This article was written By John Berra on 29 Apr 2011, and is filed under Features.

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About John Berra

John Berra is a lecturer in Film and Language Studies at Renmin University of China. He is the editor of the Directory of World Cinema: Japan (2010/12/15); co-editor of World Film Locations: Beijing (2012); and co-editor of World Film Locations: Shanghai (2014). His work has appeared in The End: An Electric Sheep Anthology (2011), Electric Shadows: A Century of Chinese Cinema (2014) and Ozu International: Essays on the Global Influences of a Japanese Auteur (2015).

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.

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  1. logboy
    10 May, 2011

    i can remember watching the same jackie chan season, i think, as well as one hell of a lot of godzilla movies on C4 in the early 90’s too. TV in the UK seems to have predominantly stuck to the more popular entertainment end of the spectrum for asian films – the major change for me came with ringu, about ten or eleven years ago, but i do seem to remember a sense of having seen ‘vengeance is mine’ on moviedrome, but didn’t realise it until i saw the film again on DVD thanks to MoC’s disc, many years later. most serious TV broadcasts of foreign film here seems to have come in the form of french cinema – something i would have been a regular viewer of if there was as much obviously around on disc when i started to buy japanese stuff instead – and there were once regular short seasons of it, but i haven’t seen much being so obviously pointed out since it was more possible to hide it away on BBC 3 or 4.

  2. John Berra
    2 June, 2011

    Mainstream television in the UK never seems to have embraced Asian cinema, although I admit to not being familiar with the scheduling on the digital channels. It is not really a problem for avid fans in the DVD era since many classic and current films can be purchased from Amazon for £5 or even less, or rented from such online services as LoveFilm, but it was pretty infuriating in the 1990s when it would cost more than £10 to buy a VHS copy of a film by Takeshi Kitano or Wong Kar-wai. Of course, the now-floundering rental shops were thriving back then, but many did not carry Asian titles, or would only stock action pictures such as Hard Boiled if they had been dubbed. More seasons devoted to specific eras, genres and movements in Asian cinema would certainly help to enhance general awareness in the UK.

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