The Young Master
Tiny and coiled, with a scrapper’s bright black eyes framing a comic’s prominent nose, Jackie Chan is Asia’s biggest movie star, and with his growing popularity in South America and Europe, he may be one of the biggest draws in the world. And yet, despite the strong backing of Hong Kong’s prosperous Golden Harvest studios, Chan still hasn’t been able to make a dent in the U.S. market.
The reasons for America’s resistance to Chan seem to go beyond simple racism, though that is undoubtedly a factor. Nor is it only a question of America’s habitual condescension toward Third World poverty of means and technique: according to The New York Times, Chan’s most recent film, the 1987 Project A, Part II, was budgeted at $3.85 million, more than ten times the cost of the average Hong Kong feature, and there is nothing in its scale or staging that would shame a Hollywood production. And though the language barrier is always a problem, it doesn’t seem to be the decisive one here: even Chan’s two made-in-English starring vehicles, The Big Brawl (1980) and The Protector (1985) attracted only a small cult following.
America’s difficulty with Jackie Chan seems to spring from something deeper and more elusive—the dim perception, perhaps, that Chan belongs not just to a different world, but to a different cinema—a popular, directly pleasurable cinema that many American moviegoers no longer seem able to connect with. Chan’s barreling action comedies are by no mean’s primitive, but they are innocent—innocent in the sense that they’re unmarked by irony, camp or self-consciousness.
Police Force 1
Where most American action films now seem oppressed by the past—haunted by the feeling that everything has already been done and always in desperate, straining pursuit of the bigger, gaudier, more pulverizing effect—Chan’s faith in the inherent entertainment value of the human body in motion remains unshaken. There’s no wildly over-scaled, Schwarzenegger-style comic exaggeration in his work, and none of the obtrusive stylistics that American action directors increasingly use to demonstrate their superiority to their material even as they film it.
The cartoonishness of many new American action films—the use of camp humor, the obsessive technical overkill- seems meant to assure jaded audiences that the filmmakers share their skepticism of the tattered, time-worn formulas on display. Though Chan’s films are cartoonish to the point where violence lacks its real-world consequences—blood is rarely spilled, and pain endures only for the length of one of Chan’s patented, face-holding grimaces—they remain anchored in the reality of continuous time and space, and his stunts, however astonishing, always come with the camera’s guarantee of their absolute authenticity. They’re thrilling because they’re possible, though just barely.
As a filmmaker, Chan concentrates on essentials. When he films a chase, he films a chase: bodies moving through space, with speed and grace and wit, rather than a series of conspicuous camera angles. When he shoots a fight scene, he shoots it as if it were the first fight ever filmed, without feeling the need to add gimmicks and gadgets. Fists and feet are enough; the baroque, fetishized armament of RoboCop would only be clutter. Though he places his cuts to accentuate movements and rhythms, the position of his camera (widescreen, by preference) is determined only by considerations of clarity. His technique, like that of Astaire in his self-directed dance sequences, is always in the service of the body in motion, which for Chan remains a spectacle forever fresh and fascinating.
Wheels on Meals
Chan’s movies are movies in the first degree. They’re about kinetics, not attitudes, and as such they renew with the earliest aesthetic of film—the sense of wonder and pleasure that lies in seeing things move. Both as an actor and as a director, Chan is one of the very few contemporary figures who could have had a career in silent movies. His peers are not Schwarzenegger, Norris and Bronson, but Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd.
As a rule, Hong Kong action comedies seem to prefer group protagonists—the dirty dozen-or-so of Samo Hung’s Eastern Condors, the criss-crossing couples of Tsui Hark’s Peking Opera Blues. Chan is the one star who always stands in lonely isolation, even when he appears as a guest in a group comedy such as Samo Hung’s My Lucky Stars (1985). He is, like Chaplin, a perennial outsider, though it’s a state he endures without asking for sympathy or expecting it. The secrets of his sense of eternal separation may well lie buried in a childhood every bit as Dickensian as Chaplin’s own.
According to an interview with the New York Times’ Hilda C. Wang, Chan was nearly sold upon his birth in 1954 to a British doctor for $26, because his immigrant parents, newly arrived in Hong Kong, didn’t have the money to feed him. When he was six, the family moved to Australia, where his father worked as a cook for the U.S. consulate in Canberra. A year later, Chan was sent back to Hong Kong alone, where he spent ten years enrolled in a performing school called “The Chinese Opera Research Institute,” studying acrobatics, singing and mime. “The days, oh, they were so long,” Chan told Wang. “From 5 a.m. to midnight every day, we had to work and train. Anyone performing below expectations was starved and whipped.”
