Hong Kong actor Chow Yun-Fat is best known among a U.S. cult following for his string of martial-arts-plus-automatic-weapons movies with director John Woo, who introduced him to a broader audience last year with The Replacement Killers. Now director James Foley is adding to Chow's exposure with "The Corruptor." Rich in Chinese culture and atmosphere, it's an action-packed story about triad turf wars that gives Chow a chance to flex his dramatic muscles.
Chow plays Nick Chen, a New York Chinatown cop who's part of the Asian Gang Unit but also has close ties to the Chinese triads; Mark Wahlberg plays Danny Wallace, a rookie assigned as Chen's partner but really there to investigate Chen. Between the car chases and flying bullets, Chow and Wahlberg generate a palpable chemistry. A strong supporting cast includes Brian Cox as Danny's father and Kim Chan as Uncle Benny, a triad member with a good heart.
In the film, good and evil aren't black and white, and nowhere is this shading more telling than in the connotations of the title. On the take, Chen is pegged as the one who has been corrupted, will corrupt Danny and turn corruption on itself. But as Danny's surrogate father, he ends up saving him.
With "The Corruptor" -- which includes moments of real warmth -- U.S. moviegoers finally can see the way of Chow, a screen presence full of talent who submerges himself in his character and acts on the edge, but with humanness and honesty.
Director Woo recognized Chow's presence and collaborated with him in the mid-'80s to redefine action cinema. As with Woo's influential movies, "The Corruptor" is about bloodshed, honor and betrayal. It appropriates the style and elements of Hong Kong film, including rapid-fire action sequences, Chow's signature two-handed gunplay, lots of male bonding and some Chinese philosophizing. In essence, the film displays the reciprocal relationship that's grown between Hong Kong and Hollywood.
Woo, like others, acknowledges the influence of Hollywood on his work. "It is ironic that Hollywood began to imitate Hong Kong movies in the late 1980s and 1990s," says Woo, "because Hong Kong films are imitations of Hollywood films -- so Hollywood is imitating Hollywood!"
Beyond the action sequences, "The Corruptor" includes several interesting twists, as well as cultural comments and jokes, from Chen's description of Wallace as "less than white -- he's green" to Chow's admonition to a gang member to "speak English" -- an in-joke about Chow's limited English dialogue in "The Replacement Killers."
Woo began calling Hollywood home in 1991, when he was directing Jean-Claude Van Damme in "Hard Target." As his partner and friend producer Terence Chang notes, "Hollywood did have a tradition of hiring foreign non-English-speaking directors and converting them into their own. But never before had an Asian director succeeded in making the transition." Woo's success opened doors for other Asian filmmakers, and several Hong Kong artists are now earning recognition. Boston-raised maverick Donnie Yen, now making movies in Hong Kong, explains, "They've proved that a Hong Kong director can direct a Hollywood movie with an American crew. Before John Woo, no one really knew that for sure."
For example, Hong Kong directors Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam have worked with Van Damme for Hollywood films. Ronny Yu made a children's movie, "Warriors of Virtue," before playing with the horror genre in Bride of Chucky. Following the success of his Jackie Chan releases here ("Rumble in the Bronx" and "Supercop"), Stanley Tong brought his own crew over for 1997's "Mr. Magoo." But saddled with a lead actor (Leslie Nielson) who could only walk, stand and sit, Tong's trademark action scenes were restricted.
Nonetheless, Asian directors have generally fared better than actors, and Asian faces onscreen remain problematic. Jackie Chan remains a charismatic presence, and Michelle Yeoh, Chan's female counterpart in Asia, broke into Hollywood movies in the latest Bond movie, "Tomorrow Never Dies." But cast as the new and improved Bond girl because of her athletic abilities, Yeoh's dramatic talents were underplayed. And Jet Li, despite appearing in successful and crowd-pleasing movies, was reduced to playing the lead villain among mostly Chinese-faced villains in Lethal Weapon 4. Moreover, racist jokes directed against Asians and African-Americans in both Li's movie and Chan's Rush Hour are disturbing. Is this what it takes to get Chinese faces onscreen?
Still, the commercial and critical success of Woo's "Face/Off" bodes well for the future, and Asian names are beginning to be associated with other genres besides action. Peter Chan's drama "Love Letter" will be released in May. Woo is filming "Mission Impossible 2" with Tom Cruise and may team again with Chow Yun-Fat for a romantic comedy, "King's Ransom," before tackling a World War II drama set in Hawaii. Chow is currently filming "Anna and the King" with Jodie Foster.
It sure looks like Hong Kong fare is on the Hollywood menu to stay.