All Hail the Dragon, Jackie Chan

Fifty-six years since he made his screen debut, martial arts icon Jackie Chan has won an honorary Oscar. A fan takes a fond look back

Written by Anushree Majumdar | Updated: November 16, 2016 10:21 am
Jackie Chan, honorary Oscar for Jackie chan, Drunken Master, Police Story, Bronx , Rush Hour, and Shanghai Noon, Kung Fu , latest news, film news, Hollywood news, World news Jackie Chan in a still from The Legend of Drunken Master (Left); Jackie Chan in a close-up photo (right)

One of the dangers of my childhood was the helicopter kick. As the only girl growing up alongside a horde of male cousins, I remember spending a summer vacation looking out for it. It could appear anywhere — as soon as you opened a door, when you went on the terrace, or just as you were entering the house. There was no real threat of being injured, of course, since my cousins only rose less than half a foot in the air, uttering a dramatic “Hyaaah!” before landing on the floor.

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To be honest, I didn’t mind so much, because that’s what you did in those days. In fact, it was the only thing to do after spending long, sultry afternoons watching Kung Fu movies with the entire family; the bug had spared no one. My father, a cinephile and lover of Bergman, Kurosawa, Ray and Tarkovsky, imitated Donnie Yen’s moves from Drunken Tai Chi (1984) during our badminton lessons. One cousin’s hero was Bruce Lee — he of the death stare, of the compressed energy pulsing in his sinewy forearm, his fury ready to be unleashed upon arrogant men. He tried to model himself on the martial arts legend so much that my father called him “Bruce Lee ka bhai, Chus Lee”. But my younger cousin and I, with our penchant for buffoonery, chose another man from Hong Kong as our master. His name is Jackie Chan.

Say what you will, that Chan did not embody the ‘true spirit’ of Kung Fu like Lee did, that he lacked the older star’s finesse and did not give us jaw-dropping moments like the Nunchaku scene from The Game of Death (1978) — and that’s okay. “I never wanted to be the next Bruce Lee. I just wanted to be the first Jackie Chan,” said Chan in an interview years ago. If Lee was an unbeatable god, Chan was Everyman in China who took a beating and gave it back as good as he got.

We know him for his Kung Fu comedy repertoire that became popular with Drunken Master (1978), Police Story (1985) and later, Rumble in the Bronx (1995), Rush Hour (1997), and Shanghai Noon (2000), where he showcased his ability to deliver a blinding mix of dangerous moves to elicit laughter. The success of that genre has, sadly, eclipsed the craft Chan displayed in films such as Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978), Dragon Fist (1979) and Crime Story (1993).

If Lee’s oeuvre is credited with bringing Chinese martial arts to the West, Chan’s work changed its direction. The former’s characters were morally upright, the violence in his films is righteous and just. Chan’s decision to do action comedy has, in a sense, demystified Kung Fu for his global audience: it was no longer an exotic martial form that only a few could aspire to learn, and it could also be fun.

The tiger, the crane, the leopard, the snake and the dragon — throughout his 56-year-old career, Chan has mastered the ways of the Shaolin school, and the honorary Oscar he received on November 12 is a long-delayed recognition of his gifts. Of which there is one I still hope to learn — how to drink bottles of alcohol and simultaneously fight a bunch of thugs. Teach me your ways, Sensei.