|Photos by Saeed Adyani|
The word “homage” is hardly ever used
these days without a sneer. We infer pretension, thinly disguised plagiarism,
lack of imagination, or all three at once. In this context it can be hard to know
what to make of a film that restores to the concept of homage its original sense
of a tribute motivated by profound affection and respect. Consider, for example,
Kung Fu Hustle, the rambunctious action-comedy masterpiece
of Hong Kong’s reigning box-office titan, Stephen Chow Sing-chi (Shaolin
Soccer), which is all but lit from within by the filmmaker’s regard
for the folk traditions of Chinese martial arts, and for the people who pick them
up and carry them forward.
There is a disconnect between the way Stephen Chow is viewed in Hong Kong and his profile over here. To us, he looks like a second-tier Hong Kong star who has not yet emerged from the shadow of Jackie Chan and Jet Li. On his home turf, he is second to none. Since his debut as a solo comedy star in 1990, in Jeff Lau and Cory Yuen’s All for the Winner, a generous parody of Chow Yun-fat’s God of Gamblers films, Stephen Chow’s movies have consistently made more money in Hong Kong than Chan’s, Li’s or anybody else’s. Sony Pictures Classics, which is distributing Kung Fu Hustle in the U.S. (it opens locally on April 8), has chosen to adopt the Hong Kong view of their new star — and to avoid repeating the mistake made by Miramax, which let his explosively inventive Shaolin Soccer (2001) sit on the shelf for almost three years.
Chow co-wrote the script for — and directs himself in — Kung Fu Hustle, a large-scale period fantasy and a comedy of hubris, about a wannabe extortionist whose efforts to horn in on the rackets in a city that looks a lot like Shanghai in the 1930s (although anachronisms abound) lead to a pitched battle between the dapper, top-hatted Axe Gang and the inhabitants of an alarmingly ramshackle tenement apartment block. The movie is incessantly, delightfully referential, mostly to the Chinese martial arts and a dozen or so of the movies that have depicted them over the years.
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On a weekday afternoon earlier this month, Sony arranged for a promotional expedition to Westwood, to the impressive small kwoon (gym) of the White Tiger Kung Fu school, a respected franchise based in San Diego, so that Chow could shoot some humorous “interstitials” — brief, jokey interludes that can be sandwiched in between segments of TV programming, in order to link an assortment of film clips to a theme. So if you tune in to Comedy Central on March 27, you will hear: “I’m Stephen Chow, and you’re watching Savior Sunday on Comedy Central. Go see my new film Kung Fu Hustle, or I’ll kick your ass.” Some of the bits being videotaped against a backdrop of exercise equipment and Kung Fu Hustle posters make me squirm, especially the ones that are keyed to the limitations of Chow’s English. But Chow seems to be having fun doing it, and a couple of days later, during our formal interview, he tells me that segment director (and offscreen foil) Todd Calvert was “brilliant.”
Chow gets big laughs on the set (even from the English-speaking crew) with a mock tirade in his trademark machine-gun Cantonese, the shtick that made him a movie star in the early 1990s. Working on his early films with notoriously freewheeling filmmakers like Wong Jing (whose frequent absences from his Hong Kong sets gave Chow his first opportunities to try his hand at directing) the actor became accustomed to creating on the fly. Traveling with him on this PR voyage, for example, is Kung Fu Hustle’s co-screenwriter Tsang Kan-cheong, because, Chow says, “We are supposed to make the sequel to Kung Fu Hustle by the end of this year, and we realized that we are at zero. We have nothing! So when we have time now, we talk over ideas.” He admits it will be tough to devise a plausible sequel to this film, especially since his movies tend to be underdog stories, and Kung Fu Hustle ends with a glorious CGI sequence based on the legend of the magical Buddha’s Palm technique that leads to a kind of apotheosis of Chow’s character.
“There is no tradition of the superhero in Asia,” Chow says. And then, with a grimace: “Except in Japan.”
