The Danger Man
Kung Fu superstar kicks up his heels down-under
Author: Russell Edwards
Article source: Australian Penthouse
With its domed towers reminiscent of an ancient church, the old Museum building in suburban Brisbane looks innocent enough from the outside. Brewing inside however are plots of murder, violence and mayhem. Not to mention comedy. For a few days, this derelict building which once held the collected wisdom of the Sunshine state's scientifiv knowledge, is playing host to Jackie Chan., Hong Kong's one truly international superstar, and his latest film production, "The Story of CIA".
Looking through the museum's massive and largely empty interior there is not much to see. Beyond the dust, the junk, the technicians walking around seemingly aimlessly, and the odour of sawdust that permeates the hall's rear entrance however, is an explosion of colour. A huge red, green and gold chinese dragon with yellow fins is curled around the wooden columns, its face leering over a small group of actors and the film crew working around them.
As I stand watching, Jackie Chan walks by dressed in a yellow and black jumpsuit. Chan stands at about five foot ten, and in his bulky costume, doesn't look particularly robust. His skin is tanned and his black hair has a red tint to it, a fashion currently popular in Asia. Without being introduced he says, "Hello", and walks deeper into the museum toward the activity on set.
An unpretentious beginning to an interview with a film-making phenomenon who is commanding a HK$100 million production filming in Australia, Russia and the Ukraine, but it's typical of Chan that he appears largely unaffected by his world-wide addulation. Hong Kong is the second biggest exporter of films after the United States, and Chan is their biggest star. Schwarzenegger. Stallone. Ford. Eastwood. All of them are overpaid wimps next to Jackie Chan.
It is hard for the Westerner to comprehend the magnitude of his audience but Chan explains in his heavily accented english, "The Hong Kong audience they watch a lot of American films. 'Speed' is top, top box office, but when Jackie Chan film comes out, I beat'Speed'. 'Jurassic Park' and 'Die Hard 3' comes out, Jackie Chan follows with 'Drunken Master 2' and 'Rumble in the Bronx'. I beat them." Add to this the popularity throughout Asia and his sell-out seasons in every Chinatown in every city around the world, and the enormity of Chan's audience begins to come into focus.
What Asians have known for many years, and Westerners are increasingly cottoning onto, is that Jackie Chan is one of the most versatile performers around. He can do comedy. He can do action. He can do drama. Most importantly though is that Jackie Chan does it for real.
"Maybe when you come here," Chan says gesturing around the set, "you see an antique building. For me? No. I see where I can jump. Where I can do this stunt or that. I'II do something with the dragon here. I'II build a fight around that ladder or that chair. I don't think this action can be done by any American action star.
A fling with the American way of doing things in the early Eighties proved unsatisfactory both for audiences and for Chan. With their insistence on protecting their investment from mishaps, Hollywood is not for the likes of Chan. Though rumours persist of another crack at the American market, Chan dispels them.
"Recently, I was approached by an American company. They gave me a blank cheque, we will pay you. I say no. I returned it. Sometimes the money doesn't mean anything.
"I get hurt of course," Jackie adds in a classic piece of understatement. In the course of a film career spanning more than 20 years, Chan has broken his Jaw, two fingers, one knee, one ankle, shoulder bones, various ribs, and in his most celebrated injury, split his head open and required minor brain surgery. Sighing, Chan says, "l'm used to it. I broke my left leg last year, but right now my big problem is this leg," he says rolling up a trouser leg to reveal a nasty gash acquired a couple of days earlier whil making a lump through a window on the Gold Coast. "But it's for four months, six months, two years. So what? My movie'Rumble in the Bronx' can keep for 50 years. Everytime the audience sees it they go WOW! And I can say to the audience that's me. I did that. There's not many Hollywood stars that can say,'That's me'. No that's not you. That's a double. That's a special effect."
Though the set of a Jackie Chan film can be a dangerous place, chatting with him it doesn't take long to get the impression that Jackie Chan revels in his injuries. Showing me a cut across four knuckles that he picked up in Falls Creek while learning to snowboard for the 'Story of the CIA's' skis and snowmobiles chase scene, he enthusiastically recounts his exploits on Victoria's snowy sierras.
"The first day was the worst. I was travelling 30-40 mph down a mountain in Falls Creek and I suddenly went tumbleing forward." Chan says indicating a rapid spinning motion with his hands. "The snowboard flipped up and cut the top of my hand. It's then I realise that I have to learn how to stop. Once I realise this it's easy." Chan mimes the the easy hip movements of a ski instructor and smiles with satisfaction before concluding: "in four hours I learnt everything." Chan tells the story at least once more while I'm on the set, and guessing from the way he shows his hand to a couple of people, he also tells it in Cantonese a couple of times. Chan is a man who loves his job.
