Stephen Chow: A Guide for the Perplexed


By Shelly Kraicer

Originally published in Cinema Scope #10, Spring 2002.

Though Stephen Chow is currently the most popular actor in Hong Kong, most North Americans have probably never seen one of his films. This is about to change. Born in 1962 and already the star of 50 films, Stephen Chow is a genius who regales local audiences with wordplay and bathroom jokes. He has starred in five of the 12 highest-grossing movies in Hong Kong’s history; at his peak in the early ’90s, his films were outperforming Jackie Chan’s at the local box office. HK critics revere him; Wong Kar-wai has written for him. The global culture’s gatekeepers (Miramax division) have bought the North American rights to Chow’s last three films, including Shaolin Soccer (2001), the highest-grossing film in Hong Kong history; Miramax plans on releasing it in North America this spring (as Kung Fu Soccer). Chow, who for many of his fans is the essence of a “Hong Konger,” wants to become a Canadian; the federal department of immigration and justice system have other ideas, though. Hyper-sensitive to the triads’ well-known presence in HK film financing, they have repeatedly turned down Chow’s applications for Canadian citizenship.

Perplexed? I’m tempted to follow the idiosyncratic method of Chow’s own films, and find meaning somewhere in the collisions among and the spaces between all these apparent contradictions.

Man of many names. As befits his plastic, malleable persona, Stephen Chow goes by a bewildering variety of names. He himself prefers the English spelling of “Stephen Chiau”; onscreen credits often list him as “Stephen Chow,” and one even sees “Stephen Chiao.” To Hong Kongers his name is “Chow Sing-chi.” Not precisely: that’s a standard transliteration from Cantonese, but his name is better rendered phonetically as “Dzao Sing Tzee.” In Mandarin Chinese, where pinyin transliteration is the standard, one finds Zhou Xingchi—though that’s pronounced “Joe Shing Churr,” more or less. But none of his fans use any of these: to them, he’s “Sing Jai,” an affectionate and respectful Cantonese slang term that means, roughly, “Little Stevie.”

Mo lei tau. A Cantonese phrase meaning “nonsense” (literally: “makes no sense”). Chow is the King of mo lei tau humour, a fast, dexterous, and impossible-to-translate speaking style that creates comedy out of witty, allusive wordplay. Punning, sound substitutions, revealing “errors” of pronunciation, disorienting meaninglessness—Chow is a master at making words dance as unhinged symbols, creating dazzling displays of pure signs at play. A tiny example: in Out of the Dark (1995), Chow orders a dish called “see jup jing chang,” which should mean “steamed orange with black bean sauce.” Each word makes sense, and the syntax holds together, but the resulting combination is inconceivable for a Chinese food eater, and displays the mo lei tau principle of juxtaposition of irreconcilable elements. Mo lei tau can also emerge from mere wordplay, launching deconstructive attacks on a film’s plot and conventions, creating dizzyingly unexpected and inexplicable breaks from an audience’s expectations.

Leave them kids alone. Chow started appearing on Hong Kong television in the early ’80s as the host of a children’s show, where he displayed a penchant for witheringly sarcastic humour. Promoted to HK’s film industry presumably to save the colony’s kids from further emotional damage, he proceeded to inflect his satire as parody and inflict it on ticket-paying adults. After several serious roles in the late ’80s that displayed a considerable athletic prowess wedded to serious dramatic intensity, he suddenly became a star in 1990 with one unforgettable scene in the gambling comedy All for the Winner (1990): his parody of Chow Yun-fat’s slow motion gangster-as-god walk from both John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986) and the gambling/action hit God of Gamblers (1989). A series of gambling comedy sequels, costume comedies, and Hollywood film spoofs followed. As his fame, clout, and confidence increased, Chow began to co-write and co-direct his starring vehicles.

Chow is a buffoon. Chow’s combination of utterly off-the-wall pastiche and his frequent forays into Rabelaisian “low humour” (penis jokes and toilet jokes abound) make him something of a “love him or hate him” proposition. There’s little middle ground. If you haven’t seen the HK films he parodies, relax: he spices up his films with plenty of send-ups of Hollywood films (a partial list includes Pulp Fiction, Basic Instinct, the James Bond series, Pretty Woman, Ghost, Terminator 2…). Even if the semiotics of a specific moment of mo lei tau madness or an elaborate send-up of Mandarin swordplay cinema are too arcane, the breathless pace, the palpable tone of something just about to explode under the pressure of barely contained anarchy carries a viewer through quite nicely.

