Director Gordon Chan Ka-Sheung has done what was hitherto unthinkable - in his new film The Medallion, he kills off Jackie Chan.
So how did he get the action star to agree? "When I first told him he dies in the movie, Jackie was very surprised. But I told him it was to save a child and the last shot you see is his smiling face because he is trying to give the child confidence. That's very Jackie Chan and that's what made him agree to it,'' says Chan about EMG's The Medallion (previously known as "Highbinders"), which opens here on Friday, August 15.
Apart from the small matter of his character's death, in many ways The Medallion is very much "Jackie Chan". It sees the actor returning to his roots as the fighting man's hero instead of the comic relief he has pedalled in his recent Hollywood outings. This time Chan plays Eddie Yang, a Hong Kong policeman killed while trying to save a young boy (Alex Bao) with magical powers and an enchanted medallion. With the medallion, the boy is able to resurrect the dead and turn them into "highbinders" - immortal warriors with supernatural powers.
Aided by two Interpol agents - the bumbling Arthur Watson (Lee Evans) and Nicole James (Claire Forlani) - Yang tries to stop both the boy and the medallion from falling into the hands of an evil Snakehead (Julian Sands). Because of the supernatural aspect of the story, the action star has also bent one of his rules about the use of special effects. Although always interested in the concept of computer-generated images, the actor admits he never knew "how to combine Jackie Chan action with special effects''. It was Gordon Chan who finally persuaded him to break through the barrier. "I told him he had to because Hollywood uses so many special effects. Otherwise it would be like fighting with one hand tied behind his back," says the director.
The actor insisted it be done the right way. "I don't want to be flying around, jumping 100 feet in the air - I don't think the public will accept this. No matter how, it has to be believable," he says.
Like the merging of hi-tech Hollywood special effects and traditional Jackie Chan action, Gordon Chan also feels The Medallion will help the action star break through the east-west barrier that has dogged him in recent years. Chan's Hollywood films have raked in the cash at US box offices but disappointed Asian fans looking for his trademark action. On the flip side, his Hong Kong actioners haven't made a dent in the US box office.
"People have often said his Hollywood films are where the best of Jackie Chan never happens, but we wanted to make it happen. Jackie has always stressed that The Medallion should be worldwide. He didn't want something that only pleased the east or the west," says the director.
At $300 million, The Medallion is the most expensive film ever made in Hong Kong and Gordon Chan believes the project would not have been achievable without the mix of cultures. The English-language production stars a major cast of mainly western actors, except for Infernal Affairs star Anthony Wong Chau-sang, sultry Samsara star Christy Chung Lai-tai and the usual motley crew of Chinese baddies. The film was co-produced with Columbia Pictures in the US, where The Medallion opens in cinemas across the country on August 22. This marks the first time a predominantly Hong Kong production has had such close release dates with the US.
"We had always aimed at the Hollywood-format / Hong Kong-style format. This meant that we would go with the completion bonding and finance arrangements as required by Hollywood, use a Hollywood production crew but still maintain our speed and versatility," says the director.
"If we followed the US-format completely, $300 million would not have taken us far beyond a 30-day shoot. With a Jackie Chan film, sometimes shooting the ending alone would take 30 days."
In the end, Gordon Chan and his production crew managed to stretch shooting past 90 days in three locations - Hong Kong, Dublin and Bangkok - with enough left over for Columbia to reshoot part of the opening. "They wanted to use their way to explain why there was a medallion which, as Chinese, we probably never thought was necessary," says the director.
"In the end, I think what they did was just right. It offered the best of both worlds: it could allay their fears but didn't allow the story to stray too far from what we wanted it to be."
Because of the need to find that balance of east and west, The Medallion has consumed the better part of three years from the time producer Alfred Cheung Kin-ting (Her Fatal Ways) conceptualised the idea. "The biggest challenge has not been the creative process, but the management, finance and approach of the whole package. If anyone asks me, the most heartfelt experience wasn't artistic, but the career challenge it posed for me," says Gordon Chan, who initially handed the project to another director while he was chief executive officer at EMG but took the helm at the action star's behest.
EMG pulled out the big guns for the film, including Martial Law star Sammo Hung Kam-bo as action director. "Having Sammo there helped me a lot and I think he also managed to goad Jackie into pushing the envelope where the action was concerned," says Gordon Chan, who worked with both men on Thunderbolt (1995).
"I remember one scene in which Jackie had to somersault up to a roof and we had shot several takes. Sammo still insisted that Jackie was a little slow and Jackie told him, `Hey, I am not 20-something any more'. Sammo's response was `You can't do it? I'll do it then'. Jackie did it." Another challenge from Hung got both actors into a contest to see who could walk furthest on their hands. "My heart was in my mouth," says Gordon Chan. "I really regret not catching that on camera." The only dark cloud for the production was the death of Jackie Chan's mother towards the end of filming last February. Gordon Chan is full of praise for the actor who, despite his open devotion to his mother, went about his work without telling anyone of her death. The director himself did not know until the end of the Bangkok shoot when besieged by Hong Kong reporters at his hotel.
"He was really very professional and never let it disrupt production. But I could just imagine the pain he was in. When I asked him about it later, he said he wasn't a normal person who could just up and leave because we would lose a lot of money. We could not afford it." With all the factors working together, Gordon Chan is satisfied he has delivered "the best Jackie Chan film of recent years".
(Thanks to a friend who wishes to remain annoymous.
Written by : Winnie Chung)