UNTIL fairly recently, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the glory days of the Hong Kong action movie were over. The puritan censorship of the Communist mainland made it impossible to imagine such dark, violent films like The Killer, Streets On Fire or Full Contact being made in the former colony while all the industry’s major talent – directors Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, and John Woo, actors Jet Li , Chow Yun Fat, and, of course, Jackie Chan – had been lured to Hollywood. The whole infrastructure that had been built up over decades collapsed very quickly.
Yet such setbacks, as they say in old Chinese proverbs, can also be great opportunities. Although to Western audiences he seemed to arrive fr0om nowhere, at 43 Stephen Chow is hardly an overnight sensation, his talents as a martial artist, an actor and a director having been honed over decades. Chow’s career began inauspiciously enough as a TV star and a bit part player in numerous rather hokey knock-offs and sequels. His first film as director, 1994’s Love On Delivery, was a rather poor rom com – albeit a rom com with lots of high speed high kicking kung fu action – that has only recently been available outside China. It was hardly an announcement that there was a new sheriff in town. But fast forward to 2005 and, in the wake of his incredible, highly stylised martial arts gangster musical comedy Kung Fu Hustle, he practically is the Hong Kong movie industry.Kung Fu Hustle rams in as much scatological and slapstick comedy, stunts, CGI and ballet-like fight scenes as one movie can stand. At times it’s as close to The Benny Hill Show as it is to any other kung fu movie you’ve ever seen.
“It is, that’s it took me three years to make the film,” says Chow. “To make a kung fu film is quite easy. To make a good kung fu film totally different from any other is something really difficult.”
Set in a fantasy 30s Hong Kong, Chow takes on the top hat-wearing axe-wielding gang terrorizing the lowly inhabitants of a tenement called Pig’s Sty Alley. As the ante is upped – more martial arts mercenaries are hired by each side until the fight scenes become an apocalyptic cross between classic Shaw Brothers 70s kung fu mayhem and a Golden Age of Hollywood Fred Astaire musical, like a chorus line except with axes. It is totally absurd – they had even planned to have scene involving a kung fu fight against a shark underwater but nixed it for technical reasons – but you will believe every minute of it. Although it is extremely violent, it’s closer to the level of a Bugs Bunny cartoon than to the more visceral gore’n’guts of, say, a Tarantino flick.
“Because it’s a story about the battle between good and bad, first of all I have to build up a bunch of gangsters to be really scary and horrifying,” says Chow. “It’s hard for me to avoid all of that, because when you talk about a bad guy there has to be some description of how cruel they are. But actually I already tried my best to eliminate the violence, keep it to a minimum. But still, how they kill people and carry out their crimes, if I don’t have this in the beginning of the film then the whole structure of the story fails.”
Perhaps it is the fantasy element and the fact that the violence is so cartoonish that allows Chow to flourish, even under the stern eye of the Communist Party. Yet with Chinese films such as the historical epics Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and House Of Flying Daggers bringing in valuable foreign revenue, they seem willing to allow Stephen Chow some the space he needs as an artist.
Actor, director, screenwriter, producer, Chow – an auteur in the proper sense of the term – is already hotly tipped as the next Eastern hero to take a one way ticket to Hollywood. Yet Chow is emphatic that despite the fact that he makes no secret that he would like to work in the US with both western and Chinese expats, this isn’t going to happen.
“I want to say categorically that I’m not going anywhere. I’m not going to Hollywood. I’m not compromising my vision,” he told US interviewers earlier this year when Kung Fu Hustle opened there.
Although he is loathe to criticize actors like Chan or Li, he is aware that they have been roped in as virtual coolie labour on substandard multiplex fodder. Yet it isn’t just the prospect of appearing in Rush Hour IV that puts him off: there is the botch up that Miramax made of his 2001 comedy Shaolin Soccer, with 23 minutes worth of scenes gouged out, leaving the film almost incomprehensible. (Fortunately, with the DVD release, you have the option of seeing the movie exactly as he intended. One small victory for Chow.)Although the editing was nowhere near as savage on Kung Fu Hustle, Western audiences still saw a slightly different movie to the one Chow made in Hong Kong.
“I think the Asian version has more blood. But I don’t think they’ve cut it too much, there are no specific scenes that they took away. They just took away the blood,” he says.
