When’s the last time you gasped, while watching a movie, at a pure bit of physical comedy? Of a clever move, over a stunt that left you breathless, because you knew that no way was computer graphics or greenscreen involved? There are indeed some–that hallway fight in the first season of Daredevil, the endless apartment melee in Atomic Blonde, and, bear with me here, most of Jackass. But those are few and far between. During the Jackie Chan heyday, that gobsmacking disbelief happened every single film. We laughed, we winced, we cheered. For a moment, Jackie Chan was the king of action comedy.
Personally, I can’t believe we *haven’t* talked about this Tony Zhou YouTube essay, because I have shown it nearly every semester in my film production class. Part of me wants to turn the young’uns on to Jackie Chan (the HK films, not the Rush Hour series), and another part hopes that these future directors will go on to correct what Hollywood gets so so wrong these days.
Chan was compared early on to the giants of silent cinema like Buster Keaton, but as a young cinephile I couldn’t see past the obvious homages in films like Project A, which famously had Chan hanging off a clock tower like Harold Lloyd. It was only later that the true comparison became apparent, and Zhou lays it out for us in one of his best essays.
His main points are thus: 1) Chan starts at a disadvantage and must fight his way back to the top, which links him with Chaplin and Keaton, but not like action heroes at the time like Willis and Schwarzenegger, who come fully formed. 2) Chan uses any prop to fight, not just the usual guns and swords. 3) He fights in clearly lighted scenes, with costume design to make him stand out.
And here’s the main directoral point: Jackie Chan and his group of stuntmen can actually fight, and fight well. So the camera does not need to move a lot and the totality of the human body in space can be appreciated. This could only happen in a filmmaking scene like Hong Kong where productions took time and spent money to get absolutely perfect takes. Hollywood, on the other hand, does not hire actors who can fight or act physical–instead they film and edit around the actors’ lack of skill. When we applaud a clever stunt in a Jackie Chan film, 50 or more imperfect takes lay on the cutting room floor. (Zhou finds some good behind-the-scenes interviews explicitly laying this idea out.)
Zhou also blames Western editors for cutting too fast and cutting too much on every hit, ruining the rhythm. Most directors, editors, and stunt coordinators don’t know editing, says Chan. There’s a technique in Hong Kong editing where you show the impact twice that to an audience feels like one, strong impact.
One of the final points is that these Jackie Chan films focus on the pain of the protagonist. (Which, by the way, is why Jackass succeeds as comedy as well.) But so many Hollywood films skip this bit of reality, as our heroes tend to be invincible. There is a larger social-political critique to be made about the particular lies Hollywood tells itself, and you can have at it in the comments if you wish. But for now, queue up some classic Chan–my jumping off point all those years ago was Drunken Master II–and see how the master does it.
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Judd Apatow Teaches the Craft of Comedy: A New Online Course from MasterClass
Buster Keaton: The Wonderful Gags of the Founding Father of Visual Comedy
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.
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