Saturday 29 August 2020

In memoriam: Benny Chan (Telegraph 26/08/20)

Benny Chan, who has died aged 58, was among the most prominent directors to have emerged in recent years from the Hong Kong film industry’s genre sector, overseeing a run of high-octane action pictures that thrilled local audiences before tearing onto Western cinema screens.

His career was fashioned in the image of his restless mentor Johnnie To, for whom Chan worked as an assistant in HK television in the late 1980s. As To has, Chan worked skilful variations on the theme of law-and-order, habitually returning to the sight of good guys squaring off against bad, although he occasionally branched out into more unusual territory, with mixed results.

In interviews, he spoke often about his desire to develop beyond genre fare, but lamented that this ambition was continually thwarted by producers thrusting another policier script upon him: “When they come to Benny Chan,” he mused, “it must be about action.” Nevertheless, in his better projects, the bespectacled, mild-mannered Chan succeeded in imbuing his onscreen carnage with poetry and wit.

Born Chan Muk-sing in Kowloon on October 7, 1961, he became a cinephile as a teenager, attending matinees of the Shaw Brothers’ kung fu productions. Upon graduating in 1981, Chan found work as a clerical assistant at local broadcaster Rediffusion TV, but confessed he spent less time in the office than he did skulking around the station’s studios and pestering the directors.

He got his shot upon defecting to rival, Shaw-owned TVB a few years later, where he directed 37 and wrote all 40 episodes of the action serial The Flying Fox of Snowy Mountain (1985). After serving as an assistant on Raymond Wong’s cancer-themed comedy Goodbye Darling (1987), he made his feature debut with A Moment of Romance (1990), a star-crossed lovers melodrama starring local pin-up Andy Lau as a gangster who falls for an heiress (Chien-Lien Wu).

Balancing sweeping action with swooning drama, the film was a hit, and another sign of renewed confidence within the HK industry: it opened in the period between John Woo’s early successes The Killer (1989) and Bullet in the Head (1990), and just months before Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild (1990).

Yet it was working alongside his namesake Jackie Chan – then in the process of cracking the American market – that the director achieved his biggest success, finding dynamic ways to showcase the star’s trademark “chopsocky” (a lighter, more comic form of kung fu, blending martial-arts with slapstick).

Who Am I? (1998) had a stock spy-movie plot – Chan’s amnesiac agent is pursued by shadowy forces – but it was energised and elevated by the director’s inventive staging: one sequence in Rotterdam saw the star repelling his pursuers while clad in traditional Dutch clogs. Recut by distributors for international release, the film performed well in Western multiplexes, doubly so on home video.

They would reteam for New Police Story (2004), named to remind the star’s fans of his wildly successful 1980s series, but otherwise a very different proposition: here, the now-fiftysomething Chan played the world-weary Inspector Wing, and attempted to flex his dramatic muscles. This rebrand barely took: local audiences preferred the Chans’ earlier, funnier work, and the film limped onto British screens two years later to mixed reviews. (The Observer’s Philip French damned it as “an addled affair”.)

Unhappier still was the pair’s reunion on Rob-B-Hood (2006), a leaden comic caper about a pair of thieves who find themselves minding a baby. The director confessed that adding an infant to his star’s complex (and often injurious) stunt sequences led to several of his darkest days; the film went straight-to-DVD in the States, and undistributed in Britain.

Chan returned to form with Connected (2008), a remake of the so-so Hollywood thriller Cellular (2004) in which an everyman hero (future Captain America Chris Evans in the original, director favourite Louis Koo here) takes a stray call from a kidnapped woman and becomes implicated in her fate. Chan added not just a climactic forklift truck rampage but believable characters to Larry Cohen’s original story: in his version, the debt-collector hero is overburdened even before he’s obliged to screech around town in a succession of amusingly midrange cars.

A goofy fantasy about circus performers given superpowers after coming into contact with a biohazard abandoned by the Japanese during WW2, City Under Siege (2010) received lacklustre reviews, and failed to make back its not inconsiderable budget. Shaolin (2011), a remake of Jet Li’s 1982 debut, similarly struggled to recoup its producers’ investment, in part due to its full-scale reconstruction of a 1920s temple.

Yet the director returned to surer ground with The White Storm (2014), his self-described John Woo homage, loosely inspired by the Pablo Escobar story. And he won glowing reviews for Call of Heroes (2016), a period actioner choreographed by Sammo Hung: Variety described it as “a glorious throwback to the rustic vigour of [the] Shaw Brothers”.

His weirdest credit followed with Meow (2017), a would-be summer blockbuster involving an outsized computer-generated feline. This calculated play for a family audience drew indifferent reviews (“the action veteran would be smart to stick to his day job”, advised the South China Morning Post); it opened on a single British screen, taking a mere £118 on its opening weekend.

During shooting last year on Raging Fire, a return to the crime genre starring Donnie Yen, Chan was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer, and handed the film over to colleagues for post-production before undergoing treatment. (The film is scheduled for release later in 2020.)

Asked about filmmaking in 2014, Chan said: “I always feel very complicated when thinking about it. I feel everything – happiness, anger, sorrow, and happiness again – but I’ve never considered it a job. Maybe that’s why I’ve survived so many things... I hope that I can find my own world in the movies and pass that happiness onto the audience, just like the happiness I took from films when I was a child.”

He is survived by a wife, a son and a daughter.

Benny Chan, born October 7, 1961, died August 23, 2020.

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