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.
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).
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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".
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.
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
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.
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?
careers of other fine actors in Chow's position are instructive.
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.
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?
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