A lifelong practitioner of the martial arts, Chow is a good advertisement for the health benefits of the discipline. On the screen he looks at least 10 years younger than his 43 years, and it is only when you get close enough to conduct an interview that you can make out a few crow’s-feet and some standalone gray hairs. He speaks clear, lightly accented English and only rarely has to call on the services of his translator (“So that I can keep on learning,” he says). Chow’s way with words has been central to his success. He has said that a key influence on his style was Leung Sing-po, a portly Cantonese comedian of the 1950s and ’60s who had parallel careers going in Chinese-opera films and straight comedies and combined elements of both into a rhythmic, mock-operatic delivery. Chow updated this approach with up-to-the-minute slang terms and lewd puns, creating a new form of rapid-fire verbal humor that was quickly dubbed mo lai tau, or “makes no sense.” With a vocabularly based on fine distinctions in tone and inflection, the Cantonese dialect is a treasure trove for a dedicated punster like Chow, and when he’s really cooking, even fans from Taiwan or the mainland can have a hard time keeping up.
In his early 20s Chow was accepted into a one-year training program offered by a Hong Kong TV station. “The studio wanted me to do action films,” he told one journalist. “But I’m lazy. It’s very hot in Hong Kong, and I didn’t want to fight. So I suggested, ‘What if I just do some chitchat instead, something funny?’ So I became a comedian.” But when that quote is read back to him, Chow shrugs it off, claiming now that an executive he auditioned with in 1982, for a job on the kiddie program 430 Space Shuttle, “was the first person who thought I was funny. She was asking me very ordinary questions — ‘Do you like sports? Do you like children?’ — but whatever I said she would . . . ” Here he mimes the familiar Asian woman’s bashful gesture of covering the mouth to laugh. Then he throws his hands up in a helpless shrug, as if to say, “What could I do? It was my fate to be funny.”
Like Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle signals a conscious effort on Chow’s part to become more accessible to audiences outside Hong Kong, welcoming them in with shots that refer pointedly to Road Runner cartoons and The Shining (no prizes for spotting those), with sidelong glances toward Gangs of New York, West Side Story, The Matrix, City Lights and the Three Stooges. And while the towering set designs and the walleyed extras may recall the Terry Gilliam more-is-more aesthetic, Kung Fu Hustle’s deepest currents flow almost entirely from Hong Kong film culture — and not just from martial arts movies, but also from comedies and melodramas. And not just from movies, but also from the folk culture of the cities.
What emerges unexpectedly as Stephen Chow talks about Kung Fu Hustle
is how unexpectedly personal a film it is, how much of it is sketched directly
from life — provided, of course, you first grant that for some of us movies are
as much a part of life as anything else. The first movie star that Chow hero-worshipped
as a boy was the martial-arts star Wang Yu, who headlined in The Chinese Boxer
(1970), a landmark film in that it was one of the first to be nationalistic
about authentic Chinese martial arts, which are used to trounce a team of (ech!)
Japanese karate adepts. But Chow admits that he was first drawn to Wang Yu for
an extraneous reason: “Because he looked just like my father. I was raised by
my mom, and I missed my dad a lot, so I went to Wang Yu movies over and over again
to see him.”
The apartment block in which Chow grew up, like the one in Kung Fu Hustle, had its own “hidden master” — “the old man next door, who was a street performer of martial arts, an acrobat. I am not sure, but I think that this was the beginning of my idea that you can’t always tell who the real masters are. The people who go around announcing how great they are, I think quite often they are not so great. My idea in Kung Fu Hustle was to show this by bringing back some of those older people . To look at them, you would never guess what they can do.”
But it was seeing Bruce Lee’s first solo vehicle, 1971’s The Big Boss
(known in the U.S. as Fists of Fury), that really set Stephen
Chow’s soul on fire: “The feeling was so strong in my chest, it was like an explosion.
From that moment I wanted to be in movies — so that I could be like him.” Chow
had seen earlier “flying swordsman” pictures, the cheesy black-and-white precursors
of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But the warriors
in those movies had powers that bordered on the superhuman. It did not occur to
very many kids in the audience that they could go and do likewise. Wang Yu and
Bruce Lee, on the other hand, with their down-to-earth, two-fisted style, seemed
marginally more accessible.
“What Bruce Lee inspires,” Chow says, “is not only to do what he does, but to be like him. It was his spirit, his confidence, his pride.”
Suddenly, the 2,000-square-foot family apartment of Chow’s childhood (five people sharing two bedrooms) began to seem cramped and confining. When Chow, who had saved his pocket money for months so that he could buy a punching bag, began home training, he could barely throw a kick without clobbering a relative. Obviously he needed a bigger space in which his ambitions could expand.
Eventually, he found it.