The Good, The Bad and the Badass: Chow Yun-Fat
Last week, we took a look at the career of actor extraordinaire Anthony Hopkins, truly one of the most noteworthy international leading men of our time. This weeks subject is a man who may be limited to a cult following in North America, but ranks as one of the biggest stars in the world internationally...
Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery, Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Chow Yun-Fat. While Chow Yun-Fat has a strong cult following in North America among connoisseurs of international action cinema, many only know him from his part in Ang Lees phenomenally successful kung-fu epic CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. As a result of that films success, Chow finally attained some degree of stardom in the west, but found himself absurdly cast in a series of martial arts flops like BULLETPROOF MONK, despite the fact that Chow Yun-Fat has himself admitted that hes barely proficient in Kung-Fu.
Rather, Chow Yun-Fat made a name for himself as the gun-toting heroes of John Woos famous Hong Kong shoot-em-ups like A BETTER TOMORROW 1 & 2, THE KILLER, ONCE A THIEF and HARD-BOILED. Chows performance in A BETTER TOMORROW made him arguably the biggest icon of Chinese cinema since Bruce Lee, with his Woo-movies inspiring a whole new genre called Heroic Bloodshed which aped Woos stylish shoot-outs (which themselves were inspired by Sam Peckinpah) and camaraderie amongst gangsters. In the eighties and mid-nineties, there was no actor in Asia- not even Jackie Chan- whose popularity compared to Chows.
After the Chinese handover of Hong Kong in 1997, many of the biggest names in Hong Kong film fled to America in search of work. Around this time, Jackie Chan was starting to get big in North America, and Chow Yun-Fat- who did a good job mastering English in a short-amount of time- took a stab at the market with the Woo-inspired THE REPLACEMENT KILLERS, and THE CORRUPTOR. Neither film was successful, and while CROUCHING TIGER gave Chow the opportunity to stretch dramatically into movies like ANNA & THE KING, as well as pop up in PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN III: AT WORLDS END, Chow- along with many of his contemporaries- went back to Asia where they would get better roles in the exploding Mainland Chinese film market.
At fifty-eight, Chows days of leaping through the air brandishing a gun in each hand may be over, but hes still highly in demand throughout Asia. His memorable turn as a villain in LET THE BULLETS FLY became one of his biggest hits to date, and he chalked up another big-grosser last year with THE LAST TYCOON. Clearly, Chows career is still in good shape, and if the best Western cinema has to offer him is DRAGONBALL: EVOLUTION, maybe hes better off in China.
This is a tough one. For me, this is really a toss-up between THE KILLER and HARD-BOILED, with the edge going to THE KILLER. While HARD-BOILED destroys it in terms of action and technique, THE KILLER has more of an emotional effect on the viewer, and its a movie that never fails to shake-me-up. Chow Yun-Fat is wonderful as the titular character, a lonely killer who accidentally blinds an innocent young nightclub singer (Sally Yeh), and finds himself eaten up by guilt. He takes on a dangerous assignment to raise enough money to pay for the singers corneal transplant, but finds himself hunted by both his underworld contacts, and a dogged Hong Kong cop (Danny Lee). Against all odds, the cop and the killer become friends, united by their desire to protect the innocent Yeh, leading to an epic shootout in a church, complete with sworn declarations of brotherhood, doves, and self-sacrifice. Its Woos masterpiece.
This one will likely get me into a lot of trouble. While Chows starred in some dogs both domestically and internationally, Ive always felt his lauded turn in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON was overrated. Now, Im not saying I dont like the film. In fact, I think its beautifully directed and acted, but its not the masterpiece most people say it is. In fact, there are plenty of Chinese martial arts epics that dwarf this film in both action and storytelling technique (ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA 1 & 2 comes to mind, as does Jackie Chans DRUNKEN MASTER 2). Its a good film, but Im not convinced its a great one (ironically, the film was panned in Asia).
There are loads of underrated movies from Chow Yun=Fat, but Im going to limit myself to two. The first is a down-and-dirty actioner he made in 1992 called FULL CONTACT, directed by acclaimed HK auteur Ringo Lam. Chow made loads of films with Lam (CITY OF FIRE- memorably remade by Tarantino as RESEVOIR DOGS- PRISON ON FIRE 1 & 2, WILD SEARCH- an unauthorized remake of WITNESS) but this one is my favorite. Its a real change-of-pace for Chow, whos usually so debonair, but here plays a thuggish biker (albeit one with a heart of gold). Its a tough film, and in addition to a few great shootouts, also gives Chow a chance to really play vicious character, as well in engage in a little knife-play (Chow said in an interview he used a real butterfly knife, and almost lost a couple of fingers). Its a great flick, but beware the North American DVD release, which is all screwed up. On the preferred Cantonese Audio track, the musical score has been deleted- apparently unintentionally as it shows up on the English dub. If you want to get this, make sure to buy an imported copy.
There are tons of amazing Chow Yun-Fat setpieces from his Hong Kong shoot-em-ups, but for me, the grand-daddy of them all is the first shoot-out in A BETTER TOMORROW, where Chow walks into a restaurant with a date, ditches her, and in an explosive sequence, lays waste to dozens of Triad killers. The two-handed shoot-outs are old-hat now, but in 1986 this was radical.
5. God of Gamblers
4. Full Contact
3. A Better Tomorrow 1 & 2
1. THE KILLER
Chow Yun-Fat is still active in Chinese cinema, and has several films in the works. Meanwhile, his long-delayed American release, SHANGHAI, with John Cusack, is still sitting on the shelf at The Weinstein Company, and may never see a mainstream release.