Asian Cinema Origins: John Berra

Editor’s note: In the last episode of the VCinema Podcast, we discussed our Asian film origins, the titles that got us into cinema of that region.  In this short series of articles, our lead writers talk about their early Asian cinema experiences.

In the early 1990s, UK broadcaster Channel 4 treated audiences to a season of Jackie Chan films over the Christmas period. Each film was screened in widescreen format, completely uncut, with English subtitles rather than the horrible dub tracks which were associated with foreign-language action films at the time. This season included Police Story (1985), a stunt-packed action picture in which Chan’s idealistic police inspector deals with department bureaucracy en route to bringing down a Hong Kong crime boss. A chase through a shanty town and Chan single-handedly wrecking an upscale shopping mall were among the action highlights, but I found the most memorable set-piece to involve the star attempting to eat a bowl of noodles while answering multiple ringing phones when left alone at the police station. Amid all this originality, the only stunt that seemed strangely familiar was the bus-stopping scene, but that was because it had been ripped-off by Hollywood to make Sylvester Stallone look good in Tango and Cash (1989). Unfortunately, when I picked up the VHS copy of Police Story that was released by now-defunct UK budget label 4-Front, I found that it was not only badly dubbed and presented in the pan-and-scan format, but that it was bereft of the aforementioned ‘noodles scene’. As such, my introduction to commercial Asian cinema was also my introduction to how it is often mistreated by international distributors – in this case, the emphasis on action over comedy – as a means of catering to the perceived preferences of the market.

Regular readers of VCinema may have noticed that Jackie Chan vehicles – and Hong Kong action movies in general – are not high on my agenda in terms of reviews. I still enjoy such extravaganzas providing they are well-executed, but my academic appreciation of Hong Kong cinema revolves more around the work of Wong Kar-wai than the exploits of Benny Chan and his stunt team. Yet it is always a pleasure to revisit Police Story, which exhibits a go-for-broke energy that it is currently absent in a Hong Kong action cinema that is trying to compete with Hollywood by offering local audiences faux-nostalgia period pieces and computer effects-assisted spectacle. After achieving a belated US box office breakthrough with Rush Hour (1998), Chan would spend much of the subsequent twelve years performing in family-friendly Hollywood studio films or carefully-positioned international co-productions, so although Police Story is predictably dated, the ferocity with which Chan dishes out justice in the finale is far removed from the affable heroics of more recent appearances. The frustration that his character feels with regards to police corruption is palpable, yet his police inspector also shows the questionable lengths that the department will go to in order to ensure witness cooperation – staging a break-in and murder attempt – albeit in a comedic manner. However, Police Story is still best enjoyed as a series of death-defying stunts, as exemplified by the fact that Chan’s slide down a three-story pole of electric lights is shown three times in order to emphasise the star’s incredible bravery.