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On his side of the international dateline, Stephen Chow is a cinematic superpower. In Washington to promote his latest film, a manic, amiable action comedy generically titled Kung Fu Hustle, the actor, writer, director, and producer matter-of-factly lists his accomplishments.
“I did a lot of films in Hong Kong which make a big hit over there,” notes Chow, who at 42 has glimmers of gray in his shag-cut black hair. “Actually, I’m the record breaker of the box office in Hong Kong. Also, Kung Fu Hustle reached the top three in mainland China. It broke some records in Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore and did really well in Japan and Korea.”
Chow clearly understands, however, that the West is another matter. Only one of his previous movies, Shaolin Soccer, was widely released in the United States, and it was a commercial disappointment. When it’s noted that he’s less known here than Jackie Chan or John Woo, he quickly agrees. “Yes, of course,” he says, underscoring his admission with a laugh.
Chow began his film career as an actor, first on a TV kiddie show and then in movie comedies known in Cantonese as mo lei tau. “If you translate directly, it means something nonsensical,” he explains. “Something crazy. Something out of your mind.”
He giggles as if the term is apt, then rejects it. “I don’t really care about the name. And what people call me is not my main concern. The main thing is whether or not they watch my movie in a theater.” Another chuckle. “That’s something I’m really concerned about.” (Translation: not on a bootleg DVD, which the Hong Kong film industry blames in part for its recent decline.)
The filmmaker doesn’t speak English with complete ease, but he uses it well enough; during the interview, he rarely consults the translator sitting next to him. Yet his laugh may be his most expressive means of communication. It frequently punctuates his comments, suggesting that Chow is as easygoing as the characters he’s played in approximately 60 movies since 1988.
Chow’s early films were known for crazed Cantonese wordplay that couldn’t be translated for audiences in Beijing or Tokyo, let alone D.C. “It’s not difficult to realize that in Kung Fu Hustle I have less dialogue,” he says. “I put in more action and less slang. Right now, if I can present the same idea with action or with dialogue, I will go for the first option, for sure.
“I have made many films with a lot of dialogue already,” he adds, “so I think we can try to go for a new way. It’s the first time I have ever made a kung-fu, martial-arts movie. It’s new, interesting.”
Unlike Chan, whose best movies largely avoid special effects, Chow’s recent work is teeming with computer-generated stunts. “First of all, I am not really a kung-fu expert,” the filmmaker says. “At least, I’m not as good as Bruce Lee.” He bursts into laughter at his own presumption. “Actually, I am quite far away from this standard! So that’s why I need a lot of help. A lot of wire work and CGI and a really good choreographer. That high technology can really help to fulfill my imagination. All the time there’s some crazy idea coming up in mind. How to make it happen? Nowadays, it’s all counting on the special effects. Not all, but sometimes you have to get the CGI involved to make the impossible possible.”
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With its convoluted plot and large cast, Kung Fu Hustle is not merely a showcase for its director-star. Indeed, at first it seems that Chow has merely a supporting part, although his character’s importance grows as the story unfolds. “I have a little bit smaller role than before,” he says. “But it depends on different story structure. I would like to create more funny characters, instead of always being the center of the whole story. Even with audiences in Hong Kong, I didn’t really get complaints about ‘Where are you?’ Because they enjoy the story, they enjoy the rest of the characters.”
Chow’s fans shouldn’t be surprised, however, if he someday disappears from his movies altogether. “When I developed the script,” he says, “the character Sing—me—is the first thing in my mind. Everything comes from this character. But directing and acting at the same time takes a lot of energy. In the future, I would like to just focus on directing. Or I would just act with another director. That would be perfect for me.”
One problem with doing both, he volunteers, is that “sometimes I find that I’m the worst actor in the movie. I pay too much attention to the others and sometimes I forget myself.
“Not sometimes,” he amends, chortling. “All the time, I just forget myself! I have an assistant director, and he goes”—Chow mumbles an inaudible reproach—“and I go, ‘Yeah. OK.’”
In Kung Fu Hustle, Chow plays a small-time thug who pretends to be a member of the ominous Axe Gang, an underworld army outfitted with axes and top hats. The basic idea of the gang comes from a film produced by the Shaw Brothers, who played a major part in creating the Hong Kong movie industry some 50 years ago. But the top hats, it’s suggested, recall Gangs of New York. Chow hesitates comically, stuttering “uh, uh, uh” before saying, “yes” and then giggling like a guilty child.
“The idea is similar all over the world,” he explains. “Good ideas are connected everywhere. I didn’t make any research of Hong Kong gang films for this project. And I didn’t take a look at any reference. Because I don’t want to be the same. I want to make something different.”
That desire also underlies Chow’s decision to moderate his prolific output. In 1990, his peak year, the actor appeared in 11 movies; since 2000, he’s made an average of less than one film a year. He attributes this in part to “getting old. Also, it’s more and more difficult. The audience wants more. And for me, I don’t want to waste time to make something bad. Once I decide to do it, it has to be something of good quality and very different.”
The dubious quality of Hong Kong films, Chow says, is an even bigger problem for the biz than piracy and downloading. “I think now we are facing a problem of the lack of talent,” he says. “Not only in front of the camera, but the creative persons, like scriptwriter, director, producer. I think there’s no new blood. So that’s why I use a lot of new faces in my movie. Not just the actors but also the ones behind the screen. I hope that I’m not the only one who realizes the problem.”
Kung Fu Hustle is the first Chow film to be co-produced by Columbia Asia, a Hong Kong–based subsidiary of Sony. “It was such a happy experience,” Chow says. “We developed the whole thing from the idea to the end of postproduction, so it was like we were real partners on this project. They are really good at it.”
This commendation leads inevitably to the sadder tale of Shaolin Soccer, which was severely edited, digitally altered, dubbed, and then ultimately undubbed for the American market. The resulting version was leaden and mechanical, with none of the warmth that tempers Kung Fu Hustle’s cartoonish slapstick. Chow giggles at a mere mention of the company that did such violence to his previous film.
“[Miramax] made a lot of changes,” he concedes. “I’m sure they had their reasons. It’s shorter than the original version. And I think they took away something. I really don’t know the exact reason for taking away all these pieces from the movie. It could be too violent. It’s all about their strategy of releasing.
“What they have told me about the changes is, they would like to have a different version than the original because they would like to focus on kids. And kids don’t read subtitles. And I think this makes sense. But then they changed it back to subtitles.” He chuckles.
“For me, what’s important is that they really wanted to do a good job,” he says. “I’m not someone who really understands the Western market. So I better not say anything.”
Chow may not be able to use that excuse much longer, as this side of the Pacific beckons. “After a lot of breakthroughs, I start thinking, What am I gonna do? Well, of course, the Western market for me is something really interesting. What I mean is, not only to go to the West, but at the same time be able to remain in the East. I want to reach both sides. Hopefully, I can reach this point someday.”
It’s one remark he doesn’t chase with a laugh. —Mark Jenkins