Bright Lights Film Journal

An Evening with Jackie Chan: Interview and Profile

This article appeared originally in the all-Hong Kong issue of Bright Lights #13 (1994).

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Jackie spills his guts – verbally, this time

I first met Jackie Chan in 1980, in a crowded coffee shop in the Ding Hoa section of Taipei, Taiwan. It was shortly after the release of director Robert Clouse’s The Big Brawl (aka Battle Creek Brawl). (Clouse also directed Bruce Lee’s film Enter the Dragon.) Jackie seemed very self-confident, even cocky; so much so that the women accompanying him appeared uneasy. The crowd struggled closer to catch a glimpse of the greatest actor in Chinese film since the legendary Bruce Lee, and Jackie’s two bodyguards had to push them aside to clear a path. Jackie just laughed; he seemed not to notice the crowd.

In 1993, hoping to improve myself as a fight choreographer, I became Jackie’s guest at Golden Harvest’s studio two, where he was filming Drunken Master II, the sequel to his now-classic Drunken Master (aka Drunken Monkey). Thirteen years had passed, during which he had made 30 more films; I wasn’t sure what to expect from Jackie.

When I arrived, the entire crew was sitting on a rubber-covered balcony – specially built for the film’s fight scenes – chattering to one another and smoking cigarettes. Everyone quieted down as soon as Jackie strolled onto the set, even though he himself was laughing and joking with his assistants. Some children approached him shyly, accompanied by their parents. Jackie didn’t ignore them; instead, he went over to the group and had his picture taken with each child. Then Jackie gave the children some important advice: “Don’t practice kung fu just to be like Jackie Chan, there is only one Jackie Chan. Stay in school, study hard, learn about computers. Education is more important than kung fu.” The kids giggled. Their parents bowed and left, and Jackie started filming. No women. No bodyguards. No ego. This was a far cry from the Jackie Chan of the 1980s.

Jackie was born Chen Gang Shen in Hong Kong on April 7, 1954. His newly arrived immigrant parents almost sold him at birth to a British doctor for $26, because they couldn’t afford to feed him. He says, laughing: “Because I was a large, fat baby, I was given the nickname A-Puo, which means cannonball. I was six when we moved to Australia, and my schoolteacher there thought I said my name was Paul. But I couldn’t pronounce Paul very well, so I was called Steve. One of my friends didn’t like the name Steve, so he would introduce me as Jack Chan. I added on the y because Jacky has a better rhythm. Then Raymond Chow [of Golden Harvest] changed my name to Jackie.”

After a year in Australia, Jackie was sent back to Hong Kong alone. He signed a ten-year contract with Yu Zhan Yuen to learn Chinese opera. Jackie says: “When I joined the school, I wanted to learn kung fu. I was asked if I want to join for three, five, or ten years. I didn’t know how long these times were, so I just chose ten. Ooops! Waaa! That’s a looong time.” At age 8, between the 17 hours of intense opera training, he would appear in old-style Hong Kong singing films. He even had a role in The World of Suzie Wong. From 1962 to 1982, Jackie had credits in 28 films, not including his work as an extra or his important break, when he was the stunt double for the dreaded Mr. Suzuki in Bruce Lee’s Ching Wu Men or The Chinese Connection.

Jackie becomes serious as he reminisces: “The days at opera school were very long. Every day we would train from dawn to midnight, and anyone caught taking it easy would be whipped and starved. I don’t know how the intense training affected me as a child or shaped me as an adult. I do know that I draw all my creativity for fight directing from those years of arduous training. But I would never put my kids through it, and I would never tell anyone to do the same thing.”

Fame in America is no longer important to Jackie, and he is not interested in discussing Clouse’s Big Brawl (1980) or Jim Glickenhaus’s The Protector (1985), his two failed attempts to break into the Hollywood film industry. Why America rejected Jackie’s high-octane, cartoonlike productions is not difficult to understand. The American audience tends to believe that Hong Kong films are poorly plotted and acted, and look “cheap.” This bias is probably formed by the takes-two-weeks-to-film kung fu movies regularly seen on late-night American television, which are, in fact, low budget, badly dubbed, and generally of poor quality.

