East Meets West Again: Can Asian Action Stars Avoid Western Tropes?
Any fan of martial arts flicks knows the name Donnie Yen. It is synonymous with the likes of Jet Li and even the godfather of Asian action stars, Bruce Lee. Thanks to the success of Rogue One, Donnie Yen is becoming a household name. However, it isn’t his first attempt at breaking through to western audiences.
The actor’s previous attempts included Blade 2 in 2002 and Highlander: Endgame in 2000. Both appearances were either fleeting or downplayed for the main stars of the movie. I thought that was too bad because I really wanted to see him fight Wesley Snipes. Neither film gained him any recognition to average movie goers. When the Chinese franchise Ip Man began making waves overseas six years later, there was more familiarity. However, that was only with certain sects of movie enthusiasts.
Rogue One has now guaranteed his status among that diverse audience and he is already starting to get other roles in other American movies. The question is now what kind of roles will those be? The history of Asian actors who make it in western cinema is rather narrow.
One cannot talk about Asian action stars without mentioning the grandfather of the genre, Bruce Lee. He was American born but had moved to Hong Kong and lived there until 1959 because of struggles in school and frequent street fights. He had done some acting in Hong Kong as a child and later had small roles in American television and movies during the sixties.
The roles usually involved martial arts as he was proficient at it. It was when returning to Hong Kong that he made a name for himself as the preliminary action hero of Chinese cinema. Bruce finally achieved success in western cinema with Enter the Dragon in 1975. The role not only established a new direction for action cinema, but also several tropes that would carry on after his death. These included the star being well-built, the plot taking place during a tournament, and the yelling that accompanied fighting moves.
After Bruce Lee’s death, the roles he typically played were filled in by White, as well as some Black, actors in America. Back in Hong Kong, Chinese actors initially tried to copy Bruce’s style and charisma step-for-step and yell-for-yell. These duplicates were dim failures and lacked the creative imagination and conviction that Bruce Lee brought to his films. In the west, if an Asian actor had a substantial role, it was that of a martial arts ass-kicker and little else. While that was a major step away from the buck-tooth, funny talking Asian stereotype that came before the 1960s, it was still a stereotype.
Buster Keaton Meets Kung Fu
Jackie Chan is considered the first true successor to Bruce Lee when it comes to Asian action films. This was because he realized the trap that Hong Kong cinema was falling into trying to copy Bruce Lee. So he began introducing more comedic elements into his work and less of the intense demeanor his predecessor brought to the table. Jackie also brought an almost supernatural toughness to endure pain when doing his own stunts.
Like Bruce Lee, Chan's background was in Kung Fu but he also been raised in the theatrics and physical regimen of Beijing Opera. Even today, his old movies still garner the respect of many viewers. Bruce Lee was the godfather of the Asian action hero, but Jackie Chan was the godfather of personal stunt work.
Like with Bruce, people in the west began hearing about Jackie Chan and he became known to a few enthusiasts. His first attempt to break into American cinema was in 1985 with The Protector. Playing a New York City cop, the film showcased Chan’s physicality but it failed to gain a larger audience. By this time, the reigning star was Chuck Norris and I don’t think larger audiences at that time could really appreciate a foreign style.
It was ten years later when he achieved success when Rumble in the Bronx came out in 1995. Now speaking as someone who first saw this film in the theater, I can honestly say I was astounded by how crazy some of Chan’s moves were. This was largely because by the 1990s, action and martial arts films had become stale, trapped within their own tropes. Rumble brought forth a dynamics to martial arts films that Americans were not familiar with. His moves were astounding and largely included trying not to get hit rather than hitting! The fact that he wasn’t outright killed from the stunts was insane and from then on we were hooked.
I think part of Chan’s success is because up until then, most films had been based in the Japanese style. Japanese martial arts, while numerous and diverse, are also very straight forward. There’s little flash and flare. When you’re going to die, you’re going to die. Not dance about and look pretty, though one could argue that Jean Claude Van Damme had done some of this. At their core, they really are not about entertainment, unless adapted to do so.
Even Bruce Lee had copied this aspect into his movies, though he was trying to create a Chinese action hero for the world to look up to. Jackie Chan combined aspects of old period martial arts films with its penchant for display and combined it with western no-nonsense fighting and humor. The results were fight sequences that were fast and furious, but also stylish and inventive. Yet neither outshined the other.
Opening the Flood Gates
Thanks to this success, Chinese style action became a big hit in America. Chan followed up the breakthrough Rumble in the Bronx with the re-release of his Hong Kong film, Police Story 3: Supercop and later, Rush Hour. Hollywood began scouting out other Chinese goldmines, introducing to American audiences Sammo Hung. His appeal was that he broke the trope of the well-built fighter by being a large man. However, he was as fast and tough onscreen as Jackie and Bruce.
This success brought the same calcifying influences that had locked down both Chinese and American martial arts films. Roles for Chinese stars started to narrow down to the "funny cop from Hong Kong" stereotype. And eventually this began to grow stale.
Small, Calm, and Ruthless
Another star from the East that broke into American films was Jet Li. His breakthrough American appearance was in 1998 with Lethal Weapon 4. Like with his contemporaries, Jet was already well known in Asia. He had done period films with his most famous being the Once Upon a Time in China series from 1991.
By this time, Asian action films were beginning to show more diversity and creativity, with different actors doing different themes with their styles. Jet Li’s background was with Wushu Kung Fu, a style more known for its acrobatics, though not in the same vein as Beijing Opera. Jet Li’s American introduction was as Lethal Weapon’s main villain.
