In 1997, the sovereignty of Hong Kong reverted from the U.K. to the People's Republic of China. In those days, several Hong Kong stars and filmmakers fled for the United States, fearful of their creative freedom under the new Communist government. Many people consider the years between 1986 and roughly 1992 the golden age of Hong Kong, martial arts cinema, though many interesting things have certainly happened since then, as well as some unfortunate things. Following is my assessment.
Best: Jet Li
Worst: Jackie Chan
Don't get me wrong. I love Jackie Chan. Meeting him was an honor I'll never forget, but no one can argue that his Hollywood period, beginning in 1996 with the edited, dubbed version of Rumble in the Bronx, is anywhere near as good as his peak in Hong Kong, from the mid-1980s to 1994. We could start with the dumb, annoying, but extremely popular Rush Hour films, and then throw in things like The Medallion and The Tuxedo, not to mention the butchering of some of his HK classics and the non-distribution of his newer, Hong Kong-based works. (I can forgive him the two likeable Shanghai movies and Kung Fu Panda.)
Jet Li on the other hand has blossomed as a performer, especially in three movies (no matter that two of them were not made in English). He was the powerfully stoic centerpiece of Hero (2004), mesmerizing while hardly moving a muscle. He gave a more complex performance and unexpectedly moving as the mistreated fighter in Unleashed (2005). And finally, he starred in a full-fledged biopic with an honest-to-goodness character arc, Fearless (2006). Sadly he had to go and appear in the wretched The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, but nobody's perfect.
Worst: Broken Arrow
John Woo is one of my favorite directors, and he was one of the first to land in Hollywood. Having interviewed him several times, I have a theory: he's too nice to navigate the sewers and rat traps of Hollywood and he often gets the short end of the stick. I also believe that his style is too highly emotional and operatic for American viewers, who would probably prefer a halfway decent, dumbed-down Woo copy to the real thing. But among Woo's dubious American achievements is one masterpiece: Face/Off. Its crazy premise proved a perfect fit for Woo's style and themes, and both John Travolta and Nicolas Cage stepped up with two superbly unhinged performances. I can make arguments for all the rest of Woo's American films -- except Broken Arrow.
Best: Yuen Woo-Ping
Worst: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
When the Wachowski brothers hired Yuen Woo-Ping to choreograph The Matrix, I thought it would be the beginning of a golden age. No more horrible, junky, blurry, shaky-cam action sequences. From now on, everything would look clean and fast and razor-sharp. (Yuen's brother Cheung-Yan also came to Hollywood and did some impressive work on Charlie's Angels.) Unfortunately, Yuen was hired to work on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It's a beautiful film, and I loved seeing Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-fat back in action, but it's a slowed-down, inflated version of a real martial arts film. It was meant for art houses rather than grindhouses, and it changed the whole nature of the game for the worse. Action films went back to being junky, blurry and shaky.
Best: Tony Leung Chiu-wai
Worst: Chow Yun-fat
Tony Leung Chiu-wai (not to be confused with his namesake Tony Leung Ka Fai) has become one of the most commanding actors from Hong Kong over the past decade or so. Just check out these credits: Chungking Express, Cyclo, Happy Together, Flowers of Shanghai, In the Mood for Love, Hero, Infernal Affairs, 2046; Lust, Caution; Ashes of Time Redux and Red Cliff (not to mention John Woo's classic Hard-Boiled). He's like a classic movie star, suave, handsome and cool. Chow Yun-fat has all those qualities as well, but he unfortunately became associated solely with action movies, even though he is not a martial artist. His Hollywood career has been one of the most abysmal and disappointing of anyone's: the mindless, sub-Woo action films The Replacement Killers, The Corruptor and Bulletproof Monk, Crouching Tiger and the awful knockoff Curse of the Golden Flower, the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and it goes downhill from there.
Best: Wong Kar-wai
Worst: Ringo Lam
Wong managed to remain behind in Hong Kong and still make the movies he wanted to make, and he has become one of the world's most exciting directors (even if his English-language debut, My Blueberry Nights, didn't seem to catch on). On the other hand, Ringo Lam, who had made a series of excellent Chow Yun-fat action films (including City on Fire), came to Hollywood and disappeared, directing straight-to-video Jean Claude Van Damme movies like Replicant and In Hell.
Best: Maggie Cheung
Worst: Michelle Yeoh
Maggie Cheung went from being a cutie-pie sidekick to one of the most honored of all Chinese actresses for a series of interesting and challenging roles that began with Actress (a.k.a. Center Stage) in 1992. Meanwhile, the beautiful, elegant Michelle Yeoh -- who does her own stunts -- wound up having to be rescued by James Bond in Tomorrow Never Dies and then in dull costume movies like Memoirs of a Geisha and The Children of Huang Shi.
Best: Tsui Hark
Worst: Tsui Hark
What's up with Tsui Hark? He was one of the most prolific and talented of all the Hong Kong filmmakers, with a long string of classics on his resume. Along with John Woo, he kick-started the Hong Kong New Wave of the 1980s with his Peking Opera Blues. When he came to Hollywood, he was stuck with two of the worst Jean Claude Van Damme movies, Double Team and Knock Off. He returned to Hong Kong with the excellent Time and Tide, which was ignored in late 2000 and early 2001, even in the wake of enthusiasm for Crouching Tiger. And... that's about it. He has been working, and some of his films have come to DVD in America, but a filmmaker of his distinction deserves more.