How he got that job is a story that began in 1974. While the world was mourning Bruce Lee, every film producer in Hong Kong was looking for a successor to Lee's title of martial arts movie master. Chan's preperation to fill that demanding void began in his childhood. In 1961.after his parents had immigrated from Shandong to Australia's capital city, Canberra, seven year old Chan was deposited in Hong Kong's China Drama Academy, a free boarding school of the type immortalised in the mainland Chinese arthouse fiick'Farewell my Concubine'. Boarding schools have a reputation for cruelty the world over, and the China Drama Academy was more harsh than most. Instructing its students in Peking Opera, a glorious combination of recitation, dance, acrobatics, kung fu, and song,'school' included little formal education (ie. reading and writing) but did expose Chan to rigorous training. The discipline, some would say torture, of pupils depicted in 'Farewell my Concubine' is, according to Chan, only ten percent of what in such a school is like. When he laconically remarks that life in the China Drama Academy was "very tough", Chan's voice possesses none of the bravado that comes with his tales of more recent injuries.
At the same time as he was being educated in the theatrical arts Chan was hired out by his boarding school as a child actor. By the age of 14 he was getting regular work as a stuntman. Fascinated by the movies, Chan picked up information in return for getting cigarettes for the crew and getting drinks for the cameramen. After graduating from his school and after many years work as a stuntman, Chan eventually got his break from a producer who
chose him as his lead in a martial arts film called 'Cantonese Tiger'. It was the first in a series of kung fu quickies Chan and many other martial artists made in the mid-Seventies wake of Bruce Lee's death. "Even my name is the second Bruce Lee," Chan complains of his billing at the time. Then in a piece of casting pivotal to his success, Chan was cast in the two 1978 kung-fu comedy/dramas 'Snake in the Eagles Shadow' and 'Drunken Master'.
"I wanted to get rid of the Bruce Lee shadow," he says. "I design my own style. More comedy. When I watch Bruce Lee, he kick high. I kick low. When he punch, after the punch he's growling. After I punch I just hurt, Oowwww! I tell the audience that if you hurt somebody you hurt yourself. That's more comedy. That's more human. Nobody can touch Bruce Lee. Everybody can beat me."
'Drunken Master's' effect on the Hong Kong market was phenomenol, but Chan soon realised it would take more than laughs to stay on top.
"After I am a success everybody does the same thing. Then I ask myself how I am to be outstanding? When you are talking about martial artists, there are many, many around the world. Some better than me. So to be really outstanding now I put martial arts, kung fu, stunt, acting, comedy, everything in every movie.
It's a winning formula, but with 'Project A', a 1983 film which he also directed, Chan went one better and began his tradition of running out-takes under the credits, further accentuating the authenticity of his movies.. While caught up in the non-stop shenanigans of'Drunken Master 2' it's easy to conclude that Chan is only faking when he falls on top of a bed of hot coals. During the credits however, in a three camera set-up when one gets a slow-motion look at the smoke rising up from the live coals and the agony on Chan's face, the audience not only go through the pain of burning flesh with him, but feel embarrassment that they ever doubted him.
The out-takes are the most popular part of a Jackie Chan movie and bear witness to the flubbed lines, mishaps and Chan's proclivity to clowning around. But it is as testimony to his injuries that they are paramount.
In an age when Stallone can refuse to promote 'Cliffhanger' at the Cannes Film Festival because he was frightened of Libyan terrorists, and Arnie, no shrinking violet himself, spent less time on screen in 'True Lies' than his obvious doubles, Chan laments the passing of the devil-may-care attitude that dominated the American film industry in the days of silent pictures when comedians astounded audiences with their feats.
"When I look at the old film, like a black and white silent of Buster Keaton, I'm wondering why there is no more of this kind of film which is originally from America. Now American film-makers concentrate on special effects. They use it for everything. Even when they're walking!"
The fact that silent movie star Buster Keaton continued to work with an undiagnosed broken neck which eventually healed incorrectly, doesn't bother Chan. And why should it? His head injury gathered while performing a relatively minor stunt in his 1986 film 'Armour of God' is a matter of pride. Like all the other mishaps in his films, Chan being loaded into an ambulance after taking a 40-foot fall from a tree is included in that movie's blooper reel. The life threatening accident which gave him a permanent hole in his head, not only didn't slow Chan down, it encouraged him to keep going.
"I died one time already," Chan says of his head injury by way of explaining his perseverance with hazardous stunts. "I just keep trying to do something different. I want all my fans in Asia to remember me. I do it all myself, but for the movie. That's why I don't care. Outside I'm very quiet."
So how long does it take him to work out a stunt or fight routine? Chan clicks his fingers. "A few seconds," he says confidently.
On what turns out to be the final shot of the day, Chan prepares himself for the fight scene by having a stomach pad, and then a thin corset velcroed around his torso to keep it in place. He moves to the position where the previous shot had left him, with one actor holding his arm, and another with his arm wrapped, rather tightly around his neck. The villain, appropriately dressed in black, barks out his line in Cantonese, and gives Chan a solid kick above the pad. Chan is caught off guard but is un-hurt. Apologies are made, and Chan says in english so the Australian crew will understand: "We'll go again." Take two and the scenario repeats itself. The villain misses the pad again and gives Chan an equally hard kick to the same region on Chan's upper chest. As the role requires, Chan lets out a cry of anguished pain, and the director calls "Cut and Print" from behind the camera. Jackie smiles weakly, and then lets out a groan of less intense, but much more real, pain. All in a days work.