Clouse and Glickenhaus agree that Jackie could have been a star in Hollywood if the American audience could have related to him the way it had been able to relate to Bruce Lee. Both attributed this failure of association to the actor’s limited English skills and his lack of understanding of the American psyche at the time. Now, Jackie would prefer not to be compared to Hollywood’s biggest stars, because only Jackie Chan can do what Jackie Chan does, period.

“Even if I do a film with geniuses like George Lucas or Steven Spielberg, no way will I be famous in America, ” says Jackie. “Look at Jurassic Park. Few people know the names of the main actors; they remember the dinosaurs and that it was a Spielberg film. Take Terminator 2. The director’s good; the special effects are good; Schwarzenegger is nothing. Anyone could have played his part. Take First Blood. Stallone is good. But in Asia, everyone comes to see Jackie Chan in a Jackie Chan film. It doesn’t matter what the title is or what the story is about. Only Jackie Chan can do it.”

To understand Jackie’s filmmaking methods and views on martial arts film, it would be helpful first to understand the three main genres of martial arts film styles developed by the Hong Kong movie industry.

The first genre was the wu xia pian (hero films), which originated in the 1920s. In these films, the heroes possessed supernatural martial arts skills: they could fly, control weapons with their minds, and shoot “death rays” from their palms. It wasn’t until the late 1960s, with the films known as gung-fu pian (kung fu films), that the fighting skills of the main character became more realistic and the fights themselves more believable. In the 1970s, Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan pushed gung-fu pian to its limits, and provided the impetus for countless imitations.

Also during that decade, Shaw Brothers financed the creation of the guo shu pian (neohero films). Liu Jia Liang is credited with adding comic elements to the kung fu film, which assimilated the old style of the wu xia pian into its kung fu ethos.

In the 1980s, Jackie introduced a new genre of film known as the wu da pian (fight films using martial arts), in which he combined athleticism, martial arts, and dangerous stunts. He says: “Back then, everyone made the same kind of film, so I developed a new-wave genre of martial arts film, the wu da pian, through my police films.” Now, most Hong Kong films emulate Jackie’s wu da pian methodology.

“After I invented my style of kung fu film, everyone copied me, ” says Jackie. “I like that; it forces me to be more creative. For ten years, I’ve wanted to make a sequel to Drunken Master. But that was such a great film that I never had the self-confidence to try a sequel. Then I see many many wu xia films [Tsui Hark’s films] come back, then kung fu films with flying characters.” Jackie shakes his head. “Real kung fu films are difficult to make well, so I decided the time was right for making Drunken Master II.”

Jackie has always tried to steer away from the old-style martial arts films and only appeared in two, To Kill with Intrigue (1977) and a cameo in Killer Meteors (1977). He explained: “I don’t like the wu xia pian, the flying, the exaggerated kung fu skills. It’s not real. You can make anyone fly like Superman or Batman, but only special people can do my style of filmmaking. Normal people can’t do it. Besides, wu xia pian have a small market, but my market is large because people know what I do is real. There is still a great demand for my type of film.”

The 1972 film Police Woman was the first for which Jackie choreographed fight scenes. His first main role was in an unreleased film, Little Tiger of Canton. After many unusual roles (including that of a country bumpkin seduced by his sex-starved girlfriend in All in the Family), Jackie finally had a role in a released film – Hong Kong Passenger (1974).

Because it was determined that he would be the natural successor to Bruce Lee, Jackie starred in a series of kung fu film flops between 1976 and 1978. While the films are plagued by poorly developed plots and hammy acting, the fight sequences are excellent in that they reveal the true roots of Jackie’s training. His abilities are evident in films such as Shaolin Wooden Man (1976), Dragon Fist (1978), Spiritual Kung Fu (1978), and his martial arts parody Half a Loaf of Kung Fu (1977). In Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin (1978), Jackie’s prowess with weapons is unmistakable, even only a few minutes into the film. The spear-and-sword choreography in the film’s opening titles, as well as in one of the final fights, is exceptional, filled with intricate maneuvers. We watch in amazement as Jackie spins, ducks, and parries for over five minutes with stunning accuracy, eluding three assailants wielding barbed spears.

