Dir: Mabel Cheung. China-HK. 2003. 94mins.
This homage to Hong Kong action hero Jackie Chan, which opened the Panorama Documentary section at Berlin, was commissioned by Chan himself as a "family souvenir". But in the hands of director Mabel Cheung (known until now for features such as The Soong Sisters or City Of Glass) it has become a full length, 35mm documentary which, in telling the story of Jackie Chan's four "lost" half-brothers and half-sisters, takes the audience through almost a century of Chinese history. A shoe-in for television, it will not necessarily be as easy to position theatrically: serious kung fu fans may be bored, while those drawn by the historical angle will sometimes be frustrated by the Chan-centred view presented here. But this is essential viewing for the Tarantino generation of cineastes who were weaned on Hong Kong action features, filling in the sometimes harrowing background to the Chan legend.
It was only in 1999 that Jackie Chan learnt that he was not, as he had supposed, an only child. His father - a likeable but hard-edged rascal who has a jaunty white sailor's cap permanently glued to his head - revealed that he had had two sons in mainland China by a previous marriage. A Nationalist secret agent and small-time mafioso, he moved to Shanghai after his first wife's death to "get myself some turf", leaving the boys, aged nine and three, to fend for themselves. Here he met Jackie Chan's mother, a desperately poor woman with two daughters to support. When the Maoist revolution made it impossible for Nationalists to stay in Shanghai, Chan's mother and father fled south to Hong Kong, leaving the two girls - the eldest of whom was 16 - with relatives.
It was here in the former British colony, a place teeming with refugees, that Jackie Chan was born in 1954. Chan himself did not have an easy upbringing: he too was separated from his parents when he was only eight. When they moved to Australia, Chan was left behind in a Hong Kong circus and opera school, where he would hone his acrobatic skills for the following 10 years.
Chan tells the camera at a certain point that he used to dream that his father was in a plane, circling Hong Kong but never landing. But this is as far as the director goes in exposing the hurt and trauma that the eight-year-old Chan must have felt. Michael Moore would have probed the wound more deeply, but if Cheung fails to then it is not just because her subject is also her producer. Rather, one of her messages is how children also become victims of history, sketched in with short bursts of newsreel footage, and how resilient they are to its slings and arrows.
In the end, it is not the revelations about Chan's past, shot supposedly as his father told him, that draws the audience in, although there is a distinct feeling Chan already knew a lot of this.
Nor is it the anticipated meeting between Chan and his lost siblings, which never materialises. Rather, it is the details that really hit home: the slightly uneasy camaraderie between Chan and his father, which can be seen as a resentment on Chan's part that he has never quite shaken off; the fact that the youngest of his mainland half-brothers, once a pig farmer, has dressed up in a suit and tie for his interview; or a touching scene of Chan feeding his ageing mother in a nursing home. These moments carry the film far more than the disposable making-of-a-legend sequences and interviews that multiply once the narrative moves into the Hong Kong superstar's own lifetime.
Prod co: Jackie & Willie Productions
Int'l sales: Fortissimo
Prod: Willie Chan, Solon So
Cinematography: Arthur Wong
Ed: Maurice Li
Music: Henry Lai