A look at the actors from the East hoping to rise in the West, from Jackie Chan to Chow Yun-Fat

By Gregg Kilday
June 20, 1997 at 04:00 AM EDT

John Woo’s Face/Off should give his fellow Hong Kong filmmakers something to celebrate. The most famous member of a generation of directors known for over-the-top action, wild comedy, and sensual melodrama, Woo’s gone Hollywood without losing his Hong Kong roots. ”With Face/Off, the studios have let [a] Hong Kong filmmaker impose his signature on a Hollywood film,” says Locarno Film Festival director Marco Mueller, who scouts Hong Kong movie houses for possible exports. ”Hong Kong cinema has become part of the popular culture.”

But Hong Kong’s filmmakers have bigger things on their minds at the moment. After 156 years of colonial rule, Great Britain hands the colony back to China July 1. ”Among the filmmakers, there’s nationalistic pride about what’s going on, but below the surface, there’s also a lot of nervousness,” says Fredric Dannen, coauthor of Hong Kong Babylon: An Insider’s Guide to the Hollywood of the East.

”Censorship is going to be a huge problem,” predicts Terence Chang, Woo’s producer/partner. Actually, after mainland filmmaker Chen Kaige’s Temptress Moon was banned in China, Hong Kong cinema responded with self-censorship. ”Movies have gotten duller,” says Mueller. ”They don’t want to risk offending the political authorities.”

Meanwhile, Hollywood is eyeing the transition as a potential gold rush, hoping for a loosening of restrictions in China rather than a tightening in Hong Kong. Mike Medavoy’s Phoenix Pictures is exploring Hong Kong partnerships. Director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club) has opened a Hong Kong-based company, Chrome Dragon, to make movies that blend Eastern and Western talent, such as his Chinese Box, currently shooting with Gong Li and Jeremy Irons. ”Asia is a huge nascent market,” says Mike Simpson of William Morris, the agency most involved in forging a bridge between America and Asia. ”Logic would tell you that China profits by keeping Hong Kong open and vibrant, but logic doesn’t always prevail.” In the meantime, more Hong Kong filmmakers are seeking their fortune in America. Among the players:

JACKIE CHAN: The 43-year-old star broke through in America last year with Rumble in the Bronx, followed by Supercop and First Strike. Miramax opens Operation Condor July 18, and New Line counters with Rush Hour in the fall. Next, Chan is talking with producer-director John Hughes about starring in his comedy The Bee. ”Jackie’s in a dangerous place,” warns Dannen. ”Each picture has done less well than the last, and, to some degree, he’s past his physical prime.”

CHOW YUN-FAT: Playing a hitman in L.A., Woo’s frequent star will make his Hollywood debut next February, starring opposite Mira Sorvino in Columbia’s The Replacement Killers. ”The language is the only thing that was getting in his way in the beginning, and he’s got a grip on it,” says Chang. ”He’s not just an action star — he’s a damn good actor.”

MICHELLE YEOH: Jackie Chan’s Supercop costar could become an international celebrity in the new James Bond adventure, Tomorrow Never Dies. ”We don’t have many action heroines,” says Dannen. ”She speaks English better than she speaks Chinese, and the camera loves her.”