrogance: 'We already have the 'real movies' (because of course Hollywood practice is definitive), so why do we need second-rate imitations from abroad?'"
But that won't stop a number of indie distributors from trying to bring these Asian tweeners to the U.S. market. On August 8, ADV Films, a boutique video and DVD company that focuses mostly on anime, will distribute "The Princess Blade" to several North American theaters. A Japanese samurai action pic, set in a moody dystopic feudal-like future, with fight choreography by Chinese movie vet Donnie Yen, "Blade" will reach the top 10 markets by the end of August, according to ADV Films' Andrew Nelson.
Nelson sees the mainstream presence of Chinese stars like Jackie Chan as a positive influence on the Asian art-film market. "Audiences become more informed and educated," he says. "'Crouching Tiger' brought a lot of people in to see a foreign-language martial arts film that they might otherwise not have seen."
This fall, two major distribution companies are teaming up with indie distribs to bring another couple of Asian actioners to U.S. screens. Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia, the Hong Kong-based unit of Sony Pictures Entertainment, has partnered with Strand Releasing to roll out "So Close," from renowned Hong Kong director and action choreographer Cory Yuen ("The Transporter") and Destination Films has partnered with Samuel Goldwyn Films to release "Returner," a sci-fi genre piece from Japan's Takashi Yamazaki ("Juvenile").
Both films aren't necessarily striving for arthouse crowds, either. The selling points of "So Close," for example, according to a screening announcement, are its "FULL-ON Hong Kong action" and "Asia's hottest actresses" (Variety deemed it a "slickly packaged, unashamedly exploitative popcorn movie"), while "Returner," despite its time-travel plotline, has been marked as a commercial vehicle for Asian pop star and Prada model Takeshi Keneshiro. (And like "So Close," the hero of "The Princess Blade" is also a diminutive kick-ass female heroine.)
While North American moviegoers may be growing "more familiar with the visual language of Eastern action movies," as Matt Brodlie suggests, "and there is an increasing audience for Hong Kong and Asian action movies," the contemporary films arriving on U.S. shores have yet to show the same combination of artistic inspiration and Western-style epic storytelling that made "Crouching Tiger" such a critically acclaimed crossover success. Niche audiences may continue to get their fare share of kung fu fighting, but the rest of us will still be waiting for the Dragon's return.