WELCOME TO AMERICA! ‘RUMBLE IN THE BRONX’ AS A MASTERCLASS IN CULTURAL FUSION

The 1994 movie Rumble in the Bronx, which launched Jackie Chan into international superstardom overnight, was the result of a carefully-planned effort to bring Jackie to Western audiences. Chan, already in his 40s at the time, had enjoyed over a decade of stardom in his native Hong Kong; acting, directing stunts, and even directing two movies. But when it came time to break into the American market, Jackie, perfectionist that he is, had to carefully mull over his options and pick out the project that would give the West a glimpse of Jackie Chan exactly the way he wanted to be shown. He picked well. Roger Ebert, in his positive review, expressed the mainstream critical consensus: “Any attempt to defend this movie on rational grounds is futile. Don’t tell me about the plot and the dialogue. Don’t dwell on the acting. The whole point is Jackie Chan – and, like Astaire and Rogers, he does what he does better than anybody.” But, far from being plotless, Rumble in the Bronx tells a compelling story with its stunts, fights, and direction – a story about mixing cultures, about the immigrant experience, and about the universal language of the moving picture.

When Rumble came out, it’s not as if Jackie hadn’t done American movies before. He’d done four, including a forgettable cameo appearance in 1981’s Cannonball Run and the more substantial role in 1985’s The Protector. And as he notes in his autobiography I Am Jackie Chan, he got offers quite more often than that, but these projects were usually not to his taste. Among others, Michael Douglas had offered him the role of the Japanese villain in Black Rain, and Sylvester Stallone had contacted him about playing the villain in Demolition Man, but Jackie thought his fans would be disappointed if he played a bad guy. He remembers a conversation with a marketing rep from New Line Cinema pitching Rumble in the Bronx as America’s “introduction” to Jackie Chan. “Yeah, some people may have seen your American films, and you’ve certainly got a big cult following…But seriously, do you think that America–middle America, shopping-mall America–knows Jackie Chan? The real Jackie Chan?”

“The marketing guy had been speaking English, of course,” Jackie writes, “and even after all these years, my English wasn’t perfect. It didn’t matter. The guy was speaking a language I understood.”

As it happens, one of the very first scenes in Rumble in the Bronx shows Chan’s Keung speaking to his Uncle Bill (Bill Tung Tieu) suggesting they speak in English because they’re in America now. “My English is OK for simple things,” says Keung modestly. “The more you speak English, the better you’ll get at it!” Bill replies. It should be noted here that Jackie Chan’s movie persona is in many ways an answer to the previous biggest international Hong Kong star, Bruce Lee – and Lee, having attended English-language schools all through his childhood and teens, never had the problem that Chan and Keung are both facing here. Chan was never interested in playing a character like the stoic and stern Lee characters who made everything look effortless. His lack of confidence in English makes him look more humble, more of an everyman–it’s a deeply humanizing detail, and Jackie’s accent is as much a part of his star persona as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s.

Ironically, the conversation between Bill and Keung about English only happens in the English dub of the film released in the U.S.. The film was actually shot as a multilingual production, with Jackie speaking his native Cantonese throughout the entire movie, and the American and Canadian actors speaking English back to them in the same scene. This didn’t matter to Asian audiences, who have long been accustomed to movies that use several languages interchangeably – in particular, Hong Kong, whose movies often feature long exchanges in the standard Mandarin Chinese dialect instead of Cantonese – but Americans wouldn’t put up with that, and the studio obliged them.

However, for the English language release of Rumble, the dialogue was re-dubbed for both the English-speaking and Cantonese-speaking actors, creating a curiously flattened dialogue sound and noticeable mismatch with the actors’ lip movements. It’s kind of a bizarre experience to watch a movie set in America, with American actors speaking English, and still feel like you’re watching a foreign movie. Of course, it is a foreign movie, and of course, this kind of thing happens all the time if you happen to be a non-American watching a Hollywood movie set overseas. Seeing your own country depicted through foreign eyes is something Americans experience much less often than the rest of the world.

Though set in the titular Bronx borough of New York City, Rumble was (in)famously filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia, the Hollywood of Canada and frequent cinematic stand-in for any number of cities worldwide. (As a former Carmen Sandiego champion, I can tell you that New York City definitely does not have any mountains.) Although motivated by budgetary concerns, the choice of Vancouver was unintentionally appropriate in a number of ways. It’s an on-the-nose metaphor for cultural mixture – as far as physical distance goes, Vancouver’s about as close to halfway between New York and Hong Kong as you can get, except maybe Honolulu. The production crew of Rumble started out trying to downplay the lack of resemblance to New York–picking camera angles that excluded the mountains, avoiding shooting locations with clearly dissimilar architecture, going so far as to paint fake graffiti each day and taking it back down again when they were finished–but you can see them give up near the end of the movie, with mountains clearly to be seen in the background. (Hong Kong, interestingly enough, does have mountains.) Chan notes in I Am Jackie Chan that he figured if people were focusing on the scenery he wasn’t doing his job very well.

