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The Big Picture

The Dragon Is Hidden No Longer

October 16, 2001|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

"This film is in great shape," Harvey Weinstein was crowing the other day. "We put $2 million into the movie just in restoration costs alone. We got a composer to do a new score; it has a new stereo soundtrack, with a great new sound mix and sound effects. Everything was first-class. We even did the mix at the Skywalker Ranch."

To hear him talk, you'd think the Miramax czar had lovingly restored a lost Sergei Eisenstein classic he'd found buried in Lenin's tomb. But the object of Weinstein's affection is "Iron Monkey," an obscure Hong Kong martial-arts movie with a cast of equally obscure actors that has been hidden away on the back walls of a few hip video stores for nearly a decade. But it's a cult object no more. Last weekend the 1993 film enjoyed an improbable resurrection, getting great reviews and delivering a solid box-office performance--opening at No. 6 with $6 million and a per-screen average just behind the weekend's leader, "Training Day."

What prompted Miramax to restore the film and spend roughly $10 million to open it on 1,225 screens? The simple answer: Asian movies are red-hot.

"Iron Monkey" is the latest beneficiary of the runaway success last year of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," Ang Lee's epic martial arts romance that won four Academy Awards and earned $128 million in the U.S. alone. Miramax's ads aren't shy about making the connection. Even though "Iron Monkey" director Yuen Wo Ping is renowned in Asia as the director of 28 movies over the last two decades, he is billed in Miramax's ads as the action choreographer behind "Crouching Tiger" and "The Matrix," the first box-office hit to expose young male moviegoers to Hong Kong-style martial arts ballet.

As Quentin Tarantino, who is billed as the film's presenter, put it in a recent interview: "I told Miramax about Yuen six years ago. I said, 'Get Jet Li and ['Iron Monkey' star] Donnie Yen in a movie and get Yuen to direct it.' They said, 'Yeah, yeah,' and that was that. Then came 'The Matrix' and 'Crouching Tiger,' and they wanted to be in the Hong Kong action movie business."

The success of "Crouching Tiger," coupled with the emergence of Jackie Chan as a global film star, has sparked a flood of interest in Asian cinema. From a purely commercial standpoint, Hollywood is betting that Hong Kong-style martial arts films, which put more emphasis on gravity-defying stunts than on blood-drenched gunplay, can deliver a new generation of action icons to replace aging stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. After the huge success of the two "Rush Hour" films, Chan has his pick of action projects all over town. Miramax has already released three old Chan films with new soundtracks and dubbed English dialogue.

Li is also on the cusp of stardom, with several high-profile projects in the works, including one that teams him with Chan. The martial arts theme is so hot that Universal Pictures marketed its 17th century swashbuckler, "The Musketeer," as if it were a Hong Kong action film. Despite bad reviews, it opened atop the box office last month.

Asia is also in vogue in more artistic circles. Foreign art house films have been in decline since the glory days of Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman and Francoise Truffaut, but that's turning around, quickly. "Asia is what's happening today in terms of exciting films and gifted directors," says Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which has released a slew of Asian films, including "Crouching Tiger."

"Asian films are fresh," Barker notes. "You feel you're in the presence of a lot of volcanic new talents. When we were at Cannes last year with 'Crouching Tiger,' it was extraordinary how many great Asian films were there, each one more visceral than the next."

Barker's company has been in the Asian film business for years. He's been to China numerous times and has already released six films by Zhang Yimou, one of China's leading directors, whose latest film, "Happy Times," is due out from Sony Classics next Memorial Day. Zhang has just as many American filmmaker fans as Yuen; one of the producers of "Happy Times" is legendary recluse Terence Malick.

Miramax's Weinstein insists that the accounts of his berating his acquisitions staff for letting "Crouching Tiger" slip away are wildly exaggerated. "It's not true that it drove me crazy," he says. But over the last year he has gone on an Asian shopping spree, buying a flock of films at recent festivals.

Miramax plans a wide release next spring for "Zu Warriors," a special-effects-laden period action film directed by Hong Kong master Tsui Hark. At the urging of Tarantino, whom Weinstein calls "my acquisitions exec in charge of Hong Kong movies," Miramax bought three films starring Stephen Chow, a comic actor known as Hong Kong's answer to Jim Carrey. Miramax will release Chow's "Shaolin Soccer" next year, as well as "Tears of the Black Tiger," a Thai Western that Weinstein boasts "is the campiest thing you've ever seen."

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