Not since the arrival of Bruce Lee during the ’70s has a generation of Americans been so widely exposed to Chinese culture through film, and Billy Kong has been behind much of it. The CEO of Hong Kong’s Edko Films, Kong is the producer responsible for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” as well as “House of Flying Daggers” and “Hero.” For all his influence, Kong’s a modest man, and exceptionally nostalgic, even while on the cutting edge of Hong Kong cinema. Right now, he has a film in post-production called “True Legend” by director Yuen Wo-ping (the legendary martial arts choreographer behind everything from “The Matrix” to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) that stars Michelle Yeoh and the late David Carradine, and another in theaters — French helmer Chris Nahon’s “Blood: The Last Vampire,” a genre-melding action/vampire flick based on an anime feature of the same name. I spoke to Kong by phone from Hong Kong about the film, the future of HK cinema and risking his house to make movies.
Let me start with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” It wasn’t just a huge success, but an influential one, and something that you risked your own money to make. What made you take that risk, and was there ever a point where you thought it wouldn’t pay off?
No. I’ve been in the business as a distributor and an exhibitor for a while. We were looking for a financier, for an investor to co-invest with us, but we couldn’t find any. Making the film was so difficult, but at the same time so enjoyable — we had such a great team of people there. So we never thought, “Oh, what if we lost a lot of money?” The level of success was a real surprise, but I never thought, what would happen if I lose my house? We are always under this risk management. We understand the downfall, you know? I never thought of what would happen if I lost, but I never expected it would go to be that level of success.
I remember thinking how “Crouching Tiger” would introduce a generation of Americans to Chinese culture, one they probably knew little about, and perhaps help to positively shape their perceptions of China, in a time when many were negative. What do you think about film playing the role of ambassador between peoples?
I think that it certainly played that role very successfully. That film opened the eyes and minds of people around the world. Even today, it’s still a favorite [on] TV — it still gets good ratings around the world. We still see overages from the TV rights of the film, so people are still watching. I’ve gone back to shoot movies at the same locations of “Crouching Tiger” and they’ve become tourist sites, so, I think certain movies do act as great ambassadors for cultures.
What do you think Hong Kong filmmakers can teach Hollywood filmmakers?
Nothing anymore. [laughs] I’m afraid we can’t. We used to have great filmmakers like John Woo, who we’ve already exported to Hollywood, so at this moment, Hong Kong movies don’t have much to offer. [laughs] But in the old days, during the ’80s and ’90s, we had a whole bunch of great filmmakers.
American audiences have already fully embraced the Hong Kong action style of fighting, and the wired choreography you guys have been doing for decades, it’s permeated our culture.
Yes, yes. We also exported Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee. I think it was all started by Bruce Lee. Of course, we still have great masters like Yuen Wo-ping, and they are still trying very hard to come up with something to surprise the audience, but I’m afraid a lot of them, like John Woo, have gone on to Hollywood.
Audiences tend to be fickle; do you think Americans are more fickle than Chinese audiences?
I think audiences around the world are like that. Every few years we have a new generation of filmmakers coming out, and [a new] audience. And every generation behaves differently. 20 years ago, we sold a lot of foreign language films to America — “Raise the Red Lantern,” all these great Chinese movies were shown in theaters in America… Kurosawa from Japan. But today, the new generation of moviegoers are much less patient with foreign language film. They don’t like watching subtitles. It’s not just America. [Everywhere] in the world, audiences are like that. Information and the Internet have changed the world, so as a filmmaker, I think we have to learn to cope with that. We can’t blame [the audience]: “How come we have all the right elements and the audience doesn’t buy it?” We have to ride the wave, too.