My Lucky Stars
The school’s best students were recruited for a professional tumbling group called “The Seven Little Fortunes”; Chan was a member with his friend and future collaborator, Samo Hung. From the stage, Chan drifted into stunt work and bit parts in several of the solemn, classical martial arts films then being produced by the Shaw Brothers studio. Lo Wei, an independent producer who had directed Bruce Lee in Fists of Fury and The Chinese Connection, noticed Chan’s athletic ability and starred him—cursed as “the new Bruce Lee”—in a series of seven kung fu quickies made between 1976 and 1978, all of them flops. It wasn’t until the 1978 Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, made on loan-out to another small studio, that Chan’s comedic gifts became apparent. In a parody of the Shaw Brothers’ training films, Chan played an inept country bumpkin who learned to fight in spite of himself; the film was an immense success, and Chan carried the character over into a series of independent kung fu comedies. In 1980, Chan moved to Golden Harvest, where he was permitted to direct himself in his debut film, The Young Master.
Hitting his stride at Golden Harvest, Chan eventually dropped the bumpkin character, and with it most of the traditional trappings of the kung fu genre. The character he eventually developed for himself was a modern, urban figure, inhabiting a world crowded with people, objects and towering buildings that suggests not so much Chaplin’s desolate Victorian environment as Keaton’s strange, new techno-world.
At the end of Project A, Part II, Chan recreates Keaton’s famous falling house gag from Steamboat Bill, Jr., standing utterly immobile as a gigantic ceremonial wall comes crashing down on top of him. Whether or not the reference is deliberate, it’s clear that Chan shares Keaton’s special relationship with objects and architecture: the things of his world are not neutral for him, but friends or enemies depending upon their unreadable, changeable moods.
Project A Part 2
In Armor of God (1986), he curls himself inside the rim of a shield to escape an attack from spear-wielding pygmies, and sends himself cartwheeling along the ground until he collides with an uncooperative boulder. In The Young Master, Part II (apparently an early Chan film, retitled and undated in its American version), a footstool becomes Chan’s ally in a barroom brawl, serving as longsword, shield, springboard and lever until it betrays him by flipping over when he sits down in his moment of triumph.
In Chan’s films as in Keaton’s, space is a palpable, active quality, expanding on whim to include a vast, poignant emptiness, contracting to tiny, heckling warrens. Project A (1983) launches a bicycle chase through a maze of narrow alleyways, where the doublings and redoublings continually transform chasers into chasees; the equivalent sequence in Project A, Part II takes place in the narrow confines of an apartment, where the positions of a bed, a balcony and an armoire manage to keep three groups of mutually hostile characters elaborately unaware of each other’s presence.
The extended chase sequences that climax Chan’s films—through the levels of a shopping mall in Police Force (original title Police Story) (1985), the honeycombed corridors of a mountain-top monastery in Armor of God, or what seems to be the entire warehouse district of Hong Kong in Project A, Part II—gain much of their giddy momentum through the constant, unpredictable redefinition of space. As the characters move, the environment seems to shift with them, opening and closing at will. (The most radical example comes at the end of the Samo Hung-directed My Lucky Stars, where Chan has to battle his way through a funhouse composed of sliding walls, trap doors, and upside-down rooms).
Armor of God
But the snaking, ever-shifting maze always leads to an awful expanse, as Chan finds himself at the top of a clock tower (Project A), a five-story staircase (Police Force) or the peak of a mountain (Armor of God) and looks down into a beckoning void—at the bottom of which lies his prey. This is space at its most treacherous; its successful conquest—in the form of a spectacular death-defying leap—provides the real emotional and dramatic climax of Chan’s films, much more so than the simple capture of the crooks.
At heart, though, Chan is not a Keatonesque character. His rapport with the material world is practical rather than mystical, and he moves through life a with a definite goal in mind, instead of stoically suffering the absurdities of existence as Keaton does. If Chan’s comic persona, as it has matured in his last few films, can be compared to any silent clown, it’s to Harold Lloyd, another performer with an affinity for high places.
The dim-witted, disrespectful bumpkin of the early films has become a sharp, dedicated and obedient employee—a company man, whether he’s working for the Hong Kong coast guard (Project A), the police department (Police Force, The Protector) or on his own (as the free-lance adventurer of Armor of God, he encounters his hardest boss—himself).
