Say the words "Jackie Chan" and everybody thinks of amazing comedy martial arts movies. There’s a huge breadth of affection for Jackie Chan throughout the world, and yet we know so little about him. This documentary changes all that and if anything deepens the affection.
The story goes that Jackie Chan was born into a poor Hong Kong family – the only child of a cook and a housekeeper. But rumours had been going around that in fact Chan had some brothers and sisters on the mainland and that perhaps Chan isn’t his real name. With the failing health of Chan’s mother in 1999, his father decided to tell him his real family background. Thankfully, Chan decided to invite a documentary film crew to record it all for posterity. It’s an amazing story – not just about Chan and his parents, but about the entire history of 20th century China.
It turns out that Chan is not the real family name. In fact, it’s Fang. Jackie’s father was heavily involved with the Chinese Nationalists before the war, but when the Communists took over he changed his name to Chan and fled to Hong Kong. But before that he’d been a kind of "enforcer" for the Nationalists, something of a gangster. His first marriage produced two sons, both still living in Anhui province in mainland China; but their mother died. The father worked for the Nationalists, ostensibly as a spy during the period of Japanese colonial rule in China and was a witness to part of the infamous Rape of Nanking by Japanese troops; his description of the decapitation of some poor Chinese guy by a Japanese officer’s sword certainly lingers in the memory. He met Jackie’s mother when she was smuggling opium and he was a customs official in Shanghai. She had two daughters from a previous marriage and he found her quite a character. Her family disapproved of him but Jackie’s mother liked his strong personality.
Much of this film focuses on this early part of the family history. The director cuts between Jackie’s father recounting the story, to news footage (very difficult to obtain in China apparently) and old photos, to interviews with Jackie’s half- brothers and sisters, interspersed with Jackie and his father gently ribbing one another. The sense of massive family and social upheaval is palpable, as is the strength of these two individuals (father and mother) during a time of immense historical change. Jackie’s father is an enormously engaging personality – "He is a powerful man" according to his other sons (a postman and a pig farmer). Funny, garrulous, strong-willed, unsentimental and probably very short-tempered, he comes across as the quintessential loveable rogue. In the film, Jackie’s mother is wheelchair-bound and we have only second-hand accounts of her strength of character, and in fact she died only last year.
The latter part of the film focuses more on Jackie’s upbringing in Hong Kong. He started going to theatre classes from an early age and eventually came to live a cloistered life away from his family at the traditional theatre school in Hong Kong, only really escaping when he was 18. We meet many of his old friends, neighbours and colleagues, whilst the director cuts to Jackie cheerily singing karaoke with family and friends, admitting that he’s drunk.
This is a beautifully presented biographical documentary. It’s simply put together but very well edited. It is by no means a hagiography of Jackie Chan, and what comes through clearly is his great warmth, energy, drive and humour – characteristics that he quite obviously inherited from his parents. Their mutual affection is very evident but Chan must surely feel incredibly lucky to have arrived in this world after all the tribulations that his parents went through. Jackie and his father are also slightly vague about whether Jackie really is biologically his father’s son. It seems quite probable but neither of them seems totally convinced or seems to care – they would still remain father and son.
But director Mabel Cheung’s real achievement here is to contextualise one great family story within its wider historical framework. So many Chinese families must have gone through similar experiences, even if their children didn’t end up as film stars. This film is more than just a "must -see" for Jackie Chan fans. Anyone with an interest in Chinese history or even people who just enjoy a good family saga should seek out this film. It’s a gem.