The Meaning of Chow Yun-Fat (It’s In His Mouth)

Chow Yun-Fat is the coolest movie actor in the world today, and the only way I can explain this is to talk about his mouth. He does cool things with his mouth. Smoking cigarettes is no longer an emblem of cool in the USA, but Chow does wonders with cigarette smoke in Prison On Fire. Director Ringo Lam understands this; like most of the great Hong Kong directors, he loves using slow motion and freeze frames to pinpoint important moments in his movies, and he saves a few of the most elegant slow-motion sequences for Chow blowing smoke and looking cool.

In John Woo’s over-the-top classic, Hard Boiled (the rough literal translation f the Chinese title is Spicy-Handed Gun God), Chow plays with a toothpick. There are few movie moments more violently cool than the shot of Chow, a gun in each hand, sliding down a stair banister blasting a dozen bad guys while letting his toothpick hang just so from the side of his mouth. In God of Gamblers, Chow plays a gambler who gets a bump on his head that turns him into some quasi- autistic prodigy, like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.

Chow retains his intuitive skill at playing cards, but now he must be pacified by constant pieces of chocolate that he scarfs greedily, goofy smile on his face. Blowing smoke, dangling his toothpick, eating chocolate, or just smiling … ultimately, when trying to explain why Chow Yun-Fat is cool, it comes down to his mouth. Everything I have said so far describes a subjective reaction to watching Chow Yun-Fat on the screen. Fill in the name of your favorite actor or actress, change the specific references, and this could be your essay.

We don’t learn anything new from such subjective meanderings; we only identify taste preferences. I’m proud to be a Chow fan, but then, I am proud to be a fan in general. With other favorites of mine, though, I am able to get at least a ittle bit beyond subjectivity. Be it Murphy Brown or X-Ray Spex, Bruce Springsteen or NYPD Blue, at some point I can analyze my relationship to the cultural artifact in question, place it in some cultural context, and come to some hopefully useful conclusions about both the particular text and our interaction with that text.

Chow Yun-Fat, however, seems to defy my attempts at analysis; ultimately, it all comes down to his mouth and nothing more. Try describing Chow Yun-Fat to someone who has never seen him on the screen. Comparisons sometimes help, so how about this: Chow Yun-Fat is the Asian Cary Grant. He makes everything look easy; there are always other actors chewing the scenery in Chow’s movies, but he rarely goes for the obvious and the overdone, preferring the smile and the toothpick. He looks good in a tuxedo; he looks good in an expensive silk suit; he looks good with nothing on at all.

And it all seems so effortless. Cary Grant, but there is more: in one scene from Prison on Fire, Chow is Cary Grant taking a dump. He’s gotta go pretty badly, he’s shitting and farting and talking to a fellow inmate, all at the same time, he’s waving away the smell and sending looks of displeasure to his stomach, finally he’s asking his friend to eave the room, because Chow can’t ‘do it’ if someone is watching. And yes, through it all, Chow is cool. Cary Grant taking a dump.

Cary Grant taking a dump, but there is more: in film after film, Chow is the object of desire for men. In Ringo Lam movies, this is often overt; in Full Contact the main villain is a gay mobster with a hard-on for Chow, and somehow his gayness is a positive aspect of his character, unlike so many American action films where gay means psychopathic or neurotic or evil. His gayness is positive because he obsesses over Chow Yun-Fat; it is hard to find fault with nyone who merely recognizes what Chow fans know in their own subjective worlds, that Chow Yun-Fat is the coolest.

At the end of Full Contact, with the villain about to die, he tells Chow that he only hopes that they will meet in the afterworld where they can finally consummate their repressed affair. Chow kills the bad guy, telling him in the wonderfully bizarre phrasing so common to HK English subtitles, ‘Masturbate in Hell! ,’ condemning the villain to death, to hell, but also to an eternity of fantasizing about Chow Yun-Fat. And still I haven’t gotten beyond my own subjective fantasies. Readers who have ever seen Chow Yun-Fat might have a better picture in their minds of what he is like, but we still don’t really have an inkling of What Chow Means.

We’re still at the level of establishing taste preferences. And I am still puzzling over why I find it so hard to get beyond the surface of Chow Yun-Fat. Maybe the answer is in the subtitles. English subtitles in HK movies are often unintentionally hilarious, an odd and charming combination of fractured grammar and almost-right cliches (in Once a Thief Chow tells Leslie Cheung, ‘it takes turn to tango’). When reading those subtitles, an American viewer realizes that here are differences between HK and US culture that language can’t precisely express.

Similarly, when someone speaks English in an HK film, the English subtitles are frequently different than the spoken words, never more comically than in Woo’s Heroes Shed No Tears, where an American soldier screams ‘Motherfucker! ‘ and the subtitles read ‘Son of a bitch. ‘ It is as if the soldier’s English is first translated into Mandarin or Cantonese, then retranslated into English subtitles; something is indeed lost in the translation. Even such an excellent reading of these movies as Jillian Sandell’s piece lsewhere in this issue ‘loses something in the translation. (Her clearly- stated analysis of Woo/Chow collaborations is just the kind of examination I claim here is close to impossible; I would have said completely impossible, but Jillian has proven me wrong. ) In her discussion of The Killer (rough literal translation of the Chinese title: A Pair of Blood-Splattering Heroes), she mentions the nicknames ‘Dumbo’ and ‘Mickey Mouse’ which the subtitles have given to the two primary heroes, and makes an interesting connection to the image of Disney these nicknames suggest.