Later in 1978, his comedic talents were finally discovered. In Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, Jackie plays a bumpkin who learns to fight despite his clumsiness. This comical persona was carried over into many similar films – Drunken Master (1978) and the Fearless Hyena series (started in 1979) – and culminated in his classic The Young Master (1980), the last 20 minutes of which features an extraordinary fight sequence. For this scene, he covered his body with a dusty powder. When he was kicked, punched, or body-slammed, the powder would fly, proving to the audience that he was indeed absorbing the blows. The fight makes you wonder about the film’s final scene, in which Jackie appears in the streets in a full-body cast.

Similar scenes are highlighted in Fearless Hyena (1979), his first directorial effort. Each assailant attacks Chan with a guan-doa (a pole with a large blade at one end and a spear at the other). The realism is heightened because Jackie actually allows the weapons to strike him. And in these dangerous sequences – during which one miscalculation by Jackie or his stuntpeople could result in grave injury – his role is that of a comically inept student.

Jackie’s departure from his comic/bumpkin characters was his American film debut, The Big Brawl (1980).

As Jackie remembers: “Robert [Clouse] and I didn’t see eye to eye on how a fight scene should be put together, and how simple things can make the scene have more flair. There is a roller-skate scene in the film. I learned how to roller-skate in two weeks and told him that I could do scenes with the skates on during the race to make it more visually appealing. But he wouldn’t bend. He wanted total control of the fights. It’s a pity, I thought. With all my fight experience and choreography, he might have listened to me just a little bit.”

This film, however, paved the way for his cameo appearances in Hal Needham’s Cannonball Run films, though once again Jackie was not really allowed to display his abilities. His next film was the little-known Fantasy Mission Force (1984), which distanced him even farther from the traditional skills of the kung fu genre. Rather, he was used for pseudo-Hollywood stunt work. He flung himself over cars; jumped out of a car as a bulldozer was crushing it; and climbed poles, trellises, and balconies, only to fall back to the ground, using nothing to break his fall. The film is most memorable for its re-enactment of the horrifying accident from John Landis’s Twilight Zone: The Movie and for the presence of Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia.

His last tribute to his kung fu past was in the very successful Dragon Lord (1982). The film’s highlight was the final fight, for which Jackie was acclaimed one of the best (and perhaps one of the craziest) stuntmen in the industry. During the fight, Jackie (and others) is shown falling to the ground headfirst from balconies. They used no safety equipment: no wires, no harnesses, no mats. The outtakes from his work on the Cannonball Run series at the end of the film depict mishaps so serious that they could never be shown in an American film.

American action films are rendered flat by both their campy humor and their reliance on technical virtuosity. This combination can easily fatigue an audience, as well as reveal the fallacies inherent in the filmmaker’s dependence on hackneyed formulas. Jackie’s films sometimes appear cartoonish, as though physical violence has no real-world effects. For example, at the end of Dragon Lord, no blood is spilled. The actors show they’re in pain only by squinting or by rubbing a wound for a few seconds. Yet, in a way, his choreography is more realistic than Hollywood’s. Jackie’s doesn’t use any of the safety features required in Hollywood, and his positioning of the camera guarantees the authenticity of the fights. And the fights are thrilling for exactly those reasons: No one in his right mind should even attempt them, much less attempt to shoot them in a way that proves their veracity.

“If it takes me months just to get a few minutes’ worth of great fights, that’s okay, ” said Jackie. “People say I’m crazy to take so much time, but I’m also the best. Everyone always anxiously awaits the release of the next Jackie Chan film.”

Jackie insists we drink iced coffee from the same mug. It’s bonding to share a drink or a cigarette, or to sing together. As I take a sip, he smiles approvingly, then continues: “Mood, tempo of the movements, and creativity are all important aspects needed by a successful fight director. If you don’t take the time to be creative, you have no good fights.”

We go downstairs to Jackie’s private editing room. I am honored, since few are allowed to enter. We drink coconut milk straight from the coconut and eat cold coconut-jelly patties. He removes his shirt, and I notice the flexible back brace wrapped tightly around his torso. He puts on a reel from Drunken Master II (1994). With Drunken Master II, Jackie has returned to the origins of his fame. Jackie plays the main character, the classic hero Huang Fei Hung, who is the Chinese equivalent of Robin Hood. (Although there have been over 100 films about Huang, it was Tsui Hark who revived the character for modern audiences with his Once Upon a Time in China series.)

