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A Way With the Punch Line

'Kung Fu Hustle' Director-Star Stephen Chow Isn't in It Just for Laughs

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 21, 2005; Page C01

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif.

The first thing you notice about Stephen Chow is that nobody notices him. Trailed by an assistant, an interpreter and a couple of publicists, Chow makes his way through the power-hour crowd doing breakfast at the Polo Lounge, past the tables of Hollywood heavies noshing on egg-white frittatas. And. Nothing.

In Asia, it would be a mob scene. Over there, Chow is, like, a Will Ferrell. Huge. Commercial. Relentless.


Stephen Chow is the writer, director and star of the martial-arts film "Kung Fu Hustle," which scored big at Sundance and opens here tomorrow. (Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

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"Nobody's bigger," says David Desser, professor of cinema studies and an expert on Asian film at the University of Illinois who describes Chow as "the new Jackie Chan."

A former kiddie-show host who made his name in Hong Kong film comedies, Chow is the star-director-writer of the martial arts roller coaster ride called "Kung Fu Hustle," which broke box-office records in Hong Kong and is the subject of some serious love in early reviews here. (It opened in Los Angeles and New York two weeks ago on a wave of hyperbole, and premieres in Washington tomorrow.) The second thing you notice, when you sit down with him, is that Chow is a very reserved individual.

On-screen, he is a Pez dispenser popping out sight gags, as physically manic as Jim Carrey. But in person, Chow has a shy handshake, pillowy as a duvet, his face is serene, almost blank, his voice so quiet you keep leaning forward. He speaks pretty good English (when he gets stuck, his interpreter jumps in).

But the man is enigmatic.

Reporter: The audience is laughing during the whole movie. Really laughing . . .

Chow: So you think it's too much comedy?

Reporter: No, no. But I think people are responding to how you mix the kung fu and comedy.

Chow: Actually, I don't really think it is a comedy.

Etc.

When "Kung Fu Hustle" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, cinephiles hailed it as the Asian import that will break through to mainstream audiences at the mall -- a kind of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" with booger jokes -- despite the fact that it is in Mandarin and Cantonese, with subtitles, and rated R. The reviewers cannot find enough praise to heap.

"A delirious mix of the sublime and the silly," wrote the Hollywood Reporter, "to new heights of chop-socky hilarity."

The New York Times called it "a kinetic, exhausting, relentlessly entertaining film that throws scraps of a half century of international pop culture into a fast whirling blender." The critic for movie geek site Film Threat wrote, "I've never seen anything like this one before."

In Hollywood pitch-meeting-speak, the critics say the movie is like Mel Brooks meets "The Matrix" meets Jerry Lewis meets "The Shining" meets Bruce Lee in a Road Runner cartoon.

For aficionados of martial arts cinema, "Hustle" overflows with parodies and homages, to the Shaw Brothers movies of the 1930s, to corny black-and-white reruns of late-night Hong Kong TV, and to Bruce Lee, perhaps the greatest martial artist of the last century, who introduced chop-socky cinema to America in the early 1970s, in such films as "Fists of Fury" and "Return of the Dragon."

In "Kung Fu Hustle," Chow says he carefully followed the simple narrative rules of the martial arts movie: An underdog loses family or friend to villains, gets butt kicked, goes to the master to learn kung fu, trains mind and body, returns to fight for honor and revenge, finds inner strength, and often, but not always, dies but is never truly defeated.

Desser, the professor, says one of the attractive things about kung fu movies is "their essential sweetness and innocence -- they don't have a cynical bone in their body, unlike Hollywood, which is completely cynical." In that, Desser says, Chow follows the script.

"I quote the spirit of what I learned from traditional kung fu film. There are not complicated stories or a lot of emotional or ethical issues," Chow says. "There is good and bad, the battle between good and evil, and good wins, and a lot of bad guys fall down. . . . And the spirit of the martial arts hero is more than just a hero. He must sacrifice. For family. For love or friendship. He is willing to die. That is the message. I don't know if the audience will get it or not."

Sure they will. It's not that complicated. That's the point. Mark Pollard, the founder of KungFuCinema.com, a Web site for all things chop-socky, says the pull of martial arts films is their global appeal and universality.

"They tell simple stories through physical action," Pollard says. Like their American counterparts -- fans of blockbuster action movies such as "Jurassic Park" and "Independence Day" -- the audience for a kung fu movie doesn't need to understand the dialogue. The films play as well in Bangkok as Burbank. "It's all right there in front of them," Pollard says.

This is a lesson young Chow learned as a boy in Hong Kong. His parents had separated. He was raised by his grandmother, who managed a small stall selling nail clippers.

When he was about 7 years old, says Chow, now 42, "I fell in love with Bruce Lee films." He bought an instruction manual of kung fu arts. "I practiced in front of the mirror." He is asked to recall the name of the book, since a similar one appears in his movie. A long conversation with the interpreter ensues. They agree the manual was titled "An Encyclopedia of the Internal and External Flow of Energy," which attempted to instruct novices in the art of defying gravity.

Did it work?

"Actually, I don't think so. For me, unfortunately, no. But it was quite scientific," he says.

Chow did not excel in academics. He enrolled in acting school, took singing and dancing lessons, and was the host of a popular children's show for six years on Hong Kong television.

He didn't think he was good-looking or tall enough to be a movie actor. "So I just focused on where I can buy some high heels and dress up and look like a star."

He is pulling our leg?

"You think so?" Chow asks.

Eventually, he began to work in Hong Kong's frenetic movie industry (where a working actor like Chow might do six films a year) and was steered toward "nonsense comedy," where the dialogue comes fast and furious, filled with wordplay and inside jokes that are almost impossible to translate from their colloquial Hong Kong Cantonese (we're told that the English subtitles don't do them justice).

"But I never forgot about the martial arts," Chow says. "And I remember I would try to convince directors to give me a chance to do some action rather than just be the clown. But of course they don't really care, because I am so funny." As he says this, Chow makes "funny" sound kind of disappointing.

As he became more popular, Chow began to write and direct his own work. His 2001 "Shaolin Soccer" is a cult favorite and has been listed as one of the most frequently illegally downloaded movies in the world (though the film had a limited U.S. theatrical release by Miramax, which the critics blame for bungling its possible success).

In "Kung Fu Hustle," Chow takes the traditional martial-arts narrative and pushes it as far as it will go. His bad guys wear top hats and tails and wield axes in scenes that mimic a Fred Astaire musical. The ultimate bad guy, "The Beast," is locked away like Hannibal Lecter. The good guys all live in a slum. They are not the impoverished tailors or chain-smoking landladies they seem, but hidden masters of kung fu.

The movie took Chow three years to make -- a lifetime in the Hong Kong film industry. His fight choreographer was Yuen Wo-Ping, who did "The Matrix" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

"I love martial arts," Chow says. "And I don't know why. It is hard to analyze this feeling. But okay, for me, where I come from is the lower class of society. In fact, it was tough.

"But with kung fu I can somehow ignore all these difficulties and find the place to release my unhappiness."

So he is happy now?

"Do you think I am happy? Hmm. Hmmm. Maybe. You know," Chow says, "I am not sure."


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