What’s Eating Stephen Chow

 The Straits Times, 21 December 2004
Hong Xinyi



Lauded as a comedian extraordinaire, the Hong Kong Superstar, here to promote Kung Fu Hustle, is surprisingly serious in person, as Hong Xinyi finds out.

Hey, What’s So Funny?

Hong Kong’s King of Comedy prefers martial arts to making people laugh… serious.

He has been tickly your funny bone as Hong Kong’s comedian extraordinaire for the past 15 years. But if you ask him, what Stephen Chow really wants to do is flaunt his prowess as a martial arts expert. In town yesterday with some of his co-stars to promote his latest film Kung Fu Hustle, Stephen chow, 42, displayed little of his screen persona’s mischievous irreverence. The cheekiness evident from his starring role in 1990s All for The Winner to 2001 blockbuster hit Shaolin Soccer was noticeably absent.

In person, the Shanghai-born comedian exudes an almost intimidating aura of stern solemnity, volunteering nary a joke to break the ice. Dressed casually in jeans, a white T-shirt, sneakers and huge 1970s-style sunglasses, he would look remarkably youthful if not for the brittle white hair sprinkled in his longish haircut.

It is only when Life! asks him about his life-long passion for martial arts that some enthusiasm seeps into his unfailingly polite replies. “Kung Fu Hustle fulfilled my dream of making a martial arts movie. Shao9lin Soccer was still more of a sports movie,” says Stephen Chow, who has been practising martial arts as an amateur since he was a boy. Growing up a poor family in Hong Kong, he was first inspired to do so when he became enraptured by Bruce Lee’s movies.

“But I had to think about how to make a breakthrough. After all, people have seen so many gongfu movies. Its’ a lot of pressure, but it was also a challenge.”

The result is Kungfu Hustle, a martial arts comedy extravaganza that has been three years in the making. “I combine traditional martial arts with modern special effects in a way that’s never been done before,” he says with a hint of pride. “to me, special effects are a tool I can use to realise my imagination. The story and the characters are still the most important elements.”

The various gongfu experts in the cast also show a reverence for authentic martial arts, despite the many whizz-bang-pop special effects that populate the movie. “To me, the spirit of gongfu represents everything that is positive about being human,” he pronounces thoughtfully in somewhat halting Mandarin.

Stephen chow, who is single but was once said to be dating Hong Kong singer Karen Mok, jokingly says that his hair turned white because of the stress of making this movie. As much as that sounds like something out of one of his favourite fantasy swordplay novels, the project has been a tumultuous one.

For one thing, rumours of various rifts have plagued the production. Ng Man Tat, Stephen Chow’s longtime screen sidekick, was reportedly unhappy when he did not get a part in the film. Sammo Hung left the project after choreographing one action sequence, reportedly due to creative differences. He is credited as one of the movie’s action choreographers although Yuen Wo Ping gets the main credit.

Stephen Chow brushes off these tabloid speculations placidly as mountains made out of molehills. As for speculation that Singapore’s Stefanie Sun was to have been the film’s leading lady, he gives ths gracious response: “I’ve always wanted to meet Stefanie because I like her songs and we could discuss working together. There has been no opportunity so far, but I still welcome a meeting.”

To raise the stakes even higher, the film marks the first time Stephen Chow’s own production company, The Star Overseas, is collaborating with Columbia pictures Film Production Asia, the Asain film production unit of Sony Pictures Entertainment. The movie is slated for limited release in the United States in March 2005. Although Shaolin Soccer scored a a distribution deal with Miramax, that movie was heavily edited and eventually opened to a lukewarm limited release in the US in April this year. It grossed US$488,872 in the US over a four-week period.

“The outcome was very different from what I expected,” admits Stephen Chow. “But I treat it as a valuable experience. Everything has to be done step by step. Shaolin Soccer did not get very spectacular results in America, so in that way there is less pressure. Of course, I hope this movie does better.”

Indeed, from being disparaged for his so-called mo lei tau (Cantonese for “nonsense”) humour in the 1990s to being revered as a cultural icon today, you might say Stephen chow could do without Hollywood’s blessings.

Academics from prestigious Chinese universities have even written books about his movie’s postmodern sensibilities. But as him whether he feels he has progressed at all as a filmmaker and comedian, and he is nonchalant. “I’m the sort of person who likes to look forward. I very rarely look back at my old movies, so I can’t really say how I’ve changed,” he says. “I’, very grateful and happy that different kinds of people, including academics, enjoy my work. But frankly, I think they are giving me too much credit. Actually my aim is very simple: I just want to entertain.”

So while some call Kung Fu Hustle, Wong Kar Wai’s 2046, which appeals only to arthouse moviegoers, and Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers, which gets labelled as lacking substance, the three blockbusters to watch in Chinese cinema this year, he declines to predict if his film will capture the hearts and minds of a larger audience. “I don’t categorise movies as arthouse and commercial. There are only good and bad movies. Filmmaking is a difficult business and the only way to do it s to do the best job you possibly can.

Kung Fu Hustle opens in Singapore on Thursday, Dec 23, 2004.

The Gongfu Hustlers

Yuen Wah; Landlord; Specialty skill: Taichi
One of the original Seven Little Fortunes – the famous Peking opera school performing group which included Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung – Yuen Wah has appeared in more than 100 movies, co-starring with the likes of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Wu Jing.

Yuen Qiu; Landlady; Specialty skill: Lion’s Roar
Also one of the Seven Little Fortunes, Yuen Qiu was a well-known stuntwoman in Hong Kong’s film industry. She also made a brief appearance in 1974 James Bond movie The Man with The Golden Gun. She is now a housewife and made her return to showbiz in Kung Fu Hustle after 28 years at the request of Stephen Chow.

Chiu Chi Ling; Tailor; Specialty skill: Iron Chain Fist
An expert in the Hung Gar style of martial arts, he has been in over 70 Hong Kong action films as an actor and stuntman. He has a martial arts school in San Francisco and travels all over the world teaching the style.

Xing Yu; Coolie; Specialty skill: Twelve Kicking Techniques of Tan House
He started his martial arts training at Shaolin Temple at the age of 10 and still represents it as a performer on overseas tours.

Leung Siu Lung; Beast; Specialty skill: Kunlun Sect’s Toad Skill
He was once ranked with Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan as Hong Kong’s Three Little Dragons, and was a martial arts action star and choreographer in the 1970s and 1980s.

Dong Zhi Hua; Donut; Specialty skill: Eight Trigram Staff
A famous Peking opera star in China, he was the leading man in several films directed by famed action director Chang Cheh. They included Great Shanghai in 1937c (1986) and Slaughter in Xian (1987).

Jia Kang Xi; Harpist #1; Specialty skill: Deadly Melody
He joined a Peking opera troupe at the age of 13 and received martial arts training as part of his studies. He made his first screen appearance in Slaughter in Xian.

Fung Hak On; Harpist #2; Specialty skill: Deadly Melody
He joined the legendary Shaw Brothers Studios in the 1970s and has appeared in action films directed by Chang Cheh, John Woo and Yuen Wo Ping. He also works as a martial arts choreographer.


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