Ballantine, 1998, 398 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-42913-3
As I write this, it looks as if Jackie Chan’s reputation in Hollywood has been wrung out: Despite a pair of successes with the Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon series and the promise of a third Rush Hour, Chan’s other western films have not impressed anyone: The leaden and faintly creepy The Tuxedo was followed by the pointless The Medallion, which was trashed by critics and went unseen by audiences. Seeing this almost-criminal waste of talent, one can’t really fault Chan for heading back to Hong-Kong and more favourable projects.
And yet, if you ask around, you will see that Jackie Chan remains, if not a household name, at least a well-known action cinema icon. There’s a good reason for that: From 1985 (POLICE STORY) to 1994 (DRUNKEN MASTER II), Chan starred in a handful of films that can justifiably be called action classics. What’s more, Chan mastered a unique screen personae based on a mixture of goofy charm and jaw-dropping stunt prowesses. Chan reliably became his own brand, uncopyable by anyone else.
But this success was a long time in the making. Born in 1954 Hong Kong, Chan was enrolled at a very young age in a small academy with rough living conditions, an apprenticeship that taught him the skills and will to succeed in latter projects. Many years of further struggles within the Hong-Kong film industry eventually led to a number of lucky breaks, and then to the global super-stardom that we know even today.
It’s no surprise if most of his autobiography I am Jackie Chan (as told to Jeff Yang), is spent describing those early hungry years: While Chan’s latter success-story is known to most, his apprenticeship is more mysterious, and here well-described in evocative anecdotes. As Chan acknowledges, his tutelage would easily be classified as child-abuse in the West, but he’s visibly proud of his training and the skills he developed during this period. As a reader, it makes for fascinating and cringe-inducing reading. On one hand, the atmosphere of Hong Kong during the sixties and seventies is well-pictured; on the other, his memories don’t seem fun at all. (Neither do most of his American adventures, but that story isn’t new.)
Anyone who has heard Chan in interviews know that his English is hardly perfect (late in the book, he even allows himself a crack at how, with the upcoming rise of China, everyone will have to learn Chinese; whether he means Cantonese or Mandarin is not specified); in this context Jeff Yang’s work in translating not just the words and stories, but feel and context of Chan’s life becomes even more admirable. The book reads breezily as if it was a monologue by Chang, enlivened by reconstructed conversations. It flows well, and provides just enough background information to tie everything together, from Chan’s family story (an incredible adventure in its own right) to the particular context of Hong-Kong movie-making.
As this is an autobiography, what’s missing is Chan’s darker side, even though he does acknowledge a number of mistakes and youthful indiscretions. One supposes that Chan’s rumoured womanizing and early-year excesses will be more evenly described in unauthorized biographies. At least Chan clears up the various organized-crime rumours concerning his departure to Golden Harvest. (Hmm… also missing is an index for the book.) A complete list of his injuries and films (those he can remember, anyway: Hong-Kong produced films by the truckload in his early years) completes the book.
Obviously, this book is for Jackie Chan fans, especially those who already have a rough idea of his career and movies. There is often a sense that Chan is working himself up to the story that fans really want to hear, and the looser focus on his successful years makes it a bit difficult for non-fans to figure out why Chan is such a legend. Reading the book alongside a DVD player and a stack of his greatest hits is not a bad idea.
As for Chan himself, I’m willing to bet that his eclipse is temporary: In addition to the long-rumoured RUSH HOUR 3 project, you can bet that despite his advancing years, Chan will not be refused much in Hong Kong studios. If Americans don’t know what to do with him, let’s just enjoy what he does on his home court.