Bad Shorts: Chow Yun-Fat in America
Issue #37, March 1998
Many of us think of Chow Yun-Fat as the Cary Grant of our time. Grant once made a movie called None but the Lonely Heart. The great critic Pauline Kael, in her wonderful essay "The Man From Dream City," argued that Grant's role in the movie as a Cockney drifter was an ironic exception to the rest of his career (ironic because while it was "the only character he ever played that he is known to have consciously identified with — he seemed somewhat miscast."). Kael claimed that Grant acted "from the outside," unlike a Brando, and that he was the wrong actor to play this particular part. "A movie star like Cary Grant carries his movie past with him," she said. "He becomes the sum of his most successful roles, and he has only to appear for our good will to be extended to him. We smile when we see him, we laugh before he does anything; it makes us happy just to look at him."
Chow Yun-Fat is new to the U.S. mainstream movie audience, and so for them one can assume he carries no movie past with him. It is hard to imagine what that audience will think of Chow, now that they have seen him in The Replacement Killers. But one thing needs to be noted: in this movie, Chow Yun-Fat doesn't smile. I once wrote an essay about Chow for Bad Subjects that was titled "The Meaning of Chow: It's In His Mouth." The absence of a smile is fatal to Chow Yun-Fat in The Replacement Killers. Without his mouth, he has no meaning. Long-time fans of his work bring Chow's movie past with us into the theatres; we want to smile with him and laugh with him, we want to be happy to look at him. The Replacement Killers, like None but the Lonely Heart, wants to take that joy away from us.
The Replacement Killers is a lot shorter than Chow's Woo-directed Hong Kong classics such as Hard-Boiled. When watching one of those earlier films, you are often frustrated when a hyperactive action sequence comes to a stop just so two men can share a few deep thoughts about meaning: the meaning of life, the meaning of masculinity, the meaning of violence, the meaning of brotherhood. Frustrated, but also enthralled, because these pauses in the action are missing from much of contemporary American action movies. They recall the elegiac moments in The Wild Bunch, which Kael herself once described as "Not just action. A vision." The Replacement Killers is shorter than Hard-Boiled because it leaves out the vision. It's just action.
Still, Chow fans in America got a chance to look at "Our Chow," to feel happy just looking at him, when he turned up on a couple of late-night talk shows to promote the film. For Jay Leno, Chow was cool, and he smiled plenty, even when being asked to eat some sand masquerading as health food. Chow's appearance on Vibe was even better, for Sinbad is clearly one of us. He didn't ask Chow to eat sand; instead, he asked Chow for advice on how to be Chow, putting on shades, pulling out a gun for each hand, and chomping on a matchstick (the meaning is in his mouth). Chow seemed genuinely surprised at how popular he already was with the fans in the Vibe audience. There was more of Our Chow on the television those nights than there was in the movie he was supposedly promoting. The movie will fade away, but that's ok, for what Chow was really promoting on those shows was himself: cool, the Cary Grant of his time, making us happy just to look at him.
I often say to friends unfamiliar with Hong Kong cinema that Chow Yun-Fat is to Fred Astaire as Jackie Chan is to Gene Kelly. Where Jackie Chan's greatest achievement as an action movie star is his athleticism, Chow Yun-Fat instead gives us grace and charm. While this analogy may seem somewhat arbitrary, the action movie actually resembles the musical since action sequences function in much the same way as song-and-dance numbers do in a musical — they appear to interrupt the plot by being "mere" spectacle, but in fact they motor the narrative in important ways. They function as an analogue to larger narrative developments.
The fact that I open this essay on The Replacement Killers by comparing Chow Yun-Fat with Fred Astaire and discussing the analogical function of spectacle is indicative of what I see to be the problem with this film. Indeed, in his own "Bad Short," Steven Rubio also makes an analogy, suggesting that Chow Yun-Fat is the Hong Kong Cary Grant. Despite their differences, both our analogies capture Chow's grace and charisma, as well as the difficulty of adequately describing a Hong Kong actor to a US audience unfamiliar with his work.
But how do analogies function? They suggest an inability to sufficiently explain an idea without recourse to another example. Furthermore, by assuming the stability of the analogue against which the comparison is made, they stabilize and make self-evident the quality (charm, charisma, etc.) of the compared term (Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, white US manhood) by erasing the specificity of the term being described (Chow Yun-Fat, Hong Kong manhood). Yet as Steven's essay suggests, Cary Grant himself is not a completely stable referent, and is best understood as a "text" which exceeds any individual film he made. His "Cary Grant-ness" is a cumulative quality, coming from all his films, rather than a single essential moment. But you can nevertheless watch Cary Grant in action and see this quality. He doesn't just connote Cary Grant-ness, he performs it.
And how, you may be wondering, is this related to The Replacement Killers? Well, whereas I can enjoy a Fred Astaire or Cary Grant movie both on their own terms, and in relation to their entire careers, I found myself unable to enjoy The Replacement Killers without thinking about Chow's earlier movies. Indeed, the film invites us to do this. There are numerous references to his earlier Hong Kong films, which gave me a certain kind of pleasure as a "fan" — the pleasure of understanding references and of seeing the film as part of the "text" that is Chow Yun-Fat.
