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Before They Came to America: Giants of Hong Kong Cinema

A niche knowledge and passion of mine is Hong Kong cinema, most specifically the Gun Fu films (you read that right) of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It disturbs me when my friends lament over a bust like Rush Hour 3, snooze off during Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or roll their eyes at Windtalkers, not because I disagree with their take on these films, but because it saddens me that the luminary stars or directors "“ Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, and director John Woo, respectively "“ are no longer getting the respect they deserve. With that in mind, I want to give three of my favorite Hong Kong boys their due.

Jackie Chan

You probably know Jackie Chan as the lovable and goofy martial artist who teams up with Americans for fast-paced action thrillers (as well as a man who has perfected the art of the blooper reel). But did you know that Chan was set up to be the next Bruce Lee? Rigorously trained in martial arts, music, and dance, the young Jackie Chan had bit roles in several Bruce Lee films before Lee's untimely death. Afterwards, Chan was seen as the natural substitute for Lee, except that young Jackie did not want to spend his career in Lee's shadow. Instead, he formulated his own brand of entertainment "“ that which combined humor and martial arts.

A fan of American slap-stick comedians such as Buster Keaton, Chan worked hard to make a name for himself, often performing his own stunts (which puts him as Enemy Number 1 on insurance company's lists). Sure, he still plays smiling, goofy good-guys in his American films, but his extraordinary martial arts work developed in his early days of Hong Kong cinema is worth noting, especially because it infused a humor that sought to take Kung Fu a little less seriously. Check out this compilation video, made from my favorite Chan film, 1978's "Drunken Master." It highlights his signature move "“ the manipulation of objects around him (tea cups, poles, water jugs), as well as his top-notch martial arts skills and inclination for downing plenteous amounts of liquid courage.

Chow Yun Fat

Before the Chow Yun Fat of Bulletproof Monk and Pirates of the Caribbean, there was Chow Yun Fat ... romance star? Prior to being cast ironically in action films by directors like John Woo and Ringo Lam, Chow was a romantic leading man in Hong Kong cinema. But, as his characters increasingly gained a penchant for wielding double Beretta 92s to serve their justice whilst sporting sunglasses at night with toothpicks gritted in their teeth, Chow became the quintessential Hong Kong action hero. In fact, Chow became such a huge action star that hordes of young men began dressing up like one of his most famous characters, Mark Gor from Better Tomorrow, a trend parodied in this clip from its sequel, "A Better Tomorrow 2," where Chow returns, without narrative apology, as the slain Mark's twin brother.

The clip ends with one of Chow's most passionate and beloved scenes from Gun-Fu cinema, giving us the obscure t-shirt slogan "Respect the Rice." Speaking of respect, if you're a fan of this genre and don't mind copious amounts of arterial spray, the final scene from the movie is considered one of the bloodiest ever - but also one of the greatest - in action history.

John Woo

Likely familiar are John Woo's American works such as Face/Off, Mission Impossible II and Broken Arrow (OK, maybe not that last one). But what about the films that made Woo an internationally innovative force? A great deal (though admittedly, not all) of American action cinema is constricted to very obvious convention, perhaps based on an assumption that viewers are solely interested in explosion rather than dramatic content. Sure, we all love a little Bay and Bruckheimer, but in his early films, John Woo perfected something deeper than the buddy-cop bond and the arbitrary love plot. Something far more visceral to which Hollywood has never fully allowed him to return "“ the concept of Heroic Bloodshed. Perhaps it came from one of the more interesting aspects of Hong Kong cinema itself "“ its palpable sense of urgency. Films made in the late 1980s and early 1990s often had nihilistic or despondent themes (see: the filmography of Won Kar-Wai) inspired by the country's looming return to China in 1997. One of the best films of the prolific Woo-Chow collaboration, and possibly Woo's last great Hong Kong film, is 1989's The Killer (originally titled, in Chinese, Bloodshed of Two Heroes). The film's fusion of Kung Fu and gun fighting is inspirational, but the heart of the film lies in the relationship between an assassin looking for one last hit, and the inspector looking to bring him down. Not as conventional as you might expect. Watch the trailer and judge for yourself!

