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Stephen Chow: More than just nonsense

Written by Ross Chen Tell a Friend

Christmas 2004 will be a special time for Hong Kong Cinema fans, because arguably the greatest Hong Kong film star of the 1990s, Stephen Chow, will be unveiling his latest film, Kung Fu Hustle. Written by, directed by, and starring Stephen Chow, Kung Fu Hustle is the award-winning filmmaker's first film since Shaolin Soccer in 2001, and easily qualifies as his most globally anticipated film ever. Yet for such a high-profile Asian superstar, Chow has only recently received international notice.

Stephen Chow first made his mark on television during the 1980s, co-hosting popular children's television show 430 Space Shuttle with Tony Leung Chiu Wai. After paying his dues with the TVB acting school, Chow graduated to serial television, and eventually to features, making his first splash in actor/producer Danny Lee's Final Justice. Chow's layered turn as a petty car thief turned heads, leading to nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards for Best Supporting Actor and Best New Artist. But none of the accolades propelled Chow to A-list stardom, and his subsequent roles (like the John Woo actioner Just Heroes (1989), and Dragon Fight (1989), starring Jet Li) frequently cast him in limited supporting roles.

It was All For The Winner that truly announced the arrival of Hong Kong's latest superstar. A parody/homage to the popular Chow Yun Fat vehicle God of Gamblers, All For The Winner casts Stephen Chow as Sing, a goofy Mainland immigrant whose ESP powers make him a winner at the gambling tables. Audiences were immediately enamored of Sing's happy-go-lucky country hick charm - All For The Winner went on to become the highest grossing Hong Kong film of its day, ironically surpassing the previous champion God of Gamblers.

All For The Winner made Stephen Chow a box-office force to be reckoned with, but it also established a few other particulars of Chow's future screen success. The film teamed Chow with supporting actor Ng Man Tat, whose goofy sidekick persona would become a fixture of eighteen other Stephen Chow films. Leading lady Sharla Cheung would turn up in ten more Stephen Chow films, frequently as his love interest. More importantly, All For The Winner established Stephen Chow's special brand of mo lei tau comedy. Loosely translated as "makes no sense", mo lei tau comedy is typified by light speed comic banter, usually involving bizarre non-sequitors, frequent anachronisms, fourth-wall references, and plenty of Cantonese wordplay - much of it deemed untranslatable in any language other than Cantonese. As such, Chow's popularity rose in Hong Kong, but stalled everywhere else, including Mandarin-speaking territories like Taiwan. At the time, it seemed Stephen Chow would be a distinctly - and exclusively - Hong Kong phenomenon.

International popularity aside, Chow's profile in Hong Kong grew to astounding proportions during the early nineties. Chow appeared in numerous films designed to capitalize on his All For The Winner status. Filmmaker Wong Jing, originator of the God of Gamblers phenomenon, brought All For The Winner's Sing into the God of Gamblers world, teaming him with the "Knight of Gamblers" Andy Lau for God of Gamblers II, and later Mainland sensation Gong Li for God of Gamblers Part III - Back to Shanghai. Wong Jing's Tricky Brains (1991) again teamed Chow with Andy Lau and Ng Man Tat, with Chow turning in one of his most iconic performances as "Jing Koo", AKA the "Handsome Tricky Expert", a suave but amoral conman and professional trickster. Wong Jing also produced the wildly popular Chow comedy Fight Back to School (1991), directed by Gordon Chan. Chow stars as an undercover cop sent back to high school to bust a gun-smuggling ring, with frequent timeouts for Chow to romance teacher Sharla Cheung, and trade blows and barbs with partner Ng Man Tat. Considered by many to be one of the best films from Chow's early-nineties era, Fight Back to School went on to replace All For the Winner as Hong Kong's top box-office performer.

But that record was shattered the following year thanks to the Johnnie To-directed Justice, My Foot! (1992), which bested Fight Back to School's box office take. Stephen Chow stars as a smooth-talking and borderline unethical Qing Dynasty-era lawyer who takes on a murder case while dealing with the demands of his kung-fu-kicking wife Anita Mui. Fittingly, Justice, My Foot! was the top box-office moneymaker of 1992, but even more telling were the films that occupied the number two through five slots on the list of highest-grossing films of the year. The other four films were All's Well, Ends Well, Royal Tramp, Royal Tramp II, and Fight Back to School II, and every one of those films starred Stephen Chow! The Royal Tramp films are Wong Jing's mo lei tau take on the popular "The Duke of Mr. Deer" novels by writer Jin Yong (AKA Louis Cha). All's Well, Ends Well is a hilarious Lunar New Year Comedy featuring an inspired pairing with acclaimed actress Maggie Cheung, as well as a delicious performance from the late Leslie Cheung. Fight Back to School II is the sequel to the previous Stephen Chow hit, and introduced a young actress named Athena Chu, who would famously go on to become a real-life paramour of Chow.

