I assume most of us have seen Kung Fu Hustle at least, but writer/director/producer/actor/action hero Stephen Chow has developed an extremely large, impressive, and unique film repertoire for himself that’s earned him massive renown overseas that mainstream fans here in the West may have missed out on. It’s kind of a shame that this guy hasn’t made as big of a splash here as he has in his home country. In fact, I’d say our culture could learn a lot from his recent career output.
For those not familiar with Chow’s style, I’d describe it as Jackie Chan meets Edgar Wright. It combines slapstick kung fu and unapologetic goofiness with great comedic timing, creative special effects, and almost unbearably optimistic social commentary to create something quite unlike anything else. It’s led him to become China’s biggest box office draw in spite of his unusual stylings and philosophical values that are often at odds with mainstream culture.
Chow’s film career goes as far back as 1988, spanning over SEVENTY films. That’s with a seven and a zero. You’ll forgive me if I only give you a few highlights, I’m sure. One of my personal favorites is 1992’s Royal Tramp, which was one of the five highest grossing Hong Kong films that year. To help put his career in perspective, Chow also starred in the other four.
Royal Tramp had just about everything one could ask for from a comedy. “Everything” meaning this tale of a con artist bullshitting his way into the good graces of royalty by posing as a eunuch made me laugh. A lot. Who could ask for more? The slipshod sequel was weak, but I’d say the original is one of the funniest foreign films I’ve ever watched. There’s just nothing else quite like it.
Fast forward some ten years later and I remember seeing the DVD for Shaolin Soccer on the shelf at Blockbuster Video, which was a place where ancient man used to go in order to find physical media, which they would then take home only to return in a few days. Weird times, man. Anyways, this wasn’t Chow’s directorial debut, but it was the one that got him noticed in the West. I passed it by thinking it looked moronic, which turned out to be a particularly egregious instance of judging a book by its cover.
Shaolin Soccer was exactly what it looked like: a goofy film about kung-fu soccer players. What I didn’t anticipate was that it was really, really good. This is where Stephen Chow’s style really started standing out to me. The visually-astounding and creative special effects, the eschewing of film norms, the unusual casting, the light-hearted tone with a philosophical core and absurd comedy; it was a damn original piece of entertainment.
Kung Fu Hustle broke Chow into the mainstream somewhat, gathering worldwide acclaim by taking everything that made Shaolin Soccer a winner and cranking it to the maximum in a classical kung-fu film setting. The combination proved to be a winning one as pretty much everybody loves that flick. And if you need a reminder as to why, here you go:
Next stop on the tour is CJ7, which was an homage of sorts to E.T. This particular boy-meets-alien story had its good points, including Chow’s indictments of the materialism sweeping Chinese culture, but I’m afraid its all-over-the-place tone and ridiculous deus-ex-machinas made for a weak narrative in spite of some emotional highs and lows. One could clearly see this as an example of a filmmaker losing his touch after too much success.
But one would only say that if they hadn’t seen Chow’s latest. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons just about knocked me out. It may not be quite the shocker Kung Fu Hustle was, but it did an amazing job of combining classic epic fantasy adventure with Chow’s personal philosophies and talent for creative and over-the-top special effects. I’d say it’s his definitive work so far.
Journey to the West really put into perspective for me what a great career Stephen Chow has had and how differently he approaches his stories compared to other directors both in the West and the East. I mean, a film that begins with a brutal Jaws homage and morphs into a tale of pacifism and Buddhist principles while providing us with demons worthy of horror flicks and clever comedy in an adaptation of one of China’s most revered and classic stories? That’s the kind of thing that only comes along once a generation at most.
Okay, so aside from weirdness like an old dude with a giant Almighty Foot, fat jokes, and kung-fu sports competitions, what makes this guy’s films so great? Well, they are a rare breed of blockbuster-style films with values. While most of us gravitate to bros with big guns blowing away mega-evil villains or femme fatales bending over to give us a better look at their “acting talents” and that sort of thing even while pretending to protest the very things we inevitably support, Chow has all but expunged these things from his films.
The attractiveness of the women in a Stephen Chow film isn’t measured in T’s or A’s, but by their smile. Shaolin Soccer’s love interest was a woman with acne scars all over her face who ends up with a shaved head. Hardly something you normally see in an industry where an actress is often only as good as she is sexually exploitable. In fact, the love interests in all of Chow’s recent output are all conservative-dressing without so much as a centimeter of cleavage on display. In Journey to the West, his romantic foil is a complete badass who is not portrayed as particularly sexy and routinely saves his character when his pacifistic methods fail to pacify his demonic adversaries as intended. What is this “respecting women” crap you’re playing at, Chow?
Put some clothes on, skank!
I remember seeing an old documentary that was discussing the difference between American and Hong Kong action films. Here in America, we like to see the hero lose and then come back stronger than ever to beat the bad guy down with pure determination. One interviewee stated that in China, if the hero lost the audience would get up and leave having no investment in the further adventures of a loser. Yet here’s Stephen Chow years later making kung-fu movies without actual violence, playing characters who fit the exact definition of a wuss and clobbering the likes of Michael Bay at the Chinese box office doing it.
So it turns out you don’t have to sell your soul, overload the audience’s senses with testosterone-laden bravado, or represent any established genre standards to succeed on the highest level; even in the cesspool of nastiness that is the modern entertainment industry. You can just, you know, make something really entertaining and people will like it. Who knew?