Although few of the Hong Kong old school have made a particularly happy relocation to the US – there’s a story that Jackie Chan, rumoured to be considering a return to China, was referred to by one American meathead director throughout filming as “the Jap” – Tsui Hark has said that Chow would do well, partly because of his excellent command of English. Chow’s films, like the early Bond-send up From Beijing With Love to Kung Fu Hustle are loaded with references to Western movies.
“One of my favourite comedians of all time is Charlie Chaplin,” he admits.
Chow also takes recent Hong Kong-influenced films like The Matrix and Kill Bill and sends them back. His character Sing becomes The One, a kung fu superhero, which some have said was a lift from The Matrix.
“The idea of my character becoming ‘The One’…..that’s not a Matrix joke. I think that idea of ‘the One’ is originally from that old Hong Kong kung fu folklore, a long time ago. It makes sense to us, with the story of a man from nowhere becoming a Superhero, the One, is commonly used in kung fu novels or comic books in the old days. I think The Matrix took that idea. So for me it’s our traditional story structure.”
Like Tarantino, Chow has the knack of finding actors considered past their prime by the powers that be in the studios, and giving them a new lease of cinematic life. Hardened kung fu nerds certainly appreciate the cast that Chow assembled: “Yuen Wah (who has appeared in countless movies including the seminal Fist of Fury) was always in my mind because he has never left the movie industry in Hong Kong. He has been acting in TV comedy for a long time. I saw him on TV every day, so he was straightforward to cast. When I thought about the landlord Yuen Wah was the first person to come to mind. The landlady did take a long long time to find, someone who is old and fat and can do all these stunts, it was very difficult.”
In the end, Chow settled for Qiu Yuen who was – amongst other things – a Bond girl, appearing in The Man with the Golden Gun in 1974. The landlady, one of the most memorable characters from the film, is almost like a direct lift from the old Shaw Brothers comedy The House of 72 Tenants. Both Wah and Yuen were synonymous with the great films that came out of the Shaw Brothers stable, classics such as The Five Venoms, The Wu Tang Clan, The One Armed Swordsman and others. Even the sets of Kung Fu Hustle look deliberately like the wobbly sets on the sound stage where a majority of Shaw Brothers films were made.
“If you ask me about influences I would say the Shaw Brothers’ movies in the 60s influenced Kung Fu Hustle more than any others,” says Chow.
As an actor and a kung fu fighter there are already the inevitable comparisons with Chinese cinema’s first and greatest superstar Bruce Lee. Chow is flattered and recalls The Big Boss, the first film that he ever saw.
“I remember it as clearly as if it were yesterday. We were in a very run-down theater, but I didn’t mind it at all. I was simply overwhelmed by the movie experience. Watching this film in the darkness, I felt as if my heart was going to burst, and I had tears in my eyes. Bruce Lee was so incredible, not only because of his martial arts expertise, but also because of his furious spirit. He just filled the screen. He became everything to me. I decided then that I wanted to be him – I wanted to be Bruce Lee,” he says.
“Being a martial arts expert was really my first career choice; being an actor was the second – after all, that’s exactly what Bruce Lee was,” says Chow.
Despite his success at home and abroad, Chow still hasn’t achieved the sort of superstar status that gets Jackie Chan mobbed when he returns to China.
“No, I’m not a big star like Jackie Chan. I’m more like a film producer, a filmmaker, and I think that’s how they look at me there. I’m absolutely free all the time, nobody chases after me. I don’t have those problems. I’m not an idol or a star. Actually I make a movie once every three years, so people don’t really remember who I am,” he says modestly.
Chow, then, is hot. There is an inevitable Kung Fu Hustle sequel underway, as well as talk of a project with Hong Kong horror master Tsui Hark.
“We are brainstorming at the moment, lots of different ideas, rehearsals, but mostly the sequel is not better than the first film so it is a very hard job,” says Chow.
His days as an all rounder may be over: with his new found status, he can assemble the team that he needs to get his vision on the screen and no longer has to – by necessity – b e involved in every stage of the process.
“Right now my plan is just to focus on directing for my next project. Not to act, direct and write the script and produce – all that work at the same time is really tough.”
Where does you find the energy?
“I don’t know. But that’s true, every time I complete a movie and I look back I ask myself how I did it. Sometimes I don’t understand how I could do so much work at the same time. But I get it done.”
For the sake of the entire Hong Kong film industry, that’s good news.