HONG KONG — Jackie Chan may have stirred up a maelstrom in the US, but in Asia, he’s laughing all the way to the bank.
Last month, the 58-year-old action star claimed in an interview that the US is “the most corrupt” country in the world, and argued that Chinese citizens should keep criticisms of their country to themselves.
“If you talk about corruption, the entire world, the America, has no corruption? [It is] the most corrupt in the world,” he said in a Dec. 13 broadcast on Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV.
When the comments spread to the American press last week, they sparked widespread controversy.
Yet while the comments aroused indignation in the US, where Chan built his film career, they have done nothing to dent the popularity of his new film, "CZ12" (short for Chinese Zodiac).
Released in China on Dec. 20, the film has broken box-office records in China, earning over $130 million. Strong performances in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam have already helped to make "CZ12" the second-highest grossing Chinese-language film of all time.
As director, writer, choreographer, and producer of the film — his 101st — Chan touched every aspect of the project, winning a Guinness World Record for the number of credits on a single film. He has said that "CZ12" will be his last “major action film,” marking an end to the most significant chapter in his career.
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In both its subject matter and its Asian success, "CZ12" underscores the extent to which the star of "Rumble in the Bronx" and "Rush Hour" has pivoted his career away from America, and toward China.
The plot of "CZ12," which is nominally the sequel to two Indiana Jones-style Chan movies from the 1980s and early 1990s, follows a markedly more nationalist, even revanchist, arc than its predecessors. Instead of seeking a magic sword, or Nazi gold, as in the previous films, Chan’s band of adventurers is on a quest to steal 12 ancient Chinese statues that were taken by Anglo-French forces during the Opium Wars of the 1840s.
Spurred on by a beautiful, didactic Chinese antiques preservation activist named Coco, who periodically delivers speeches on the perfidy of imperialists and the righteousness of repatriating China’s historic relics, Jackie eventually sacrifices himself to save a dragon statue from falling into a volcano. (Spoiler alert: He survives.)
The patriotic themes of the movie, however historically justified, have unsettled some critics, who felt that Chan’s script comes a bit too close to aping the Communist Party line.
“Entire pages of pedantic dialogue sound like they were scripted by a government official,” said Andrew Sun of the South China Morning Post.
“Regardless of what one believes about historical propriety and national rights, "CZ12" is not the place to debate them, and after the third lecture on the foreign raiders and auction houses that profit from 19th century pillages, the subject simply becomes exhausting,” said Hollywood Reporter.
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Jackie Chan’s evolution toward a more vocal pro-Beijing stance has become more pronounced in both his movies and his politics. His previous film, the patriotic epic "1911," diligently and solemnly portrayed the military uprising that led to the overthrow of the Qing dynasty. While not quite propaganda, the movie was criticized for mythologizing its heroes, and neglecting aspects of history deemed unsavory to the Communist Party narrative.
More striking is the stridency of Chan's public statements. Over the last several years, Chan has become increasingly controversial in Hong Kong, his hometown, after repeatedly denigrating the city’s civil liberties in comparison to the mainland.
In 2010, he said that “in the 10 years after Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule, I can gradually see, I’m not sure if it’s good to have freedom or not … I’m gradually beginning to feel that we Chinese need to be controlled. If we’re not being controlled, we’ll just do what we want.”
In fact, the same week that he called America “the most corrupt,” Chan told a Chinese magazine that Hong Kongers’ right to protest should be limited, saying that “The authorities should stipulate what issues people can protest over and on what issues it is not allowed.”
Following the comment, activist Wang Dan called for a Hong Kong boycott of "CZ12," which may have contributed to its relatively weak box-office earnings of $1.38 million in the territory.
Even in mainland China, where the film is a runaway hit, many ordinary people are turned off by Chan's reactionary views. Many users on Weibo, China's Twitter, heaped derision on his anti-US remarks, suggesting he is now more concerned about currying favor in Beijing than in Hollywood.
"How many years of service has he given to the Party?" asked one user. “Presumably he's paving the way to join the Party after he can no longer shoot movies,” said another.
There may be truth to the observation that Chan, like many Hollywood studios, is shifting his focus to China's vast and growing movie-viewing market. In 2012, the size of China's box office surged by a third to $2.7 billion, beating Japan to become the second largest in the world. And thanks to government policies strictly limiting the number of foreign films allowed in the country, Chinese-made movies like "CZ12" have an inherent advantage.
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Despite some backlash, there's no denying that Chan's nationalistic tone does play well with parts of the Chinese populace. On Weibo, many people applauded and even celebrated his boldness in criticizing the US and defending China.
“I am also anti-American! I support Big Brother Jackie!” wrote one. “This is the truth about America!” said another. "It's there that Brother Chan cannot speak the truth openly."
Of course, Jackie Chan has not given up on the US market entirely. He has confirmed that he will appear in the next of Sylvester Stallone's unkillable franchise, "The Expendables 3." And Chan will see whether his comments have affected American fans when "CZ12" comes to American shores in the spring or summer of 2013.