The Dragon Is Hidden No Longer

"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."

Miramax is also in negotiations to buy "Hero," a new epic by Zhang whose all-star cast includes "Crouching Tiger" co-star Zhang Ziyi, Li and Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung (who co-starred in the art house hit "In the Mood for Love" directed by Hong Kong's Kar-Wai Wong). Though it's said to be an expensive film, Weinstein called reports that Miramax is paying $40 million for it "complete nonsense."

Nonetheless, Weinstein has grander ambitions than simply promoting Asian films in the U.S. He wants to establish Miramax in China, one of the last unexploited markets for American films. Weinstein has hired Dee Dee Nickerson, a veteran film executive who speaks fluent Mandarin, to be his representative in Beijing, with instructions to find production opportunities and ways to establish the Miramax brand in China.

"We've never had a Miramax film released in China," Weinstein says. "So Dee Dee is working to help us open up that marketplace, not just theatrically but in terms of video and TV. It's just a matter of conquering the Chinese government bureaucracy. Obviously if we do a good job of promoting Chinese films that are fully financed by Chinese money, maybe we could find a way to get our films shown there."

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American studios have been pressing the Chinese government to open its doors to foreign film distribution. Chinese officials said in June that they planned to introduce competitive bidding for film distribution rights now held exclusively by the China Film Group. But little progress has been made since. China has imported about a dozen Hollywood films this year, but in a limited fashion--no U.S. film has grossed more than $4 million in China in the last two years.

Weinstein has also been pushing for permission to film one of his pet projects, "Shanghai," in China. The epic drama involves an American spy stationed in Shanghai on the eve of World War II. Weinstein was mum about the project's status, although it is said that his first choice for a director is Martin Scorsese, a potential problem. Weinstein would have to earn a lot of good will for the Chinese government to grant permission for Scorsese to film there, because the director raised governmental ire with "Kundun," his 1997 film about the Dalai Lama and his fight for Tibetan independence.

Miramax also recently bought "Flying Dragon, Leaping Tiger," one of the many low-budget "Crouching Tiger" knock-off films. But Weinstein insists that he will change the film's title and release it only in video. "I simply bought [it] as a way of policing the market," he says. "It will have a title that won't be in any way perceived as a rip-off of 'Crouching Tiger."'

Skeptics say that "Crouching Tiger" may turn out to be the "Blair Witch Project" of martial arts movies, a one-time phenomenon. But Sony's Barker thinks otherwise. He says the movie's real breakthrough came from its youth appeal, a key ingredient missing from the art house world, whose core audience is traditionally 40-plus-year-old moviegoers. The conventional wisdom has been that teens would rather cook breakfast for their parents than sit through a subtitled movie. But times have changed.

"It was the kids that got 'Crouching Tiger' up to $128 million," says Barker. "My feeling is that, having grown up with the Internet and instant messaging, they no long have a problem reading subtitled text. In fact, we got reports back from kids saying the subtitles were cool. If you have a foreign film that's youth-oriented, whether it's 'Crouching Tiger' or 'Run Lola Run,' there's a young audience willing to see it now."

Miramax dubbed its Jackie Chan re-releases, but it has released "Iron Monkey" with subtitles. It also cut a trailer in which the 19th century action scenes are set to the techno beat of "Cold Rock the Mike" by Apollo 440. If the movie equals the success of previous Chan re-releases, which have made $10 million to $15 million at the box office, Miramax will be in the profit column because of the video sales potential.

"In the past, it was the great Italian and French films that spoke to a generation," says Weinstein. "But today, it's Asian films that have great fantasy stories and a poetic, childlike sense of wonder to them. When I saw 'Iron Monkey,' I thought, 'How can we resist putting this out?"'

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"The Big Picture" is published every Tuesday in Calendar. If you have comments, ideas or criticism, e-mail them to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.

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