Through his Hong Kong action movies, Chow has come to represent grace, honor, integrity, dignity, and brotherhood. And he has done so in films embedded within Hong Kong's cultural and historical context. Importantly, also, amid the action and violence of his movies he emotes — he laughs, he cries, he shouts, he reflects, he mourns, he regrets. But he cannot merely "stand in" for these emotions, nor can he stand in for the kinds of questions of self-determination which pervade many of his Hong Kong movies. The film itself, in this case The Replacement Killers, must provide ways for him to express these qualities and emotions (at the very least some motivation would help). But instead The Replacement Killers is all analogy and Chow has to somehow stand in for the kind of ethical, moral, and human dilemmas that make action films interesting. Action sequences, like song-and-dance numbers, can represent other plot developments (the courtship dance of the musical, the fight over honor in the action film), but they cannot motor a plot alone. They function as analogues for the thematic concerns of the movie, but without elaboration in the narrative they do become "mere" spectacle.
All movies are derivative and must return to formal and thematic concerns of earlier films. But this is the only pleasure The Replacement Killers provides. I can enjoy Chow's The Killer, or Hard-Boiled, or A Better Tomorrow without having seen his other movies. I do not need to know that Chow is meant to represent honor and integrity, because each film makes this clear. While Chow fans like myself will see The Replacement Killers (indeed, the theater was sold out the night I saw it) I suspect it will not gain him any new fans. I look forward to the day when he appears in a US movie and actually expresses and articulates a range of human emotions and dilemmas rather than just functioning as an analogue for them.
No Killer's Kiss
Chow Yun-Fat has been Hong Kong's biggest film star for the last dozen years. As detailed by Steven Rubio and Jillian Sandell in their essays, Chow Yun-Fat's charisma is analogous in many ways to that of Cary Grant, as his screen persona invites admiration of his characters' sly wit, macho heroism, and moral inner life. In Hong Kong his popularity is equalled only by that of Jackie Chan. But unlike Jackie Chan, who is strictly an action comedy star, Chow Yun-Fat has a dramatic versatility that has endeared him to audiences of many film genres including action, drama, romance, and comedy.
Replacement Killers is Chow Yun-Fat's first American movie. It is a debut within the genre that has produced Chow Yun-Fat's greatest commercial success: the action film. As an action film, it has been whittled to its smallest reducible component. It's narrative takes only a cursory excursion into Chow Yun-Fat's particular stylistic trademark of action movie stardom, his character's moral crisis. It is a one-dimensional film without personal drama, without comedy, and without romance.
Or is it without romance? In The Replacement Killers Chow Yun-Fat is "paired," as the film reviews coyly say, with Mira Sorvino. As the plot unfolds, her character becomes his accomplice, his partner, and his friend. The way that their relationship is structurally set up in the film, the logic of film scripts would have the two of them develop a romance: a man and a woman are thrown together by circumstance against a common enemy; they team up, and jointly outwit and outrun the bad guys. In any other film, this relationship would have had some type of romantic consummation.
In Chow Yun-Fat's Hong Kong films, such strong partnerships typically develop between men, and are "consummated" by the men either symbolizing their bond by sacrificing life or limb for one another, or cementing their bond with soul-baring musings on friendship and devotion. According to all logics of film plot story-line, there would at least have been a kiss between Chow Yun-Fat and Mira Sorvino to consummate their teamness. It is an exceptional violation of the Hollywood plot formula laws that the relationship between their characters remains platonic.
In the 1997 James Bond movie, Tomorrow Never Dies, Hong Kong film star Michelle Yeoh makes her American film debut. Her character teams up with Pierce Brosnan's James Bond and together they outwit the bad guys. The parallels with The Replacement Killers are rough, but the two films share a couple of basic common traits: the American film debuts of Hong Kong stars, and action films which are variations on a basic cinematic formula. The big difference is that the partnership between Michelle Yeoh and Pierce Brosnan is sexualized, whereas the partnership between Chow Yun-Fat and Mira Sorvino is not.
The case of the platonic pairing invites speculation about the factors that created it. In The Replacement Killers it is not just the film's genre, but it is also Chow Yun-Fat's presence which has been reduced as far as possible. His character is neutralized; he becomes merely a gun-slinging, conscience-ridden, mob-buster. As Steven Rubio points out, the script of The Replacement Killers robs him of his smile, and thereby his comedy. It also robs him of a kiss, and thereby romance. While his Hong Kong films have not been rife with the kind of physical romance that is common in American movies, what's interesting is how Chow Yun-Fat's screen persona has been translated into the narratives that are indigenous to American filmmaking, such as the obligatory love scene. Between the lack of comedy, and the aborted romance between Chow Yun-Fat and Mira Sorvino, something has definitely been lost in the translation.
Perhaps there is a rule at work which has come into play in Chow Yun-Fat's American screen debut. This rule is that Asian males are generally not allowed the attribution of sexual status in American cinema. If they are, it is certainly not by pairing them with a white woman. This parameter must apply specifically to Asian males, since if it applied to Asians in general, then Michelle Yeoh's role in Tomorrow Never Dies would have played out differently. It will be very interesting to watch how Chow Yun-Fat's American film career unfolds. I hope that as American audiences become accustomed to him, he will be allowed to inhabit a broader range of roles. His upcoming parts in Oliver Stone's The Corruptor, and in John Woo's King's Ransom will be interesting to observe for the extent to which those directors use their different perspectives of Chow Yun-Fat's screen persona to re-interpret it for American audiences. Hopefully those films will explore whether he is able to seize the imagination and affection of the American movie-going public and expand their acceptance of the roles that Asian-American men can play.