I saw this in theaters as well, and damn he was fast! Many compared him to Bruce Lee in terms of his speed and it was understandable, though predictable. What he also had was a demeanor that could go from a non-threatening and quiet little man to a lightning fast killing machine in a split second, and then return to being calm. It was a special kind of intimidation. Though normally playing the hero in China, he played a damn good villain.
Even Jet found himself being sucked into the Hollywood compartmentalization for Asian action stars. Fortunately, he seems to have avoided this. While there seems to be fewer and fewer of his movies coming out as the 2000s wore on, he still occasionally appears on American screens.
Stagnation With Inspiration
I think that after a certain point, Chinese actors started catching on to what Hollywood was trying to do and started rejecting roles that furthered their categorizations. Hence, we seem to have seen so little of any Chinese action movies recently. It is something western studios have been accused of for decades with other genres and cultures.
If you watch some of the movies from Asia, many of these actors who are typecast here often play more diverse characters than just mere ass-kickers. Sammo Hung in particular comes to mind because he played everything from Jackie Chan’s funnyman and friend to a cold blooded gangster. The western market, however, is more about making the financial return on films, especially if they are risks. It has been said that over recent years, Hollywood studios have become more risk-adverse because of failures in other genres where expanding roles were attempted. When it comes to whether an Asian action actor can become successful in American theaters, it really is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle.
Stereotypes come from examples, especially successful examples. Charlie’s Angels and The Matrix franchises are clear cases of this. And even though there was an attempt to typecast Asian actors, the bar was also raised for Western actors. Thanks specifically to Jackie Chan, they could no longer be expected to rely on their stunt doubles for fight sequences and action pieces and then expect their audiences to be impressed. We wanted to see the actor doing their own punches, kicks, and flips.
Now I think there are not as many martial arts films out there now, but we are still aware of them. I think western audiences also became aware of the tropes that studios try to enforce upon them. This meets with varying degrees of success. One common result that tends to happen is that when we realize that we are watching a stereotype, we are turned off by its lack of creativity, and thus the genre eventually stalls. The lightning vanishes as quickly as it came.
Films that do gain some western success remain only cult successes. Thailand’s action hero Tony Jaa follows this vein. Many people know of his films like the Ong-Bak franchise and The Protector, and I have heard no one criticize the effort he puts into it. Yet it hasn’t been enough to gain a large screen audience. He just made it onto our screens in The Fast and the Furious 7 in 2015.
Martial arts films have remained under the radar until The Raid in 2012. This franchise came from Indonesia and featured their native star, Silat. The Raid and its sequel quickly established themselves for their raw and intense violence and action that shocked its audiences and demanded our attention in a way that few other films have.
It had the straight forwardness that western audiences appreciated and featured a bad ass hero, but was unlike anything we had seen before. Here the hero gets bloodied and brutally puts down his opponents. He also displays fear and humanity that we are not accustomed to seeing from the likes of Vin Diesel and the Rock. I remember hearing about the film in college and when I actually saw it, I couldn’t believe it. Iku Uwais and Yayan Ruhia set a standard for excellent, but realistic fight sequences and it's being rumored that studios are taking notice.
Another interesting affect on American film goers was when I was watching the Raid 2. A couple of people uttered their amazement during a shirtless inspection scene that Iku did not have the physical physique that was expected; he looked like a regular guy. It shows how accustomed American audiences have become to associating martial arts with bodybuilders, a carry over from Bruce Lee.
The Raid’s success owes to the globalization that our society has become a part of. Back during the 1970s and through the 90s, you only heard of foreign movies and actors from obscure references and a VHS tape you bought at a cheap-ass store. Now thanks to the internet, and in particular Youtube, we can catch films from other countries that we won’t otherwise see over here.
However, I believe the era of the pure martial arts film over, at least in America. Audiences and actors have caught on to the tropes and with so many in Hollywood trying to become more diverse, it will become incorporated as part of larger stories rather than the story. South Korean actor Lee Byung-Hun achieved his success this way with the GI Joe franchise and the recent western, The Magnificent Seven. And this was how Donnie Yen achieved success in Rogue One.
Recipe For Success?
Coming back around to Donnie Yen, the actor has now at long last broken into the western mainstream and the question is going to be will he become trapped by his own success? Donnie Yen is considered by many to be the best Asian action star since Jackie Chan, though he has been around for nearly as long. He is creative and has an independent and expressive spirit, so I have a hard time seeing him kowtowing to studios wanting to make him a certain mold.
What about other actors though? If trends follow as they have in the past, Hollywood is going to start scouting out other Asian action stars, probably more so now with so many studios leaning towards diversity. If this is done right, we could become familiar with a host of faces from other countries that won’t be carbon copies of previous roles.
Hun’s role in The Magnificent Seven involved playing an Asian immigrant trying to survive in the west, which also had historical context. His martial arts skill set was just a portion of that character, as he also had skills with a gun and a friendship with a Civil War veteran. I thought the film did a good job not having the actor pigeonholed under a specific umbrella.
I think this is the new path for the genre. Being pieces to a larger puzzle where it fits with the larger story and character arc, and not just another tough guy movie. If Donnie Yen and those after him can do this and bring substance to the roles they play, then Asian actors can make a solid niche for themselves and not grow stale by going the way of action films of old.