The Incomparable Charisma of
In Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, a gun dealer played by Samuel L. Jackson explains (with some chagrin) how trends in ammunitions sales work. After real-life bad guys saw Chow Yun-fat wield a particular gun on screen in John Woo's The Killer (1989), that is the only type of firearm they were willing to buy.
Can you blame them? In the fantasy world of pumped-up, artificial, spectacular movie violence, Chow Yun-fat reigns supreme. A star of popular Hong King cinema since the mid '80s, Chow's screen persona was formed across a string of remarkable, fanciful action-thrillers, especially those directed by Woo – The Killer, A Better Tomorrow I (1986) and II (1988), and the aptly named Hard Boiled (1992).
Chow took the plunge into his first American film, The Replacement Killers (1998). Woo as Executive Producer ensures that every iconic trademark associated with his star is present: the low angles, in slow motion, of Chow striding into a room, his long coat flowing; the miraculous ways in which Chow manages to acrobatically slide along the crowd or leap through space in order to get a clearer shot at his many enemies; and all his elaborate rituals with guns – loading them, discarding them, wielding one in each hand.
No bones about it: Chow is Mr Cool. He is a beguilingly modern hero, a transmutation of Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name from the Western genre into the dark, urban jungles of the thriller. Chow's action-man persona is a curious amalgam of almost contradictory elements: he is an amoral, sometimes robotic killing machine or terminator; and yet his physical grace and glamour are ceaselessly dazzling.
In his brooding, tough silence, he seems a timeless, mythic figure; and yet he is also an emblem of neo-capitalist modernity, constantly framed within the imposing architectural lines of the latest highways, bars, hi-tech hospitals and corporate corridors.
Some further wrinkles in the Chow persona are reasonably peculiar to popular Chinese cinema. Like Jackie Chan, he is gallant to the point of monk-like chastity – and even Mira Sorvino as a generic Hollywood bad girl cannot coax the merest kiss from him in The Replacement Killers.
Chow's characters – even at their most vicious – are fiercely devoted to the ideal of family ties and responsibilities. Endangered kids, aunts, uncles and grandparents are everywhere in Chow's HK movies, and he will move heaven and earth to protect them.
More generally, the anti-heroes incarnated by Chow Yun-fat are haunted, tormented figures. They may start out as hyper-efficient, cold-blooded assassins, but they are soon beset by painful promptings from their moral conscience. At the start of The Killer, Chow accidentally blinds an innocent bystander as he blasts away in a nightclub – and poetic justice is achieved only when he, in turn, is also blinded in the course of battle. In The Replacement Killers, he baulks at the job of murdering a child – and then seeks, as Sorvino eloquently puts it, to perform the "one good deed to wipe out all the shit I've done".
Again like Jackie Chan, Chow also exhibits a pronounced quality of childlike innocence, bordering on outright silliness. This is the side of the star's persona that Woo capitalised on by casting Chow as a Cary Grant type in the delightful comedy Once a Thief (1990). Even in the midst of the Peckinpah-style bloodbath that concludes The Killer, when his brotherly comrade finally asks Chow what his real name is, his droll reply is (at least according to the English subtitles): "Call me Mickey Mouse".
Chow is a superb, utterly cinematic actor. He plays impassivity – a blank look, head cocked, eyes fixed on some person or object – better than Eastwood ever has. This standard expression on Chow's face is supple: with a mere flicker of a few muscles, it can harden into psychotic obsession, or soften into winning charm.
Across his many films, Chow has built up a rich store of mannerisms and bits of business. The way he smokes, chews, muses or just slouches in a chair is indelible. Sartorial elegance is a high priority for this star, and he certainly wears it well. And his body – particularly when slowly twisting mid-air, his arms raised to shoot – is pure poetry in motion. This much of the star's familiar magic, at least, survives in The Replacement Killers.
But can Hollywood truly absorb a star such as Chow, and the kind of cinema he represents? As the American assignments of such expatriate directors as Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark, Ronnie Yu and even Woo himself have so far sadly shown, a fundamental sense of wonder – and of style – rarely comes through the gauntlet of Hollywoodisation unscathed.
More pointedly, Chow is now facing the problems that bedevil most non-American stars when they bravely attempt to internationalise themselves. While the US still dominates international entertainment and communications markets, the language barrier remains formidable and unforgiving. Or, putting it differently: while Arnold Schwarzenegger's thick accent is still a butt of humour on The Simpsons, how can an actor like Chow (who underwent intensive English language training for The Replacement Killers) be expected to get on top of the world-movie game quickly – or ever?
The recent careers of other fine actors in Chow's position are instructive.
In the realm of comedy, Gérard Depardieu tried a similar tactic in films such as Green Card (1990) – projects premised precisely upon the star's hilariously faulty grasp of the English language. But, however cagey this might be as a short-term career strategy, in the long term it is surely a trap – one that keeps non-American stars as novelty items, and fixes them into particular, eventually restrictive genres. It happened with poor Yves Montand long ago, opposite Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe and Barbra Streisand in the ‘60s.
On his home turf, Chow can construct, from film to film, a composite screen image that is multi-faceted, contradictory, ever changing. Can American filmmakers accommodate such protean shape-shifting? In Hard Boiled – perhaps the greatest collaboration to date between Chow and Woo – our gorgeous, incomparably charismatic hero ends up in the middle of a hospital, for an uninterrupted thirty minutes of bloody mayhem.
At the height of all the shooting and killing, Chow gets a baby in his arms; he protects it from harm, and even manages to croon a lullaby while still blasting away with his free hand. It is a little hard to imagine Richard Gere, Mel Gibson or Kurt Russell at the centre of this sublime scene. Would they be able to project just the right balance of pathos and self-parody, grace and zaniness that is Chow's trademark?
If not, that is Hollywood's loss – and a sure sign of its failure of nerve and imagination, as it faces the historic challenge of opening up to the riches of world cinema today.
© Adrian Martin February 1998