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13 Great Facts About Bad Lieutenant
Lionsgate Home Entertainment
Lionsgate Home Entertainment

Bad Lieutenant can be accused of many things, but one charge you can't level against it is false advertising. Harvey Keitel's title character, whose name is never given, is indeed a bad, bad lieutenant: corrupt, sleazy, drug-addled, irresponsible, and lascivious, all while he's on the job. (Imagine what his weekends must be like!)

Abel Ferrara's nightmarish character study was controversial when it was released 25 years ago today, and rated NC-17 for its graphic nudity (including a famous glimpse at Lil’ Harvey), unsettling sexual violence, and frank depiction of drug use. The film packs a wallop, no doubt. Here's some behind-the-scenes info to help you cope with it.

1. THE PLACID WOMAN WHO HELPS THE LIEUTENANT FREEBASE HEROIN WROTE THE MOVIE.

That's Zoë Tamerlis Lund, who starred in Abel Ferrara's revenge-exploitation thriller Ms. 45 (1981) more than a decade earlier, when she was 17 years old. She and Ferrara are credited together for writing Bad Lieutenant, though she always insisted that wasn't the case. "I wrote this alone," she said. "Abel is a wonderful director, but he's not a screenwriter. She said elsewhere that she "wrote every word of that screenplay," though everyone agrees the finished movie included a lot of improvisation. Lund was a fascinating, tragic character herself—a musical prodigy who became an enthusiastic and unapologetic user of heroin before switching to cocaine in the mid-1990s. She died of heart failure in 1999 at age 37.

2. CHRISTOPHER WALKEN WAS SUPPOSED TO STAR IN IT.

Christopher Walken had starred in Ferrara's previous film, King of New York (1990), and was set to play the lead in Bad Lieutenant before pulling out at almost the last minute. Ferrara was shocked. "[Walken] says, 'You know, I don't think I'm right for it.' Which is, you know, a fine thing to say, unless it's three weeks from when you're supposed to start shooting," Ferrara said. "It definitely caught me by surprise. It put me in terminal shock, actually." Harvey Keitel replaced him (though not without difficulty; see below), and the film's editor, Anthony Redman, thought Keitel was a better choice anyway. "Chris is too elegant for the part," he said. "Harvey is not elegant." 

3. HARVEY KEITEL'S INITIAL REACTION TO THE SCRIPT WAS NOT PROMISING.

"When we gave [Keitel] the script the first time, he read about five pages and threw it in the garbage," Ferrara said. Keitel's recollection was a little more diplomatic. As he told Roger Ebert, "I read a certain amount of pages and I put it down. I said, 'There's no way I'm gonna make this movie.' And then I asked myself, 'How often am I a lead in a movie? Read it, maybe I can salvage something from it …' When I read the part about the nun, I understood why Abel wanted to make it."

4. IT WAS ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO BE FUNNY.


Lionsgate Home Entertainment

"It was always, in my mind, a comedy," Ferrara said. He cited the scene where the Lieutenant pulls the teenage girls over as a specific example of how Christopher Walken would have played it, and how Harvey Keitel changed it. "The lieutenant was going to end up dancing in the streets with the girls as the sun came up. They'd be wearing his gun belt and hat, and they'd have the radio on, you know what I mean? But oh my God, Harvey, he turned it into this whole other thing." Boy, did he. 

5. THAT SCENE WITH THE TEENAGE GIRLS HAD A REAL-LIFE ELEMENT THAT MADE IT EVEN CREEPIER.

One of the young women was Keitel's nanny. Ferrara: "I said, 'You sure you want to do this with your babysitter?' He says, 'Yeah, I want to try something.'"

6. MUCH OF IT WAS FILMED GUERRILLA-STYLE.

Like many indie-minded directors of low-budget films, Ferrara didn't bother with permits most of the time. "We weren't permitted on any of this stuff," editor Anthony Redman admitted. "We just walked on and started shooting." For the scene where a strung-out Lieutenant walks through a bumpin' nightclub, they sent Keitel through an actual, functioning club during peak operating hours.

7. A GREAT DEAL OF THE DIALOGUE AND ACTION WERE MADE UP ON THE FLY.

The script was only about 65 pages at first, which would have made for about a 65-minute movie. "It left a lot of room for improvisation," producer Randy Sabusawa said, "but the ideas were pretty distilled. They were there."