Her comments are well-taken for American udiences of The Killer, but in the original, the nicknames for the two characters have no connection whatever to Disney characters. Dumbo and Mickey Mouse were chosen by the translator as effective names to convey the ‘real meaning’ of the Chinese nicknames; I have no idea whether or not the translator was successful. We can only examine The Killer as it is presented to us, which in the case of non-Chinese speaking Americans means the characters are indeed Dumbo and Mickey Mouse.

This does not in any way ‘invalidate’ an American audience’s response to The Killer, but it would seem to indicate how different he text is, depending on how it is seen and what the audience brings to the movie. This is always true, of course, but I suspect it is truest when the cultural differences between the text and the audience are as great as they are here. And it is odd and charming … yet I feel like my words have been spoken before, by other American dilettantes, taking pleasure in the ‘exotic’ Orient.

Charming, because different. Odd, because different. Above all, different. However Hong Kong action movies are perceived in Hong Kong itself, in the U. S. they are first and foremost different, alien, even as they freely borrow from our own movie raditions. It is that difference, in part, that I am responding to when I watch Chow Yun-Fat. Perhaps I even make a fetish of that difference; I embrace the alien, make it, for a moment, mine.

In an earlier issue of Bad Subjects, I related my discomfort at using a person dressed in a bird costume as fodder for my Bad Essay, noting that while this poor drone was only trying to earn a living in tough times, I was deriding his efforts and then writing about them for Bad Subjects. At the time, I called this ‘cultural imperialism. ‘ My discomfort was perhaps well- deserved; I was indeed sing this bird-person for my own enlightenment. My mea culpas began because I felt funny writing about something I didn’t like to begin with. It was one thing to take apart Murphy Brown, I suggested, because I was trying to understand a text I enjoyed.

It was another to take apart the favored texts of others, without properly appreciating the value of those texts to their recipients. I can’t deny that I love Hong Kong movies, and I most certainly love Chow Yun- Fat. Yet that love is related to my experiences with the bird-person: I am, as we called ourselves in that earlier issue, a ‘Bad Tourist,’ stopping by, taking hat I want, leaving the rest, ultimately un-illuminated as to the essence of Hong Kong culture, but nevertheless enriched by the experience. I don’t want to belittle that enrichment.

The beginning of this essay is testament to how much I love my relationship to Chow Yun-Fat. But I began writing because I couldn’t get beyond my attraction to Chow’s coolness, and the longer I write, the more I come to believe that I will never understand Chow as well as I understand myself. Because the point of my consumption of Chow Yun-Fat, the point of the dilettante’s love of the exotic, is not really to understand what I consume. The point is to understand me. This is often how people of one culture appreciate the cultures of others; as anthropology it most likely sucks, but for enrichment, it can’t be beat.

It goes both ways, of course; no one should assume that only Americans are dilettantes. Jackie Chan has seen Buster Keaton. The resulting movies are ‘pure’ Jackie Chan, but the Keaton influence is apparent, which doesn’t necessarily mean that Jackie Chan understands the Meaning of Keaton any more than I understand the Meaning of Chow. Jackie Chan loves Buster Keaton, he makes Buster Keaton his own, and then he produces Jackie Chan movies. When an American watches a Jackie Chan movie, one of the pleasurable aspects is making the connection to Buster Keaton.

Jackie Chan helps us understand Keaton better than we would if we didn’t have Chan to help illuminate Keaton. We use Jackie Chan to understand our own culture. There are aspects of Jackie Chan, of course, that cross cultural barriers. His exuberant acrobatics dazzle an audience whether or not we know the Chinese cultural context for his stunts. But the Meaning of Jackie Chan escapes me, at least, if not all American viewers. And now we are back to Chow Yun-Fat, who is cool. His coolness crosses barriers. When he performs a romantic dance from a wheelchair in Once a Thief, the combination of elegance and comedic grace is lovely beyond words.

When, in Hard Boiled, he demolishes a zillion bad guys with one hand and carries a tiny baby in the other, cooing and shooting, he is the ultimate big brother. This coolness crosses barriers. But beyond that, we are victims of our subjective experience; we don’t understand the Hong Kong culture that produces these movies, and so we fall back on cool. It all comes down to his mouth. The clearest example of this is the homo-erotic charge that permeates HK action movies. In one sense, this is no different from similar relationships in American action movies …

Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon series come to mind, along with countless other buddy films. But what is beneath the surface in American movies is out front in HK films. It doesn’t take much digging to find the homo-erotic undercurrents in Lethal Weapon, but it does require digging. HK films, with their endless discussions between men about love and honor and friendship, seem to bring those undercurrents to the surface, however, in a manner that is not exactly innocent but is accepting of the bonds etween men and willing to allow men to discuss those bonds.

Chow Yun-Fat is not the strong silent type. When the inmates of Prison on Fire are happy, they celebrate with a dance party unlike, say, the scene in Jailhouse Rock where Elvis is fetishized as the focus of homo-eroticism (and we are ‘the cutest little jailbirds he ever did see’). In Prison on Fire, the inmates are happy, and so they dance, and their partners are their fellow inmates with whom they share their happiness. It’s not only sexual, though sex is part of it. It’s about friendship, and loyalty, and love, and bonding.

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