From Snake, Eagle and Cat to Stardom at Last (Part 1 of 2)
Four decades ago, the Hong Kong-born Chan Kong-sang (a name he says literally translates as “Born-in-Hong-Kong” Chan) had already worked in movies 15 years, starting as a child actor and growing through the years as a supporting performer and/or stuntman/stunt coordinator on 29 films (including two projects placing him on the business end of the badass fighting fury of the phenomenal Bruce Lee, 1971’s Fists of Fury/The Chinese Connection and 1973’s Enter the Dragon), the global box-office favorite and honorary Academy Award® winner Jackie Chan was at a career crossroads. He had starred in a handful of action movies that cast him in the traditional martial-arts mode of grim avenger, caught up in the cycle of Hong Kong cinema producers scrambling to discover “the next Bruce Lee” following that icon’s startling, premature 1973 death, and all had proved unsuccessful at drawing audiences. In his personable and candid 1998 memoir I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action, Chan recalls a particularly uncomfortable exchange in which he was told, “It’s a real problem, Jackie. You’re gaining a reputation in the industry as box-office poison. If that reputation sticks, the distributors will revolt – and no amount of luck or skill will be able to save your career then.” Then he met with Ng See-yuen, the former Shaw Brothers associate who went off to form Seasonal Film Corporation, who, instead of talking about the ways Chan could fit into his studio’s portfolio, posed the life-changing question: “If I put Jackie Chan in a movie, what can Jackie Chan do?” The astonished actor paused, and as he recalled, “Like an avalanche, it all came out….Bruce was a success because he did things that no one else was doing. Now everyone is doing Bruce. If we want to be successful too, we need to be Bruce’s opposite….Bruce was Superman, but I think that audiences want to see someone who’s just a man. Like them. Someone who wins only after making a lot of mistakes, who has a sense of humor. Someone who’s not afraid to be a coward. Uh, I guess that doesn’t make too much sense, does it?” Ng replied, “I think it makes all the sense in the world, Jackie. All the sense in the world. Let’s do it. Let’s make your movie.” From that encounter came the seed for Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978), Chan’s box-office breakthrough in which, he says, “we wanted to reinvent the martial-arts movie – to bring humor and humanity to a gene that seemed to have lost its sense of both.” The collaborators shaped a different take on the traditional kung-fu old master/young student relationship: the elder teacher was conceived as a dotty beggar and Chan’s youngster “a simple bumpkin without manners or ambitions, trapped into learning against my will.” Indeed, in another advantageous choice, the dexterous and experienced Shaw Brothers actor Simon Yuen Siu-tin, Chan’s former school instructor and also the father of the film’s director Woo-Ping Yuen, was cast as the aged master, the last practitioner of the venerable Snake Fist school of martial arts, now the target of vicious attacks by members of the Eagle Claw clan. Chan’s character of Chien Fu trains to the max and tries to retaliate against the Eagle Claw leader – but it proves inadequate to the task. “It looks like the end for me and my master,” Chan relates, “until I discover my pet cat fighting with a poisonous snake. Even though the snake is fast and venomous, the cat wins the battle with his agility and leaping ability. Once the snake has struck, it is committed; the cat, on the other hand, can twist and turn away from any attack, and land on its feet with any fall. I realize that a cat-style martial arts would be stronger than Snake Fist, and perhaps even stronger than Eagle Claw. After all, cats eat birds, don’t they?...The acrobatics and tumbling that we incorporated into [Chan’s invented] style looked wonderful, and the fight was just as exciting as any of Bruce’s battles – yet completely unique in look, feel, and tone.” Several weeks after the movie opened, Ng asked Chan another question: “What’s the biggest film in the history of Hong Kong?” Although Chan and director Yuen proposed more readily obvious responses – Fists of Fury, Way of the Dragon, Ng replied, “You’re both wrong,” showing them the box-office numbers, “the answer is Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow.” After minutes of appreciative hoopla, he continued: “No time to celebrate. We have to prove to the distributors that this thing, this Jackie Chan phenomenon, is not a fluke. We have to make them understand that you, my boy, are for real. And that means another movie.” Chan’s recollections about that next career-defining project, Drunken Master (1978), will follow tomorrow. The power-packing double-feature Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray of the recently remastered and subtitled Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, outfitted with Cantonese, Mandarin and English-dubbed audio, whirls into action June 13. Preorders open May 31.