Briefly, the plot involves evil foreigners smuggling Chinese treasures out of the country. Jackie (Huang) discovers this, but is mistakenly accused of being involved with the smugglers.

“In this sequence, when I bend back, I get kicked in the solar plexus and fall onto the edge of that table, ” Jackie explains. “We shot this kicking sequence twenty times so twenty times I got kicked in the solar plexus, but what really hurt was this, the last take. I smashed my lower back on the table’s edge.” Even though the scene is well done, I find it hard to watch. In the next scene, Jackie is accidentally set on fire (“I didn’t think the fire would spread so quickly” he mused), and he shows me where his hair and body were singed. “Even if someone gets hurt in a shot in Hong Kong we can still use that scene; I know you can’t do that in America.” The next few shots show Jackie falling down a set of stairs: “The stairs are rubber, didn’t hurt … much.”

Jackie shows me some of the footage of the final fight between himself and Ken Lo. Let me just say that this is Jackie’s best role yet.

“We have been filming this for nine months already, ” says Jackie. “People say Jackie Chan is slow, because I have no budget limit and no deadline. I like to have a schedule, but it is important not to hurry the fight scenes. In order to fight there must be the right mood or it won’t look good on camera. When the feeling or mood is right, I’ll film two days straight without a break. I’ll film the movement until it’s the way I like it. That way I know my fans will like it. A fight should flow like a choreographed dance routine, but more importantly, the fight must ‘play well’ without sound effects. Everything must have a reason to be in the fight and each shot must make the audience go ‘Waaa!’” Jackie’s films have been making audiences go “Waaa!” for almost twenty years.

His daredevil genius matured over the next few years as he continued to experiment with the death- and gravity-defying stunt work that occasionally almost cost him both his career and his life. When so many stuntpeople got hurt during the filming of Police Story (1985) that none of them wanted to work with Jackie again – regardless of how much he would pay them – Jackie put together his own team of stuntmen. Then, in The Armour of God (1986), while sliding down a steep hill on a wicker basket, he crashed headfirst into a rock and was hospitalized for three weeks, close to death. Since the accident, Jackie has reluctantly calmed down, and he will use a stunt double (he has two) for the more dangerous scenes. Jackie may have overestimated what his body could handle in The Armour of God. His next challenge will be how he manages the unavoidable effects of aging.

“My body is always in pain, ” says Jackie, “and I know I can’t do this when I’m sixty-two, but I’ll keep going as long as I can and as long as I enjoy it. Like I said before, it’s a hobby, something I do for fun. Hell, I’d even do a film for Steven Spielberg for free.” Obviously, as a filmmaker Jackie believes the human body – not gimmicks or special effects – to be the centerpiece of his films. His films are the embodiment of kinematics, which holds sacred the dynamics of motion. Jackie’s stunts are shown in multiple takes with multiple camera angles, repeated in quick succession and always filmed in a way that guarantees their authenticity. As one critic said: “A Jackie Chan movie is also a Jackie Chan documentary.”

He avoids camera angles that distort the credibility of movement through time and space; instead, he positions the camera in a way that clarifies the characters’ ballet-like artistry. He seems to shoot every fight as if it were the first he’d ever filmed, so that it displays speed and grace. His uncanny ability to indulge in humorous movements and facial expressions assures that each combat is fresh and creative. Punches, kicks, and body spins are edited to accentuate each movement, as well as to maintain the scene’s rhythm. Jackie believes that fight scenes are very similar to dance routines, because they stress the line of the human body.

Most American fight scenes don’t look as good as they sound. The adroit use of overemphasized sound effects often disguises an actor’s lack of skill. I mention to Jackie that Americans who appear to fight well in Hong Kong films look pathetically inept when they return to America. He shakes his head and grimaces: “Not every film uses Americans, We use Americans only if the script calls for one; we don’t create a special character just so we can use one. And when we do use an American actor, he must work very hard. Most can’t do it, so we have to finish the fights quickly. When they return to America, they get lazy and start fighting like everyone else again. No one takes time to do a good fight. They still try to make the fights look like real fights. They didn’t learn. They don’t have ling-gan.” (Ling-gan is a conceptual phrase reflecting the creative process of an idea; that is, expanding upon the idea, and if the idea is found to be no good, starting the process anew.)

