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Tiger in house of the flying hero

By Joe Havely for CNN

Zhang Ziyi in a scene from House of Flying Daggers.
Jet Li
Gong Li
John Woo
Chen Kaige

(CNN) -- Hero, Crouching Tiger and House of Flying Daggers -- Chinese martial arts movies have been making some breathtaking moves on the international cinema circuit in recent years.

A mix of dazzlingly choreographed fight scenes, striking scenery and lavish costumes, they have sparked an international renaissance for a genre that has long been a staple of Chinese cinema -- the kung fu epic.

Championed by the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein, Chinese cinema has reached international audiences and box office takings until recently considered unimaginable for subtitled foreign films.

Hero, the story of the tyrannical Emperor Qin, topped the U.S. box office in its opening week.

The latest Chinese offering, action-comedy Kung Fu Hustle -- albeit from a slightly different stable to Hero and co. -- looks set to do even better.

"These films have really challenged American cinema to think about where it's at," says Dede Nickerson, Beijing-based consultant for Miramax.

"They've surprised a lot of people and done very well against U.S. films - much better than anyone expected."

One effect, she says, has been to bring a greater focus and emphasis on choreography in the action sequences of Western-made films.

The Matrix series, for example, was considered pioneering for Hollywood but drew its influences heavily from kung-fu cinema -- even employing veteran Hong Kong fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping, the man behind the fight scenes in Crouching Tiger.

The impact isn't merely restricted to the movie world.

With China's cinematic offerings drawing a growing fan-base around the world, the resulting rise of interest in things Chinese has spun-off into fashion, music and food.

In Hollywood, China's rise has also raised interest in the country both as production venue and for its directorial and acting talent.

Large parts of the Kill Bill movies, for example, were shot in China.

One reason: the talent and new locations available as China opens up to international productions. Another is the dramatic cost benefits of producing films in China.

"It's very cheap to make a film in China, perhaps a quarter of the cost in the United States," says Nickerson. "So for a film like Kill Bill, that meant less pressure on budgets, freeing up cash to make a longer two-part film."

For Chinese cinema, squeezed on its home territory by the omnipresent DVD pirates, the recent international successes have also come at an opportune time.

According to some estimates, DVD piracy accounts for as much as 95 percent of the mainland Chinese film market -- none of which, of course, goes back into film making.

It's one of the biggest challenges facing both Chinese filmmakers as well as the Hollywood studios eager to crack the fastest-growing and potentially biggest market on the planet.

For years China's media market has been a mouth-watering prospect for international giants like Viacom, Warner and Sony.

What's held them back has been tight regulation in terms of market access on the one hand, and lax enforcement of copyright rules on the other.

Now, at least, the rules on market access appear to be loosening. Though according to Arthur Jones, who covers the Chinese cinema industry for Variety, "it's still very much a case of two steps forward, one step back."

With overseas producers allowed to set up joint venture production houses with Chinese partners, the expectation is that the field is opening -- slowly -- to an even greater crossover between Hollywood and China.

"Already the days are gone when Chinese characters would lurk in the background, the women merely looking beautiful and the men harboring mystical martial arts powers," says Jones.

Instead, Chinese talent is gaining an increasingly international face and level of respect in the industry.

Directors Ang Lee and John Woo are two names from the Chinese diaspora -- if not mainland -- to have pioneered the path to Hollywood.

In terms of on-screen talent, another name treading the path to Hollywood stardom, following the footsteps of kung-fu star Jet Li, is actress Gong Li.

Famed for her roles in art house classics such as Farewell My Concubine and Raise the Red Lantern, she's recently signed up to star in the Hollywood version of 1980s TV cop show Miami Vice.

But what of the potential for more Chinese films to make the crossover to international success?

On recent form, the key ingredients appear to be highly stylized kung-fu action and sweeping dramatic scenery, but there are no guarantees.

Sony, for example, thought it was on to a winner with action-adventure flick Warriors of Heaven and Earth. It had all the classic set-piece elements, but a poor storyline and weak script turned it into a loser at the box office.

"A movie with potential that fails completely," was how one Internet reviewer summed it up.

Consultant Dede Nickerson says she believes the next big China-based trend will come from movies fusing elements of Western and Chinese cinema -- a winning package designed to appeal to both markets.

The first such movie of this genre is The Promise ("Wu Ji"), a movie that she says blends Lord of The Rings-style magic and mysticism with Chinese martial arts.

Under a deal with software giant Ubisoft, it will also be China's first feature to be accompanied by an online game based on the film.

With a production schedule of almost two years, The Promise is directed by mainlander Chen Kaige -- a man who himself has made the crossover from Chinese cinema (Farewell My Concubine) to Hollywood (Killing Me Softly).

Backed up by one of the biggest budgets seen in Chinese cinema, the film has its sights set on breaking records and perhaps scoring China's first best feature Oscar.

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