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Hong Kong Comedies Laughing Into Success

Written by Allan Cho Tell a Friend

While the West generally focuses on the action of Hong Kong cinema, John Woo's gun-slinging gangster features and Jet Li's martial arts epics, it can be argued that Hong Kong's most successful movie genre is comedy. Innovative and entertaining, HK comedies consistently win the most critical awards and the highest box offices rankings. Just as Hollywood has Annie Hall, Ace Ventura and There's Something About Mary, Hong Kong too has its must-see comedies. Since the 1970s, HK comedy has continually evolved, with each decade topping the previous with new comedic formulas, genre-benders, ever more outrageous slapstick and nonsense wordplay. The following selection offers a sample of Hong Kong's finest, each a trend-setting landmark masterpiece.

1970s Return of Canto-Comedy

While some regard Michael Hui and Sam Hui as prominent actors, many also think of them as "saviours". When the Cantonese movie industry was near collapse in the 1970s (dominated by the Mandarin films), the Hui's came to the rescue. Focusing their films on the Hong Kong masses and aspects of their lives - prostitution, gambling, and their desire to become rich - they combine wit and sympathy to make comedies that struck a chord with mass film audiences, subsequently entering the Hui brothers into the comedic hall of fame.

Games Gamblers Play is the comedy that started it all. Con artists Lau (Sam Hui) and Deng (Michael Hui) pin their hopes on becoming rich by manipulating the outcome of a dog race. Along the way, the duo clumsily run into one obstacle after another, and discovers that cheating on their partners is every bit as dangerous as conning the triads. With Lau looking out for his partner, Deng holidays with his mistress confident that he'd get away with both crimes. When their women and the criminals unexpectedly come knocking on their doors (literally), what ensues is one of the wildest chases in Hong Kong cinema history. Following this film's success, the Hui brothers produced other classics such as The Last Message (1975), Private Eyes (1976), and The Contract (1978).

1980s Action Comedy

But by the 80s, audiences wanted something new, and as one would expect, Jackie Chan comes in and saves the day. Unlike his forerunner Bruce Lee, Chan does not limit himself to action, choosing to combine action with comedy. While filming in America, Chan stumbled on old black and white features that captivated and inspired him with stunts similar to Buster Keaton's. This move boosted his stagnant career and 1984's Project A cemented Jackie Chan's status as a Hong Kong legend.

Project A has countless of stunts to combine with Chan's customary kung fu acrobatics. In what has now become a classic scene, Chan leads a gang of criminals on a bicycle chase through the back alleys of Hong Kong before falling several stories (with no stunt double!) from a clock tower only to quip, "Now I know how gravity works."

Assigned to infiltrate the selling of military issue rifles to a gang of pirates, Dragon Ma (Chan) teams up with the a thief (Sammo Hung) to intercept the shipment of rifles, only to have Dragon himself accused by everyone for stealing the weapons himself. The genius of the movie comes from the brilliantly choreographed fight scenes; more slapstick than violent, each fight goes beyond five minutes and leaving trails of broken chairs and tables.

Building on the success of the movie, Chan continues to develop the action comedy genre in masterpieces such as Police Story (1984), Project A Part II (1987), and Drunken Master II (1994).

Frightening Audiences To Laughter

While Jackie Chan was busy with stunts, an equally entertaining subgenre of comedy emerged. Instead of policemen chasing evil villains, it was Taoist ghost catchers being chased by hopping vampires. Former classmate as well as choreographer in some Jackie Chan films, Lam Ching-ying stars in most of these horror comedies as the stubborn but loveable Taoist master. In Mr. Vampire, Uncle Nine (played by Lam) and his two bumbling disciples' inadvertently revive a thousand-year corpse dripping in vengeance and puss. Not only does Mr. Vampire wreck havoc by sucking the blood dry from its victims, it also turns them into vampires in the process.

The horror walks hand in hand with the humour. Soaked in Jackie Chan-like style, the laughs not only come from the death-defying escapes by the good guys from rowdy vampires, but also from the practical jokes that the ghost-catchers play on each other. In a classic scene of the voodooism gone astray, Chou and Choi seek revenge by pulling a ruthless prank on the wicked police chief Wai. Using black magic to control his body and forcing him to do a series of humiliating and raunchy acts, words can't explain how exceedingly far they go to retaliate: you have to watch it to believe it!

Mr. Vampire not only produced three sequels, it also influenced other classics such as A Chinese Ghost Story (1986), The Haunted Cop Shop (1988), Vampire Vs. Vampire (1989).

Definition of Mo Lei Tou
A term created to explain Stephen Chow's comedic formula. The literal translation of this Cantonese phrase is 'nonsensical', where words are uttered for purposes, be it comedy, rhythm, or sound, but logically it means nothing at all. This term has now entered mainstream usage in Hong Kong to describe someone talking complete nonsense.

Mou lei tou Comedy

By the 1990s, stunts and fistfights became old-fashioned in the ever-shrinking attention span of a demanding Hong Kong audience. Stephen Chow, an ex children's show host, revolutionized Hong Kong comedy with a new formula. Rather than throwing punches, Chow uses his unstoppable acidic wit to develop mou lei tou, Cantonese for nonsense talk, and in essence "verbal wordplay".

Fight Back to School highlights Chow's dazzling display of mou lei tou. Revolving around the comical premise that a police chief has lost his weapon during a highschool fieldtrip to the police station, Chow Sing Sing is dispatched as an undercover agent disguised as a student to retrieve the "lost gun." But as if the plot isn't far-fetched enough, Chow attempts to do the impossible: court and marry the teacher while infiltrating an international gun smuggling operation.

The laughs are entirely created and maintained by Chow's goofy persona, clever comebacks and gross-out humour. Chow stops at nothing for a laugh - in one scene his teacher catches him with a condom in his hands. To prove his innocence Chow declares it as chewing gum and bravely plops it in his mouth. He even blows a bubble as supporting evidence!

Crude, crass, but effectively entertaining, Chow's comedies were essential viewing for film buffs of the 90s. They redefined the comedy genre as other filmmakers vaingloriously copied his winning formula of unlimited source of one-liners, quirky characters, and habitual references to urine and feces After the success of this movie, Chow dominated the decade with other classics as A Chinese Odyssey (1995), Forbidden City Cop (1996) and God of Cookery (1996).

The Maturation of the HK Comedy

But by the turn of the century, the tastes of both audiences and filmmakers took a 180 degree turn. Perhaps a sign of maturity, or just the fact that mou lei tou became real nonsense in the end, movies began to take on the persona of Enter the Phoenix , which is an intelligent film combining humour and tragedy with a dash of fighting. Summoned to take over his father's triad business, the clueless underworld bosses mistake Georgie's roommate Sam (Eason Chan) for Georgie (Daniel Wu). Never wanting to be a part of the triads in the first place, Georgie plays along with the game of mistaken identity and returns to attend his father's funeral. But in Hong Kong, Sam and Georgie encounter a long-held feud from his father's past that would come back and haunt them in the end.

The humour is subtle but perfectly complements the movie's drama and action. In one memorable scene, Sam displays one of the most pathetically fake attempts at mourning for the death of his "father" only to realize that halfway into his performance that he is at the wrong funeral! If not for the engaging story and striking cinematography by rookie director Stephen Fung, then Eason Chan's over-the top-comedic performance should be worth the price of admission.

Just like Enter the Phoenix, similar comical but profound comedies have been produced in recent years. Golden Chicken (2002) and other great futures indicate that Hong Kong comedy has evolved and matured into something quite wonderful.

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Published August 21, 2004

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