Police Force 2
Like Lloyd, he’s a believer in the value of hard work and the rewards of social advancement; his crisis comes (and it’s hard not to see a subconscious metaphor for Asian aspirations here) when his zealousness brings down resentment and misunderstanding—when he’s sabotaged by a jealous rival (Project A, Part II) or suspended from the force for exceeding his bounds (Police Force). It’s Chan’s eagerness to succeed and to be accepted that gets him into trouble. His is the tragedy of the overachiever, which can be transformed into comedy—into success—only by achieving even more.
Here, perhaps, is another sticking point for American audiences. Our tradition of physical comedy has largely been anarchic, rebellious, even violently vengeful: slapstick as a way of striking back. Chan’s comedy is seldom destructive: his stunts are funny when they allow him to achieve a goal with an unexpected economy or elegance—as when, propelled backwards by a blow, he uses the momentum of his opponent’s punch to carry himself through a back flip, spinning around in time to deliver a blow of his own. More than a physical comedy, Chan’s is almost a comedy of physics, of vectors and velocities precisely calculated.
Chan is not a rebel, but a frustrated conformist; his very special gifts of speed and grace are as much of a curse to him as a blessing, leading him—as if his talent had a mind of its own—to exceed the rules of decorum and propriety he knows he must observe. Robert Clouse’s The Big Brawl, made in the U.S., presents Chan’s version of one of the most venerable kung fu bits—fighting while pretending not to fight. Three hoods have come to shake down Chan’s father, the owner of a tiny basement restaurant; Dad, a pacifist, has forbidden his son to resist, but Chan demolishes all three of his opponents by artfully jostling, poking, and flipping them while serenely sweeping out the alley. The humor of the sequence lies not only in its ease and inventiveness, but also in the monumental self-control Chan must exert to keep himself from getting carried away. Chan has discovered something new—that discipline can be just as funny as rebellion, that there is comedy in self-control.
Police Force 2
Chan’s three best films—the two Project A‘s and Police Force—cast him as, essentially, a funny enforcer, which seems at first a contradiction in terms. As a cop, his job is to keep the lid on, to keep society marching down the straight and narrow; as a comic, his job is to break the rules, to confound order and reason. Yet it’s precisely that contradiction that produces the distinctive force of Chan’s work—the tension between order and impulse, between the sense of duty that Chan carries in his head and the urge to run, to leap, to fly, that he carries in his body. Chan’s comedy exists between repression and release; the pleasure it produces is the pleasure of, at long last, letting go.
Ultimately, the characters played by Jackie Chan are inseparable from Jackie Chan himself—the cop who goes all out to get his man is the same as the actor who goes all out to entertain his audience. The spectacular leaps that conclude Project A (from the top of a 50-foot clock tower, interrupted only by two flimsy awnings), Police Force (down the 70-foot length of a department store display, rigged with exploding strings of lights) and Armor of God (from the side of a mountain to the top of a drifting passenger balloon) seem designed to give harrowingly concrete proof of Chan’s dedication. As Tony Rayns has pointed out, each of these stunts is presented in multiple takes of multiple camera angles, repeated sequentially in “flagrant violation of story and continuity logic.” By replaying his stunts, Chan sets them outside the realm of fiction. A Jackie Chan movie is also a Jackie Chan documentary.
Chan makes the point again under the end credits of his films, where (in a device apparently borrowed from director Hal Needham, for whom Chan appeared in small parts in the two Cannonball Run films) he offers a selection of outtakes—the star repeatedly blowing one of the physical bits that looked so magically effortless in the film itself, or the star being hauled off, in stretchers or screaming ambulances, after one of his stunts went awry. Far from destroying the narrative line, these intrusions work to shift it to another level. Each film is another episode in the continuing story of Jackie Chan, of his personal discipline and dedication, of his fight for success and for the love of his public.
Of Chan it can truly be said that he’s an actor willing to give his all for his fans. Chan’s films betray the touch of neuroticism that is appropriate and probably necessary to a great comedian; these are films that, in spite of their obvious and unabashed commercialism, their author was compelled to make. Chan’s next great challenge won’t be another spectacular stunt, but a more insidious opponent—the inevitable, irreversible process of age. It’s already clear that the 33-year-old Chan of Project A, Part II can’t take the punishment of the 29-year-old Chan of Project A, Part I; he’ll have to find a new range for his talents. The adventure of the human body, as interpreted by Jackie Chan, continues.