I’m a fan of Hong Kong film maker Stephen Chow. There’s something about Chow’s cinematic sensibility that resonates with me. Dark humor, genre satire, social criticism, and off the wall ideas are common to all his movies. I enjoy Chow’s flawed, somewhat narcissistic, but redeemable characters. His action staging is always imaginative. He’s a genuine comedic auteur, so I’m offering some Chinese trailers of his movies in the hope that you will find his body of work worth exploring.
Stephen Chow grew up in a Hong Kong working class suburb. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of his idol Bruce Lee, and study his style of martial arts, after seeing Lee’s break-out movie The Big Boss ( US: The Chinese Connection) when he was 11. But after his parents’ divorce, Chow could not afford the cost of tuition. Nonetheless, he studied acting, starting in the 1980’s as an extra at Hong Kong’s Rediffusion TV, and, with persistence, worked his way up to a successful movie career in action and comedy. Hong Kong critics praised his flair for “slapstick, send-up, sight gag and silly expressions”. You could say that Chow as a comedian is part Jim Carrey, part Robin Williams. There’s also a strong vein of Edgar Wright in some of his later work.
Throughout his early acting career, Chow had his eye on the director’s chair. He asked the veteran directors with whom he worked why they placed the camera for each scene where they did. He absorbed their wisdom, then between 1993 – 1994, Chow starred in three movies which he co-directed with Lee Lik Chi – Flirting Scholar and Love on Delivery, and the James Bond spoof From Beijing With Love, which he also wrote. Chow has written or co-written the script for his 11 subsequent movies. In the trailer, his clumsy pistol handling shows his skill with physical comedy:
In Forbidden City Cop, co-directed with Vincent Kok, Chow decided to revisit James Bond and throw the 007 tropes and a classic wuxia/Chinese Ghost Story into the blender. It’s been likened to The Naked Gun. Chow plays an incompetent bodyguard to the Emperor who aspires to be a gadget inventor like Ian Fleming’s Q. His occasionally malfunctioning devices include ninja-confounding magnets, and a mouth-based weapon that induces grotesque Botox like swellings in the target’s face.
There are some surprisingly gruesome moments mixed with the comedy, as Chow experiments with conflicting tones. I like the repeated intercutting of violence with food preparation and consumption. When one of the Emperor’s other secret agents is kicked in the balls – cut to Chow cracking open some eggs and letting them fall to the floor. Was my groin kick/pool table break in The Man From Hong Kong twenty years earlier an inspiration?
If you are intrigued so far, a good full length introduction to Chow’s wild comedic style is his 1996 hit The God of Cookery, which he co-directed with Lee Lik Chi. Chow played the celebrity owner of chains of fast food restaurants that sell overpriced slop to an adoring public of low discerning palette. All Chow’s films reveal that beneath the madcap fun, he’s a sharp social critic. The media chef’s career is soon derailed by “a fatty” who had previously proved his loyalty by providing “for a hard excretion in front of the foyer”. Expect much clever gross-out humor both verbal and visual in Chow’s films. Disgraced, the chef hooks up with Sister Turkey, a disfigured BBQ pork vendor who is famed for the springiness of her beef balls. They join forces to create “pissing beef balls”, a new taste sensation intended to restore the God of Cookery to his throne. All this + Eighteen Brass Men of Shaolin, a bearded schoolgirl, mad cow disease gags and a climactic kung-fu style cook off. What’s not to like?
The trailer lacks English subtitles but the fun is self evident.
In 1999, The King of Comedy, which Chow again co-directed with Lee Lik Chi, was one of Hong Kong’s highest-grossing movies. In a satirical riff on his own early career, Chow plays a dedicated but under-rated actor, whose acting technique is too sophisticated to be understood by producers and directors, so he is only offered walk-on roles. The highlights of the trailer include an amateur live theater production of Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury (@0.30) and a John Woo spoof. When the director yells: “Cut” (@1.50) even without English subtitles, you’ll sense Stephen Chow’s dexterity with Cantonese wordplay. He was a master of Cantonese ‘Mo Lei Tau’ style of humor, prevalent in the early 1990’s. ‘Mo Lei Tau’ translates as coming from nowhere or makes no sense. It echoes the way that Monty Python’s style of anarchic non-sequitur humor became popular in the English-speaking world in the 1970’s. though non Cantonese audiences watching Chow’s verbal gymnastics, even with subtitles, will not grasp the full impact and ingenuity of Chow’s humor.