Make that an arcane semiotician. With the black comedy Out of the Dark, a near-incomprehensible film about madness, falling refrigerators, Léon the Professional worship, and the magic flying power inherent in paper hats, Chow almost lost his audience. A ghost-busting tale which finds him in a lunatic asylum, Out of the Dark matches trademark gross-out scenes with a darkness and fatalism that Chow’s audience doesn’t buy tickets to watch. The script itself works magic, tearing what remains of Chow’s funhouse-reflected world from its foundations, while offering a breezily wacky (and occasionally ecstatic) gloss on Foucault’s Madness and Civilization. Popping outside of “reason’s” disciplinary straitjacket has never felt more weirdly liberating.

Stephen Chow is Bruce Lee. One theme that recurs throughout Chow’s films is the star’s idolization of Bruce Lee. (Fist of Fury ’91 is a comedy remake of the 1972 Lee classic.) Chow sees himself as Lee’s greatest fan, his most devoted student, and his purest contemporary incarnation. Chow will occasionally suspend his discursive virtuosity to highlight the beauty and power of the masculine body on display, emulating a Lee-like shirtless muscularity, or a flurry of fast high kicks. Chow’s tribute to Lee situates him self-consciously within the Hong Kong cinema tradition that regards nationalist pride—often expressed as forceful resistance to oppression by outsiders—as a core ethical dimension of being Chinese.

Chow is not  “the Hong Kong Jim Carrey.” Despite whatever lazy Hollywood-fed puff pieces you might read, Chow and Carrey have little in common beyond being funny stars of very popular movies, Carrey’s oft-rumoured remake of Chow’s God of Cookery (1996), and Chow’s tribute to Carrey’s The Mask (1994) in Sixty Million Dollar Man (1995) notwithstanding. Chow’s standard film persona is the opposite of the stunned-naïve simpleton; rather, he’s the savvy Hong Kong Everyman, often fresh from the countryside or from the mainland. This figure typically deploys a virtuoso intelligence that runs rings around the presumptively sophisticated urbanites whom he encounters. Chow’s rural-to-urban immigrant persona connects him with much of his audience, recalling the waves of immigrants from the mainland that make up Hong Kong’s current population.

Chow is also… “a god.” Hong Kong critics like Sam Ho have isolated two typical Chow personae that they trace through his post-1990 films. The first, sketched above, is the Hong Kong “little man.” This persona struggles to overcome humiliation and, marginalized and degraded, fights back, incarnating the classic Hong Kong rags-to-riches dream of socially mobile success. The second, self-referential persona, is Stephen Chow-as-god. This echoes his relationship with his audience, and his golden status in the Hong Kong film industry. In films like Out of the Dark, Mad Monk (1993), and God of Cookery, Chow plays a character with supreme abilities who, brought low by arrogance or treachery, climbs back to eventual triumph with a renewed self-knowledge that confers an aura of godlike omnipotence.

Chow is a genius. If you haven’t heard of Chow’s masterpiece, the three-hour epic comedy A Chinese Odyssey (1995), it’s not your fault. Almost no one outside of Hong Kong has… yet. The film is directed by Jeff Lau Chun-wai and written by Lau and Wong Kar-wai, though the latter’s contribution is uncredited and unacknowledged in most filmographies. Through an ambitious, elaborate parody of one of Chinese literature’s favourite figures, the Monkey King, Chow and his collaborators construct a wild entertainment replete with toilet jokes, flying people, special effects, and gorgeous costumes. But it’s also a deconstruction of nostalgia, an essay on the malleability of time, and a full rush of romance seared by regret. Chow presents his near-apocalyptic vision—a civilization ripped away from its deceptive ideologies of stable time, linear chronology, and enlightened progress—through the eyes of a man in a monkey suit, suavely munching on a banana while his illusions burn around him. That man is Chow, of course, in the role that he was born to play.

Shaolin Soccer. If A Chinese Odyssey is Chow’s masterpiece, where does that leave Shaolin Soccer? It’s not his most coherently realized, richly orchestrated intervention into the politics of Hong Kong’s culture—that would be God of Cookery (another Miramax property), which charts Chow’s fall and rise as a Shaolin-trained Hong Kong master chef. Nor is it his most hilarious genre spoof: see the James Bond/Wong Kar-wai parody From Beijing With Love (1994).