Also, Vancouver is known for having one of the biggest Chinese communities of any city outside mainland China, with nearly 30 percent of its residents being of Chinese heritage. New York, of course, has its own Chinese community, but not nearly on such a level. And the language they commonly speak in Vancouver’s Chinese districts, as they do in New York’s Chinatown, as they do in nearly every single Chinese community in cities the world over, is not Mandarin Chinese, but Cantonese, the language of Hong Kong. Hong Kong, along with the surrounding Lingnan region where Cantonese is spoken, is a relatively tiny part of China, yet its status as an important port since the 16th century means it represents a gigantic portion of the overseas Chinese diaspora. You can find Hong Kongers on every continent, in nearly every major city. As a British colony for over 150 years, Hong Kong additionally represented both an in-road for Western culture in the East and a haven for exiles and political dissidents from the Chinese mainland. And the outsized influence of Hong Kong’s movie industry means that not only the Chinese in our neighborhoods are likely to be Hong Kongers, but also the Chinese on our television screens as well. Jackie Chan, coming as he does from Hong Kong, is in a very real sense the face of China in the West. And he is very conscious of this.

In the PRC era, Hong Kong has distinguished itself by adopting rabidly capitalist and globalist values. Travel writer Pico Ayer once described the city as: “a perfect moveable feast for go-getters, over-achievers, and rootless ex-patriots.” The fact that Keung’s uncle Bill is a shop-owner plays right into this. Not only does it reflect the famously entrepreneurial spirit of the Hong Kong community, but it pays sly homage to an ugly reality of the Chinese history in the United States. During the years of the Chinese Exclusion Act, from the late 19th to the mid-20th centuries, you simply could not come here if you were from China. Exceptions were made, of course, for diplomats, upper-crust students, and similar others. If you were a regular person, one of the only ways to come to America to stay was to know someone overseas who had a small business and come over to work for them.  

This is, in fact, the reason why there are so many Chinese restaurants in the United States–thanks to a loophole in immigration law, the owners of certain types of small businesses could get visas to go back to China to recruit new workers.

The beginning of Rumble shows Keung coming to America for the wedding of his Uncle Bill, who’s already been in the U.S. for 30 years. Bill runs a Chinese supermarket, but at the request of his wife-to-be, he will be selling the market and moving out to the country. Bill drives Keung through Manhattan and lets Keung marvel at the glamorous surroundings, before taking him to the decidedly less tony location of his supermarket in the Bronx. Stepping into the supermarket, Keung first assumes that Bill’s fiancée is the demure Chinese woman he sees stocking shelves, addressing her by the familiar Asian title “Auntie” and presenting her a wedding present. To his surprise, Keung finds out that Bill is actually going to marry a large, loud, and overly friendly black woman. “What can I say to you – welcome to America!” says Bill jovially.

The premise makes liberal use of a common Hong Kong film trope in which the hero’s strong sense of family loyalty leads him into an impossible scenario. Uncle Bill is selling the market to fellow Chinese immigrant Elaine (Anita Mui), and Keung, good nephew that he is, helps convince the uncertain Elaine to buy. Unbeknownst to either, Bill is secretly itching to get rid of the market because it is plagued by shoplifting, vandalism, and a local gang running a protection racket. After Bill closes the deal, he and his wife leave on their honeymoon, and the good-hearted Keung volunteers to stay a while longer, both to housesit for Bill and to help Elaine with any difficulties she might encounter starting on the job. When the market is attacked by unruly gangsters, Keung, feeling guilty and partially responsible for Elaine’s trouble, uses his martial arts skills to repel the attackers. The plot neatly fuses a Chinese action trope to the typically American obsession with street crime, urban decay, and vigilantism, and Bill’s troubles (and his solution to them) deftly fuse a sad historical reality of the Chinese immigrant experience with a repurposing of a common American stereotype about “sneaky Chinese.”

Rumble was billed as a fish-out-of-water comedy, but aside from Keung’s bemusement at Bill’s choice of spouse, there aren’t many actual jokes relating to Keung’s culture shock. What really communicates Keung’s wrong-footedness is in the way he fights. The cultural fusion doesn’t just go one way – Chan’s unique, loose-limbed brand of kung fu owes a lot to the great physical comedians of the silent era: Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton. These performers, like Chan, often played well-meaning, hard-luck little guys doing their best to stumble through the crushing impersonal forces of an unfriendly world. Like most fight scenes from most Jackie Chan movies, Keung nearly always starts out from a disadvantaged position and has to fight his way back to the top through pluck and ingenuity. His frantic movements, wide stances, rubber-limbed antics all show that he’s the underdog and is frantically trying to claw on top. In the first fight scene in the supermarket, Keung’s outnumbered four-to-one, and two of his opponents have knives. He has to spray his enemies with soda, wrap up their knives with his jacket, and make them slip on spilled candy in order to win. Chan’s penchant for unorthodox props like this is one of his biggest trademarks, and they’re not only funny, absurd sight gags; they’re signs of his humanity, visible markers of his limitations and of his determination to overcome them. He’s outmatched; he has to get creative. This makes him sympathetic.