Script supervisor Karen Kelsall said supervising the script was a challenge. "Abel didn't stick to a script," she said. "Abel used a script as a way to get the money to make a movie, and then the script was kind of—we called it the daily news. It changed every day. It changed in the middle of scenes." Ferrara was unapologetic about the script's brevity. "The idea of wanting 90 pages ... is ridiculous."

8. AND THERE WERE EVEN MORE IDEAS THAT THEY DIDN'T USE.

Ferrara said a scene that epitomized the movie for him—even though he never got around to filming it—was one where the Lieutenant robs an electronics store, leaves, then gets a call about a robbery at the electronics store. He responds in an official capacity (they don't recognize him), takes a statement, walks out, and throws the statement in the garbage. "And that to me is the Bad Lieutenant, you know?" Ferrara said. 

9. THE BASEBALL PLAYOFF SERIES IS FICTIONAL.

The Mets have battled the Dodgers for the National League championship once, in 1988. (The Dodgers beat 'em and went on to win the World Series.) For the narrative Ferrara wanted—the Mets coming back from a 3-0 deficit to win the pennant—he had to make it up. He used footage from real Mets-Dodgers games (including Darryl Strawberry's three-run homer from a game in July 1991) and added fictional play-by-play. But the statistics were accurate: no team had ever been down by three in a best-of-seven series and then come back to win. (It's happened once since then, when the 2004 Red Sox did it.)

10. THEY HAD HELP FROM THE COP WHO SOLVED A SIMILAR CASE.

The disgusting crime at the center of the film (we won't dwell on it) was inspired by a real-life incident from 1981, which mayor Ed Koch called "the most heinous crime in the history of New York City." The street cop who solved it, Bo Dietl, advised Ferrara on the film and had an on-screen role as one of the detectives in our Lieutenant's circle of friends.

11. THEY DESECRATED THE CHURCH AS RESPECTFULLY AS THEY COULD.

Production designer Charles Lagola had his team cover the church’s altar and other surfaces with plastic wrap, then painted the graffiti and other defacements on the plastic.

12. IT WAS RATED NC-17 IN THEATERS, WITH AN R-RATED VERSION FOR HOME VIDEO.

Blockbuster and some of the other retail chains wouldn't carry NC-17 or unrated films, so sometimes studios would produce edited versions. (See also: Requiem for a Dream.) The tamer version of Bad Lieutenant was five minutes and 19 seconds shorter, with parts of the rape scene, the drug-injecting scene, and much of the car interrogation scene excised.

13. THE "SEQUEL" HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT, NOR DID FERRARA APPROVE OF IT.


First Look International

Movie buffs were baffled in 2009, when Werner Herzog directed Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, starring Nicolas Cage. It sounds like a sequel (or a remake), but in fact had no connection at all to the earlier film except that both were produced by Edward R. Pressman. Herzog said he'd never seen Ferrara's movie and wanted to change the title (Pressman wouldn't let him); Ferrara, outspoken as always, initially wished fiery death on everyone involved. Ferrara and Herzog finally met at the 2013 Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, where Herzog initiated a conversation about the whole affair and Ferrara expressed his frustration cordially. 

Additional sources:
DVD interviews with Abel Ferrara, Anthony Redman, Randy Sabusawa, and Karen Kelsall.

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Big Questions
How Are Balloons Chosen for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade?
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Getty Images

The balloons for this year's Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade range from the classics like Charlie Brown to more modern characters who have debuted in the past few years, including The Elf On The Shelf. New to the parade this year are Olaf from Disney's Frozen and Chase from Paw Patrol. does the retail giant choose which characters will appear in the lineup?

Balloon characters are chosen in different ways. For example, in 2011, Macy’s requested B. Boy after parade organizers saw the Tim Burton retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. (The company had been adding a series of art balloons to the parade lineup since 2005, which it called the Blue Sky Gallery.) When it comes to commercial balloons, though, it appears to be all about the Benjamins.

First-time balloons cost at least $190,000—this covers admission into the parade and the cost of balloon construction. After the initial year, companies can expect to pay Macy’s about $90,000 to get a character into the parade lineup. If you consider that the balloons are out for only an hour or so, that’s about $1500 a minute.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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