‘Mo Lei Tau’ is characterized by mischievous, nonsensical comic remarks, often adopted by the defeated as a face-saving posture to claim moral victory. ‘Mo Lei Tau’ first started in the films of the Hui Brothers, a trio of siblings that would mix kung fu and comedy to wild success in Hong Kong. Chow grew up up watching these films along with those of silent comedy star Charlie Chaplin. He pushed the Hui’s style of farcical slapstick much further. ‘Mo Lei Tau’ is characterized by the fact that things happen for no reason. Fights can break out over nothing, people can burst into song and dance, characters break the fourth wall, story threads get introduced, then dropped without explanation. Take the ending of King of Comedy, where the two main characters fall in love with each other, only to suddenly engage in a blatantly vulgar advertisement for Pringles. It’s a deliberate WTF moment, a straight-faced snipe at product placement by boldly putting one out there, which, for me reinforces the meta nature of the movie.
It was Shaolin Soccer in 2001, shot for around $10 million, that first got Chow noticed by western audiences. He plays a former Shaolin monk who reunites his five brothers and harnesses their superhuman martial arts skills to play soccer and bring Shaolin Kung Fu to the masses. Shaolin Soccer demonstrated Chow’s flair with the new CGI technology and immediately became the top grossing local film. Released in the US by Miramax, where the Weinstein brothers found Chow’s verbal humor too challenging to dub, it was cut by 22 minutes, and took less than half a million dollars in its theatrical release. However, its world-wide gross was close to $50 million. That paved the way for Kung Fu Hustle, which Sony backed with a $20 million dollar budget.
Kung Fu Hustle became Stephen Chow’s biggest international box office success, with a world wide theatrical gross of $102 million. Two of the key fight scenes were directed by Woo-Ping Yuen (Crouching Tiger, The Matrix) and one by Sammo Kam-Bo Hung who, when 22, choreographed the fights for me in The Man From Hong Kong, before going on to become a superstar actor/producer/director in Asia.
Set in Canton, China in the 1940s, the movie opens with a stylish, dynamic sequence introducing – the Axe Gang, the terror of the town. Chow plays a wannabe gangbanger, unskilled in martial arts, who desperately wants to become a member. He stumbles into a slum ruled by eccentric landlords who turns out to be the greatest kung-fu masters in disguise. They straighten out his values, and together they defeat the Axe Gang in an extended battle, full of eye-popping visual effects.
Chow is skilled at blending genres for his audience.. In Kung Fu Hustle, he gene-splices an action packed wuxia plot into the tenement film, specifically the The House of 72 Tenants (1973), a Capra-esque tale of hard scrabble living in a shantytown. Thus, Chow reminded Hong Kong audiences of their former days of hardship, but at the same time extending an invitation to his new audience in China, by using Hong Kong’s past in a comedic way to address China’s anxieties over rapid modernization. It’s not surprising the movie was a runaway hit in both markets.
Kung Fu Hustle is generally agreed to be Chow’s masterpiece, though perhaps he has a few more left in him.
After Kung Fu Hustle, Chow moved on from ‘Mo Lei Tau’ humor to embrace deeper themes and tackle new genres. CJ-7, in 2008, is a sci-fi comedy evoking E.T. about a father and son who adopt a cute saucer-eyed alien, with the power to reverse any damage it creates. It’s a heart-tugging family fairy tale, though it’s more Addams Family than Brady. CJ-7 grossed $50 million world wide.
Inevitably, after box office proof of Chow’s appeal, Hollywood came calling. Chow was hired to direct, and star alongside Seth Rogen in the theatrical reboot of the cult TV series Green Hornet, with Chow taking the Bruce Lee role of Kato. It was a logical pairing of star and project, but Chow would quit first as director then as actor following “creative differences“. Producers complained he wanted “total control”. But that was what he was used to, and it’s what you should give a proven auteur who was the amalgamated equivalent of Stephen Spielberg and Mel Brooks in his own culture. Not major studio thinking, of course. They treated John Woo the same. I believe Chow’s take on Green Hornet might have been more interesting, certainly quirkier, that the version that hit the screen in 2011.
Chow’s next movies – Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons and the sequel Demons Fight Back – broke box office records, despite the fact that Chow did not act in them.
The Mermaid, Chow’s riff on Splash, became the highest grossing film in Chinese history in just three weeks.
Chow’s environmental message is front and center in the trailer. Sample subtitles: “ what on Earth is more important than money” & “If the world does not have a single drop of clean water…” I always enjoy a trip into Stephen Chow’s imaginarium, and was swept along by this tone shifting fantasy. This Roger Ebert.com review is an eloquent analysis. Pescatarians: try The Mermaid and Del Toro’s The Shape of Water as an eco-themed double bill. My personal highlight among many: a half man/half octopus masquerading as a sushi chef serves his tentacles as sashimi. Genius.
I hope these extracts have whetted your appetite for Stephen Chow movies and you will go fishing in the streaming pond for further examples of his unique sensibility.
Brian Trenchard-Smith is a life long fan of Asian Cinema. Read more in his book Adventures in the B Movie Trade available here.