Stephen Chow stepped behind the camera for From Beijing With Love, a spy spoof co-starring Best Actress winner Anita Yuen. From Beijing With Love seemed to signal a new era for Chow. Besides co-directing the film with frequent collaborator Lee Lik Chee, Chow eschews the omnipresent wordplay and manic nonsense of his earlier work for visual gags and exaggerated characters, frequently evoking the rhythms of Japanese manga and anime for his comedy. The film's James Bond parody - and jokes skewering, among other things, Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park and campy Japanese sci-fi - created minor international crossover. Also helping Chow's international profile was the release of A Chinese Odyssey 1- Pandora's Box and A Chinese Odyssey 2 – Cinderella, director Jeff Lau's epic two-part retelling of the legend of the Monkey King. The role earned Stephen Chow his first acting award, from the Hong Kong Film Critics Society, and further demonstrated the existence of the actor beneath the comedian.

Chow continued to develop his behind-the-screen skills with Forbidden City Cop (1996), which he co-directed with Vincent Kok (Gorgeous). A period spoof on spy films and martial arts bloodshed, Forbidden City Cop further established Chow as a director, and was followed by God of Cookery, a wildly popular riff on the "Iron Chef" phenomenon. God of Cookery stars Chow as a megalomaniacal celebrity chef who receives his comeuppance when he's taken down by an upstart rival (director Vincent Kok) and a treacherous old colleague (Ng Man Tat, this time playing Chow's nemesis). The disgraced chef is saved by Sister Turkey (Karen Mok, another rumored real-life paramour of Chow's), a disfigured triad member/noodle vendor who also happens to be the chef's biggest fan. Also directed by Stephen Chow, The God of Cookery mauled all comers at the box-office, and was optioned for a since-stalled U.S. remake starring comedy superstar Jim Carrey.

Chow directed one more film, King of Comedy (1999), to close out his enormously successful decade. In many ways his most mature work, King of Comedy stars Chow as Wan Tin Sau, a dedicated actor who finds love and possible success despite being somewhat of a dimwit. Drawing inspiration from Bruce Lee (a longtime Stephen Chow fascination), and the popular Japanese TV dramas of the time (especially 1998's Long Vacation), King of Comedy presents a different Stephen Chow. Unlike the usual Chow characters, Wan Tin Sau is not a lovable Mainland immigrant, nor a vastly superior wiseacre. Instead, Chow creates a character whose virtue is found in a ridiculous, almost pathetic dedication to acting, even if he's playing a corpse, or teaching a girlish prostitute (superstar Cecilia Cheung in her first screen role) how to better service her customers through acting.

In 2001, Chow made his biggest splash yet with the record-setting, internationally-popular Shaolin Soccer. Released two years after his last screen appearance (1999's The Tricky Master), Shaolin Soccer dazzled audiences all over Asia with its unique and intoxicating blend of martial arts parody, comic book fantasy, and iconic sports-movie storytelling. The film went on to become the biggest locally-made film in Hong Kong history (eclipsed only by the American film Titanic), and won numerous awards, including a complete sweep at the 21st Hong Kong Film Awards, with wins for Best Picture, Director, and Actor. No longer just a popular funnyman, Chow had become a critical success, with appeal reaching beyond his previous "only in Hong Kong" limits. Shaolin Soccer replaces mo lei tau with brilliant visual gags and dynamite commercial film pacing, and takes its cues from various touchstones of popular culture, including video games and popular sports, and once again manga, anime, Chinese martial arts, and Bruce Lee. Unlike Chow's earlier local blockbusters, Shaolin Soccer played to success in many international territories, finally leading to a belated - and famously mishandled - American release by Miramax Films in the spring of 2004.

Now Chow is prepared to unleash Kung Fu Hustle as a 2004 Christmas present for the Hong Kong audience. A period piece set in the 1930s, the film stars Chow as a wannabe gangster who aspires to cool bad boy status as a member of the vicious "Axe Gang." Promising more Stephen Chow mayhem and mania - and action sequences choreographed by Yuen Woo Ping of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - Kung Fu Hustle is arguably the most anticipated Hong Kong film ever, both locally and internationally. It also represents an unprecedented layoff for the once-prolific funnyman. Stephen Chow once made anywhere from two to eight pictures a year, but Kung Fu Hustle marks the end of a three-and-a-half year wait. The layoff may have been a good thing, as Chow's fan base has only grown, and now encompasses more people from more countries than ever before. The pent-up anticipation for Kung Fu Hustle tells us that Stephen Chow, formerly a Hong Kong-specific funnyman, has finally become an international cinema figure - and more than just nonsense.

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Published December 28, 2004

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