Romeo Must Smooch

Kickstart my heart: Jet Li (center) in Once Upon a Time in China

After countless kung fu fight scenes and super stunts, Jet Li made the most acrobatic move of his career without a single kick. Like many martial arts stars before him, Li dropped into Hollywood in the late Nineties with hopes of matching his Hong Kong success in the West. His first two American films (Lethal Weapon 4 and Romeo Must Die), however, succeeded mainly in reinforcing familiar Asian stereotypes and thus dishonoring the heroic persona Li had developed over his entire career.

But you can't keep a Beijing man down. Enter Kiss of the Dragon, a kung fu espionage thriller that surpasses anything Li has come out with, Chinese or American, in recent memory. Don't expect your average American HK rip-off here: Dragon, starring Li as a hyper-cool Chinese intelligence agent caught in a French government conspiracy in the City of Lights, is a true cultural hybrid that successfully mixes some of the best talent in international action cinema. For starters, Li himself developed the story; Luc Besson co-wrote the screenplay and produced the film; Corey Yuen (who directed Li in The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk) choreographed the fight scenes; and the OutKast rapper Mystikal provided the raw rhymes to back up Li while he's bustin' ass on screen. It's definitely a rebound for Besson, who, as a director, hit a career low with The Messenger in 1999, and here, as a producer, has helped to invoke the spine-cracking intensity of his films La Femme Nikita and The Professional. But don't call it a comeback for Li: He just needed the chance to show that his skills haven't slipped since the early Nineties.

Perhaps it's fitting, then, that Columbia/TriStar Pictures has recently re-released the HK saga that kickstarted Li into Asian superstardom ten years ago. The first two Once Upon a Time in China films, screening for a week at Oak Street Cinema (with a couple of midnight showings at the Riverview), set the otherworldly standard for action choreography and helped spark a major renaissance in HK cinema. As the great 19th-century healer and martial artist Wong Fei Hung, an actual historical figure glorified in more than 100 HK films over the past four decades, Li embodied a limber metaphor for China's tradition and ultimate Westernization. The running romance between Wong, a Chinese man of custom, and Yee (Rosamund Kwan), a self-reliant woman with Western know-how, represents more than just mild love play.

In many ways, the re-release of the OUATIC films also offers insight into the distribution politics of HK action fare in the U.S. For the past decade, Columbia/TriStar and Miramax Films have been busy buying up old HK movies and either tossing them on the shelf to collect dust or releasing them directly to American home video in dubbed and butchered versions. To their credit, Columbia TriStar has at least made an attempt in recent years to offer the films in their original HK format on DVD. Don't expect, however, to see many of those originals screening in 35mm for much longer.

"The Once Upon a Time in China [theatrical] run is basically an anomaly," says Michael Schlesinger, vice president of repertory sales at Sony Pictures (Columbia TriStar's sister company) and the man who pushed for the series' big-screen release. "The anomaly is me. I knew the films could be successful in a limited run, and I really think they're phenomenal in their subtitled versions. But I'm only the small potatoes guy around here and can only do so much."

Schlesinger's reality doesn't sit well with Siew Wong, business affairs director at Minneapolis's Asian Media Access, which has programmed the "Cinema With Passion" series of action films at the Riverview for six years and counting. Wong says that since the Hollywood feeding frenzy, beginning with Jackie Chan's move across the Pacific, and continuing through the recent blockbuster success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it has become increasingly difficult for independent exhibitors to land prints of HK films. (Wong can at least claim a victory in securing the OUATIC screenings, a goal he has pursued on AMA's behalf for several years.)

"When we first started at the Riverview, we were able to show whatever films we wanted," says Wong. "Now, Chinatown theaters are closing all across America, and who knows how much longer we'll be able to do this? It's frustrating, but that's the nature of the beast."

So it's with a twist of irony that the best OUATIC films, which so forcefully symbolize the mixed blessing of China's Westernization, are now available for the first time in both Hong Kong and Americanized versions. These kung fu gems will hit the silver screen in their original incarnations just as it's becoming nearly impossible to see most HK classics in the theater, and just as Jet Li is beginning to reclaim the Wong Fei Hung character with his latest American release.

Overall, the Chinese are represented with dignity in Kiss of the Dragon. (Given Besson's involvement, it's somewhat surprising that the French fare far less well.) Much of Wong Fei Hung is reflected in Li's latest character, a chivalrous warrior who masterfully wields Chinese acupuncture and symbolizes a divided Chinese identity. The multiple allusions to films within the kung fu genre make sure that we know the score, too. In a fight scene that mocks The Matrix, Li and his bleach-blonde opponent stop in mid-action, calling for each other to step up and rumble by continually flapping their fingers like whining toddlers. In another scene, however, Li takes on a dojo full of fighters in homage to an authentic kung fu film, Bruce Lee's The Chinese Connection.

Which isn't to say that the film's hero doesn't carry some typical Asian stigmas. He's still more of an imperturbable fighting machine than a recognizable human being; even in the end, when his white female counterpart (Bridget Fonda) reaches out to him with compassion, he is, like almost every Asian man in American films, denied his ability to express emotion. It's a stereotype that has existed in martial-arts films ever since Bruce Lee made the crossover to America with Enter the Dragon in 1973. We can only hope that, in his next film, Jet Li will seal his break through that icy stereotype with a kiss.

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