Another thing making Keung sympathetic is shown in the next fight scene, in which one of the gang members’ girlfriends Nancy (Francoise Yip) stages a fake gang-rape to lure Keung into a spot where the gang can attack him. This time Keung has more opponents, but also more space to work with, and here is where the Chaplin/Keaton influence really shines through. Keung escapes as much through wits and fighting ability as by his ability to acrobatically leap, shimmy, climb over fences and up walls, and generally go where no one expects him. No nook is too small for him to cram himself into; no impediment is too high for him to scale; no fall is too great for him to jump and land with an expert tuck-and-roll. This guy is no Bruce Lee: he doesn’t want to fight, he would rather run than inflict violence, and when he can’t escape he just lies down and takes it, as at the end of the scene where he’s cornered in the alley and pelted with bottles. The tension between our expectations of a kung-fu hero and Jackie’s hapless antics is the source of a lot of humor, as is Jackie’s refusal to take pain silently as a kung-fu hero is supposed to do. He gets hurt, a lot, and when he gets hurt, he moans, screams, screws up his face; it’s Jackie’s willingness to be the butt of misfortune, to make constant undignified pratfalls, that makes him funny, as is his ability to sell the joke by the appropriate squint, grimace, or flinch.

Action, being pretty easy to understand (everyone can relate to mortal peril), is the genre of choice for movies seeking cross-cultural appeal. Comedy, being pretty much the most culturally specific thing imaginable, is not. Because of this, the comedic stock characters used in Rumble in the Bronx are the broadest and most exaggerated to be found in Hong Kong cinema, just to make sure the humor lands. The petty gangsters are your classic dumb brutes and skinny spazoids prone to bug-eyed and freaked-out reaction shots, familiar to anyone who’s watched a Hong Kong actioner. They sneer arrogantly before a fight; they yelp and whimper like kicked dogs after one. There’s an extra layer of absurdity here that comes from the kind of questionably-translated colloquial speech and slang come out of the mouths of American actors. Less familiar in America but still appreciable to American viewers is the character of Elaine, who represents the classic Hong Kong character of the shy and freaked-out young woman who bites her lip and absorbs all manner of indignity the whole movie before losing it and having an epic freak-out all over our male lead.

In both action and comedy, the key is constantly raising the stakes, upping the tension. And Rumble does not disappoint in this area. Piled on top of this starting premise is a subplot about one of the dumber gangsters (Garvin Cross) stumbling across some stolen diamonds from a fence job gone bad and hiding them in the wheelchair of Danny, a disabled Asian boy who lives next door to Keung, whose older sister just so happens to be Nancy, the woman who lured Keung to the fire escape. The plot gets more and more absurd, the fight scenes sillier and sillier. The diamonds angle gives Keung the chance to indulge in a trope common to both American and Hong Kong action movies: the lone supercop (Keung is supposed to be a Hong Kong cop, a fact left out of the American cut of the movie) to take down a massive crime syndicate by his own loose-cannon self. Keung also forgives Nancy and starts a relationship with her, which leads him into trouble when the gang wrecks the shop and Elaine lays a massive guilt trip on him for going on dates instead of watching the store like he said he would. There’s a big brawl in a warehouse full of stolen merchandise, Keung beats all the criminals into not being criminals anymore, the big bads pull the store apart looking for the diamonds, Keung tries to entrap them, and there’s a massive goofball finishing sequence with boats, swords, and Keung running the old crime lord over with a hovercraft, tearing his pants off and exposing his butt in the process. And as a final concession to its Hong Kong origins, it ends on a dime after the final action sequence with absolutely no denouement.

This was America’s introduction to the real Jackie Chan, and it was successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. It brought Chan into Hollywood, but that’s not all it did – it nearly singlehandedly kicked off a wild demand for Hong Kong cinema in Hollywood. In the next couple of years, established Chinese personalities such as John Woo, Chow Yun-Fat, and Jet Li would migrate across the pond and become American superstars in their own right – something hardly thinkable before. Hong Kong movies started getting Hollywood remakes, including The Eye and Infernal Affairs (remade as The Departed). The market for Chinese movies began opening up, even for releases from mainland China, leading to wide theatrical releases for Chinese movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. American directors began playing with Hong Kong-inspired directions and fight choreography (notably in The Matrix franchise) while others played with the aesthetics and tropes of kung-fu movies (notably in Kill Bill). But most interesting yet, in a parallel-but-interesting development, Rumble in the Bronx came to America not even a year after China decided to begin importing foreign movies, and in quite a short time the cultural exchange was working the other way as well. It only took until 2018 for China to become the world’s biggest movie market, leading to an even greater influx of Chinese talent to Hollywood and Hollywood movies widely being tailored to appeal to Chinese audiences. And none of it would have happened if Rumble in the Bronx hadn’t built a bridge across the ocean and showed how the disparate cinema traditions of the East and West could meet.

Action week continues tomorrow! ICYMI check out yesterday’s entry on the escapist nature of the dystopian action thriller, The Running Man!
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