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"We're getting old," Jackie Chan tells me after a press conference last week. He doesn't say this lightly, and his slack, serious face betrays how hard he's worked since arriving in New York two days earlier. The night before, Chan screened his new movie, Chinese Zodiac, at a sold-out Lincoln Center theater. He also received special Lifetime Achievement Award from the New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF), which will kick off this year's celebrations with a 14-film Jackie Chan retrospective on June 23. On a bad day, Chan could make James Brown look lazy. Now 59 years old, he graciously signs autographs for everyone from fans on the street to personal assistants. "Come, show me," he says to an aide who shyly asks for a photograph.
Chan must use that line regularly. In Chinese Zodiac, the second sequel to Chan's endearingly zany 1986 Indiana Jones spoof, Armour of God, he tells a young martial artist (Alaa Safi) to "show me" how good his kung fu is. The ensuing fight's push-and-pull choreography epitomizes Chan's collaborative generosity. He shares the screen with Safi, and always lets the young French fighter give as good as he gets. Zodiac is Chan's farewell to the tantalizing stunt-centric films that have left the star with a hole in his head, partial deafness in his right ear, and many broken bones. His body isn't as durable as it used to be, and Chan shows this in the Chinese Zodiac scene where, after tumbling down a real-life active volcano, he looks like a walking corpse: out of breath, with bloodshot eyes and ringing ears. So when he says, "show me," he's earnestly solicitous. Chan still wants to do everything, but while he isn't ready to fade into obscurity, he is ready to share his fame.
"I want to open a school for action choreography in Hong Kong," Chan says. "I want it to be a place where stuntmen can learn to act, and young actors can learn to fight. Today's action stars need to learn to fight, and act. They couldn't make many of my older movies today. The conditions that allowed me to make movies like [Armour of God] don't exist anymore. Today's action stars need those experiences."
Chan also shows his age in Little Big Soldier, a 2010 war drama set during China's Warring States period. He plays an unidentified soldier who survives by pretending to be dead. With Little Big Soldier, Chan shows how far he's come both in front of and behind the camera. He's no longer playing the happy-go-lucky naif of most of his action-comedies, but rather a canny and relatively serious man of action. "I had a period of light action-comedies, then a life-endangering period,” he says, referring to films like Fearless Hyena, which features a baroquely choreographed duel with chopsticks, and Drunken Master, in which Chan has to get skunk-drunk in order to kick ass. “Now I'm making more serious … more responsible action movies."
Little Big Soldier features some exceptional fight scenes, but they're all modest when compared to earlier, more outlandish set pieces, like the skydiving scene Chan shot for Armour of God, a sequence he starred in and directed without any prior base-jumping experience. "I can't keep doing stunts like that," he says . "I make movies with that limitation in mind, and leave the more dangerous stuff to younger actors."
Making that change wasn't easy for Chan. It took him 20 years to script Little Big Soldier, the first of three films Chan has produced under his new Jackie & JJ Productions studio. It's also the first film he made after producer and regular collaborator Raymond Chow retired. Chan routinely acknowledges the creative debt he owes to Chow and his business partner Leonard Ho. He may have won a world record for doing everything from directing himself to feeding his crew, but Chan didn't forget Ho: he dedicated Chinese Zodiac to Ho, his parents, and real-life treasure-hunters.
Chan credits Ho with teaching him to trust his collaborators and even let them inspire him. Ho's creative input was instrumental when Chan directed himself in Miracles, a 1989 action comedy inspired by Hollywood gangster films, musicals, and screwball comedies. Miracles is Chan's favorite of his 18 directorial efforts, and you can see his greater effort in the elaborate musical number Chan shot using a stage that was specially designed to accommodate a long Steadicam shot.
"The only person whose advice I listened to was [Ho]. He would watch me going over footage, and assume I didn't know what I was doing. 'What did you shoot today?' 'Oh, there was a scene with an old lady!' He was the one that told me to watch Frank Capra's Lady for a Day and Pocketful of Miracles. Those movies really helped to give Miracles the structure it needed."
So when Chan made Little Big Soldier, the best of his recent films, which screens at Lincoln Center on June 26, Chan knew he couldn't make it the way he wanted to without getting someone else to helm his long-gestating project. Chan treated Little Big Soldier director Ding Sheng like an equal partner, knowing that his ideas could only make the film better. "[Sheng] came to the story with very different ideas,"Chan says. "I soon realized that that was a good thing. He brought a lot of period detail to my script, and generally improved the movie."
Now, Chan's preparing a musical biopic of his life. It's a pet project that sounds like a spiritual sequel to Miracles. Still, dancing isn't as taxing as fighting, and Chan is more aware than ever of his physical limitations. But he's also convinced that making movies has only gotten easier. "We have so much more equipment and technical skills available to us," Chan beams. "Before, if we wanted to do a crane shot, we would have to climb up a ladder. We can't do that now, but we also don't need to. It's a process, which is pretty nice!"Follow @VoiceFilmClub