Jackie next developed a modern character who lived in a crowded urban area, dense with buildings and objects. This new milieu challenged him to investigate every iota of his ling-gan. Fights were no longer one-on-one battles but a series of group confrontations, weaving through alleyways, shopping malls, warehouses, catacombs, and any other site that inspired his imagination. For instance, at the end of Project A II (1987), Jackie stands atop a large billboard-like wall. As the right-hand side of the billboard begins to fall, he runs down the left-hand side. In Project A, he dangles precariously from the face of a clock in a fifty-foot tower, holding onto the clock’s second hand. He loses his grip and falls to the ground, his fall broken only by two flimsy window awnings. The camera keeps rolling as he lands on his head, then staggers to his feet and walks away.

Space has a tangible quality in Jackie’s films and is continually transformed, from the confines of a small room or alley to the vastness of a castle or mountaintop. He achieves these transformations by using extended chase sequences through places like shopping malls (Police Story), mountaintop monasteries (The Armour of God), and warehouses (both 1988’s Police Story II and 1989’s Mr. Canton and Lady Rose, aka The Miracle). Each unpredictable redefinition of space adds to the scene’s momentum by creating a giddy farce. As his characters move through new environments, they confront new circumstances and new possibilities. This is evident in the underground dungeon fight sequences from The Armour of God: Operation Condor (1991). Jackie gracefully moves the scene from a tiny, underground missile storage bin to a water tower to giant, moveable electrical plates to a gigantic wind tunnel and finally to an immense desert.

His characters have an orderly rather than metaphysical relationship with the material world, and they move with linear intent, disregarding the irrationalities of existence. When Jackie is dodging giant spools of rope while inside the framework of a roof (Mr. Canton and Lady Rose) or avoiding runaway vehicles in a car-testing facility (1992’s Twin Dragons), he is displaying his appreciation of the potential dynamics of static objects. His comedy is a comedy of physics filled with precise formulas for directional qualities, but without standardized parameters or constants. And his stunts are hilarious when they permit him to accomplish an objective with an economy of grace. (In one scene, for example, he is seen striking an attacker. Each time the attacker falls, his head hits a light switch, first turning the light on, then off, then on again.) His comic persona has developed from a dimwitted, disrespectful bumpkin into an aware, respectful individual.

Most screenplays for Hong Kong films usually have pages that contain only two words: “fight scene.” Traditionally, a director would be given five minutes to choreograph a new fight, have the stars practice the movements, and film it. Jackie also works spontaneously to create each movement, but takes whatever time is necessary to get the scene right.

We leave the editing room and return to the set. Tonight, Jackie is shooting the fight that involves both himself and the main antagonist, Ken Lo. Ken, who is also Jackie’s real-life bodyguard, was the heavyweight kickboxing champion of Thailand for seven years.

“That doesn’t make him a good movie fighter, ” Jackie explains. “He is too tight and stiff, like a robot, but his kicks are nice. Tournament fighters are not always best for movies, even if they’re champions. And then sometimes you find good fighters, but they can’t act, so I pick my people carefully. A double is always used when we need a smoother look for a particular posture or movement.”

I am most impressed with Jackie’s patience. His perfection requires patience and his patience yields perfection. Jackie and Ken spent almost two hours and did twenty-one takes to get one sequence of fight movements. Ken would usually make a minor error, forcing another take, but not once throughout the rigorous twelve-hour shooting schedule did Jackie swear, get upset, or place blame. Instead, he explained the error to Ken and then showed him how to remedy it. He’d smile, pat Ken’s shoulder, and shoot the sequence over. If Jackie noticed the crew getting frustrated, he would tell jokes or even break into song to help alleviate the tension.

