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Chinese action stars punch, kick, and block their way into the Year of the Rabbit

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Jan 22, 2023 5:00 am

Who are the most successful Chinese action stars?

In terms of box office earnings, we would have to begin with Jackie Chan, whose films have grossed $2.6 billion worldwide. With a net worth of $400 million, and 150 film credits, the 68-year-old actor’s kinetic stunts have powered top-grossing franchises like the Rush Hour movies, plus hits like Kung Fu Yoga, Kung Fu Panda 3, and the Karate Kid remake with Will Smith’s son Jaden filling the Ralph Macchio role.

But in terms of sheer punching/kicking/blocking cinema icon power, you’d have to put Bruce Lee first. Why? The Hong Kong-born martial artist who conquered Hollywood is an eternal legend, up there with James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and John Wayne. A Chinese actor who’s as recognizable as American Hollywood legends? Lee had it all.

Jackie Chan kicks his way into Hollywood legend, earning $2.6 billion in movie grosses.

And let’s not forget box office. Bruce Lee’s top-grossing film—and his last completed—was Enter the Dragon (1972), which earned $350 million worldwide, phenomenal for its time, considering it was made on a budget of $850,000. All in all, his films have grossed about $741 million. (He did die much younger than the firecracker Chan, who in many ways took Bruce Lee’s physical prowess and added a great deal more physical comedy into the mix.)

And there’s a reason Lee has been such a standout in the field of Chinese actors. He was a star. And that counts a lot in the Hollywood dream machine.

Not to be forgotten, Lee’s films like Fist of Fury, Way of the Dragon, and The Big Boss may have been made on a shoestring, but they advanced something even more important: a whole new school of martial arts he created, Jeet Kune Do, which combined combat techniques with classic martial arts moves to later inspire, among other industries, Mixed Martial Arts (MME). That yellow jumpsuit will live on in Hollywood history.

Bruce Lee, shown here intimidating Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Game of Death (1978), was a bona fide Hollywood star, earning him legend status among Chinese actors.

In fact, Taiwanese director Ang Lee announced recently that a new Bruce Lee biopic—starring the filmmaker’s own Mason Lee as the action star—is in the works. We only know it will be called Bruce Lee and will be scripted by Dan Futterman (Capote, Foxcatcher). Will the son of the director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon stand up to the legend?

And let’s not forget, Jackie Chan is no slouch. He’s just announced a greenlight for Rush Hour 4. Will the sexagenarian actor be able to pull off the same stunts with his comic foil Chris Tucker? We hope so. Chan has said he’s been searching for a decent script to continue the franchise for years. “I don’t want to always do the same thing again, again,” he says. “The last seven years, the script was no good.”

Furious directing

But here’s the thing: Chinese stars have always managed to break through in Hollywood, which loves a good action franchise. But the real money and power lie in producing and directing.

Fast & Furious producer and director Justin Lin created a high-octane franchise that’s earned $6 billion worldwide.

Take Justin Lin. The Fast & Furious director and producer helms a franchise that has netted $6 billion so far worldwide—far exceeding Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan’s combined. That the Taiwanese-American director built his empire on a genre—action—that the two godfathers before him created and elevated to global icon status is not to be forgotten, but celebrated. He’s got a million projects ready to greenlight, including a 3D remake of Jet Li’s Shaolin Temple, a redo of iconic manga Lone Wolf and Cub, and streaming deals with Apple and Sony. Lin’s action-packed universe has taken Chinese status and power into the Hollywood mainstream, and that’s some serious ass-kicking.

It’s clear that Chinese action stars—whether on the screen, behind the camera, or in the boardroom—are a force to be reckoned with in this Year of the Rabbit.

The other power move out there is artistic: Chloé Zhao winning a Best Director Oscar for the American film Nomadland in 2021 now seems like a watershed moment, seeming to cement China’s importance to worldwide cinema. Sure, it was a film about displaced Americans, but it said a lot that a Beijing-born, American-educated woman director with an artistic sensibility could click with Oscar audiences. Yet in China, her outspoken comments about life in the homeland were not exactly eaten up like Kung Pao chicken: Chinese media began monitoring and censoring her public comments after she won an Oscar. She’s since gone on to direct a $200 million Marvel movie, Eternals.

Beijing-born Chloé Zhao won an Oscar for Nomadland (2021) and now commands Marvel action movie budgets.

Being a top-dog Hollywood director? That has to be a sign that Chinese talent has found its way into the global mainstream. Many Chinese directors have managed to become arthouse favorites—such as Zhang Yimou, with historical and realist films such as Raise the Red Lantern and To Live; or Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, whose sumptuous romantic dramas such as Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love practically reinvented the Chinese film palette for the world. Meanwhile, others have been huge influences on Western directors, such as John Woo (worldwide box office: $1.3 billion) who inspired Quentin Tarantino’s look and feel in violent flicks like Reservoir Dogs. Or take the talented Ang Lee, whose Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tiger was a surprise massive hit, earning over $213 million in 2000 and launching global careers for Chow Yun-fat and Zhang Ziyi, not to mention a certain Malaysian martial arts actress named Michelle Yeoh.

Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh were breakout stars in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).

And it was Yeoh who expanded the Chinese martial arts universe even further in last year’s Everything Everywhere All at Once, playing a Chinese-American laundry owner who somehow discovers a tear in the fabric of the universe, leading to infinite multiverse alterations in reality, and plenty of kung fu. It’s clear that Chinese action stars—whether on the screen, behind the camera or in the boardroom—are a force to be reckoned with in this Year of the Rabbit.