Shaolin Soccer offers other pleasures. It melds both of Chow’s personae with the structure of a generic sports film. He gathers a motley crew of social misfits and physically improbable soccer players who overcome the usual obstacles in a crescendo of orchestrated sports-effects mayhem, culminating in a final championship showdown with the aptly named “Evil Team.” Chow’s bunch are former students of a Shaolin kung-fu master, each of whom rediscovers a magical physical ability on the soccer field. Chow’s godlike kicking power is the physical manifestation of his heroic persona. The teammates’ shared social situation—all are unemployed or mired in degrading semi-employment—grounds the rags-to-riches triumph of Chow-as-underdog.

The star uncharacteristically shares the spotlight with the film’s other attraction: a brilliant melding of computer-assisted animation with acrobatic stunts. Gravity is blithely defied by flaming soccer balls, flying players, hurtling soccer balls whose force ploughs furrows through the field and strips the clothes from desperate goaltenders, etc. This emphasis on the film’s images displaces wordplay from its usual front-and-centre position in a Chow film. But this, presumably, has the added attraction of being more consumable by non-Chinese-speaking audiences, thus easing the film’s way onto North American screens. As Chow’s team trains and plays, there is ample time for the usual catalogue of silly hijinks, shocking lapses in “good taste,” and surprisingly violent confrontations. The vehemence of the latter stems from a powerful class animus allied with patriotic hatred: the film makes it quite clear that Chow’s team represents the “lower classes,” fighting a slick, upper-middle-class team fed a diet of illegal American performance enhancing drugs.

As usual, Chow complicates the film’s schema by inflecting the main story with an unworldly romance, adding a political and spiritual dimension characteristic of his more recent work. Chow’s character meets and is enchanted by acne-scarred street-food vendor Mui (played by Vicky Zhao Wei, a famously gorgeous young mainland TV star). She uses a graceful variant of tai chi to make her steamed buns (her hands twirl, dough flies, spins, perfect buns materialize) which she calls “soft” kung fu, in contrast to Chow’s “hard” Shaolin Temple style. Although the progress of their romance is deferred in ways that confound genre, soft and hard kung fu combine for a symbolic payoff. And a marvelous epilogue creates a Chow-style utopia, the world transformed by his example.

Zhao speaks Mandarin Chinese (standard in most of China), and Chow, who speaks Cantonese (spoken in Hong Kong and part of southern China) in most of the film, only speaks Mandarin with her. Shaolin Soccer was filmed largely in Shanghai, in locations general enough to be taken for Hong Kong, though an attentive local audience would recognize the difference. This is a radical move for Chow: Shaolin Soccer broadens his character, transforming him into the Chinese everyman. Differences between a newly reunited Hong Kong and the mainland are blurred, elided, fade almost into invisibility. Perhaps this is why the local audience that has participated with Chow throughout the ’90s in working out that complex, comically unstable, multiply-natured construct that is called a Hong Konger has embraced Shaolin Soccer like no other film in the city’s history.

It’s exactly these key scenes between Chow and Zhao that are the most vulnerable if Miramax performs its typically contemptuous cut-and-slash job prior to a North American release. If, as rumoured, Miramax denatures the film by reducing it to a straight sports-triumph genre flick complete with now-standard rap soundtrack, and if it erases Chow’s voice by dubbing him in English (presuming that a comedy audience can’t or won’t read subtitles), then seeking out the film’s Hong Kong DVD release—easily available on the internet—would be preferable to watching it in a theatre.

Shaolin Soccer in the monoculture. Insofar as Shaolin Soccer participates in peculiarly local cultural codes and practices, it presents itself as the perfect negative image of Ang Lee’s cross-culturally successful swordplay epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). But both films are now properties of multinationals, arbiters of the new culture of Empire. This is the ultimate test case: if Chow’s cinema—which has been thoroughly stigmatized as incapable of crossing borders—can win over North American audiences, then anything may be grist for global culture. There really are no more borders, and we’re all on the verge of being marshalled, Miramax-ed, and Sony-ed into the global homogenizer. If we allow this to happen on the terms of multinational capital, it should be frightening. Why not instead proceed in the spirit of Chow’s felicitously promiscuous mixing of cultural codes, and embrace Shaolin Soccer‘s subversive contribution to a global mo lei tau culture.