Some of the humor in Jackie’s films is inherent in the situations: he must try to keep himself and the other actors from going too far when it’s not appropriate. Because his characters are contradictions – a joking lawyer, a comic policeman, a boxing orchestra leader – he must adhere to some societal norms even while he is breaking society’s rules and confusing the order of things. And it’s the exploration of these contradictions – the uneasiness between conformity and careless resolve, between duty and reason, between holding back and letting go – that makes Jackie so distinctive within his realm of filmmaking. And when he finally just decides to let the characters go, his films soar.

Jackie enjoys great popularity as a singer as well (in fact, Jackie sang the theme song for Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China II). His music videos are shown constantly on Hong Kong and Taiwan television; I have even seen them played on my flights to and from Hong Kong. His face is on posters and magazines everywhere. He always takes time for charitable and public service announcements, and if Jackie Chan’s name is associated with a product, it’s a sure seller. For example, as a favor for a new director he feels has potential, Jackie made a cameo appearance in Project S (1993). (In Hong Kong, a director’s career is over if his first film doesn’t make money.) The posters and newspaper ads for Project S feature a large photo of Jackie, only mentioning his cameo role in small print.

He is reluctant to discuss another recent film, City Hunter (1993). “I was not happy with this film, ” he said. “Financing was from Japan, and it was made for the Japanese audience. The director was given only three months to complete the film, so the fights don’t have the correct emotion.”

Jackie is quite proud, however, of his most recent starring role in Crime Story (1993), which earned him a Golden Horse nomination for best dramatic actor. “This film is very different for me, ” he says. “It was based on a true story of a policeman who recovered a kidnapped man. It’s a serious dramatic piece, with none of the typical Jackie humor. The fights were like nothing I’d done before because they were like real fights.”

Even though he didn’t use any of the comic repertoire initially responsible for his popularity in Hong Kong film (rather, his glares and frowns are reminiscent of Stallone’s facial contortions), Jackie hopes to continue playing dramatic roles in the future.

In Jackie’s films, the character’s overwhelming need for success and acceptance is also what causes him problems. Whether he’s playing a lawyer, a policeman, or an orchestra conductor, his desire for achievement actually transcends achievement, and this is where the character becomes comedic. Jackie’s comedy is rarely vindictive, and his characters are basically extensions of himself. This is further exemplified by his frequent use of his own name not only for his characters but in his movies’ titles, most recently in Twin Dragons, where the Chinese title is an obvious reference to himself. (His Chinese name is Chen Lung, meaning “becoming a dragon.”) Like the bumpkins or cops in his films who sacrifice all for the final conquest, Jackie sacrifices body and soul for the audience’s entertainment. His life-threatening scenes appear to be designed solely to provide heart-stopping proof of Jackie’s commitment to his audience.

Twin Dragons, ” says Jackie, “was made to celebrate the formation of the Hong Kong director’s guild. In one scene, I conduct an orchestra. All the musicians were played by members of the director’s guild – even Tsui Hark made a cameo appearance.”

Jackie makes his “my life imitates my art” point even more by showing outtakes – usually repeated failures of one of his physical bits or shots of himself being taken away in an ambulance when a stunt goes awry – at the end of his movies. These scenes not only reflect his willingness to fight for success and emphasize his pledge to audience satisfaction, they also raise his contribution to his films to a higher level of discipline and dedication.

He is very aware of his fans’ perception of him: “I make films now because it is my hobby. I don’t need the money, so I must be happy with what I do. I won’t compromise my artistic values as a fight choreographer. I won’t play the bad guy. My fans in Asia expect me to be funny and be the good guy; I won’t disappoint them.” Which is why he turned down a lucrative offer from Michael Douglas to star as the lead antagonist in Black Rain.

The night nears its end. Even after 12 hours, Jackie is still having fun on the set. He gets bursts of adrenalin all night and is constantly in a “controlled hyper” state. He is actually sad when it’s time to stop filming and go home. The lights dim; the crew has left; Jackie, assistant choreographers, and I sit in the subdued light and continue discussing kung fu and choreography. Jackie obviously still enjoys making films, which is good for his fans worldwide, because when he stops, we will have seen the last of one of the great ones.

What’s next for Jackie? Playing opposite Stallone in Rambo IV? Jackie just smiles. I couldn’t tell if he nodded his head yes or if it was just a cleverly disguised shoulder shrug. Whatever he decides to do, it will be movie history in the making.