Hong Kong — Hollywood is certainly no stranger to importing cinematic talents from Asia's movie capital, but there is a crucial difference between comic superstar Stephen Chow -- who knocked on U.S. doors this weekend with his pan-Asian blockbuster "Kung Fu Hustle" -- and his high-profile Hong Kong peers.
Thus far, all of the Hong Kong superstars who have moved up onto the international stage -- Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, Jet Li and the inimitable Bruce Lee -- specialized in action films, whether they were donning period costumes or modern-day trench coats. (Chan was Asia's biggest action star long before his Hollywood career took off.)
By contrast, Chow is revered in Asia as "The Master of Comedy."
Produced, written and directed by Chow, "Kung Fu Hustle" relies heavily on cartoons and comic book influences as it tells the story of small-time delinquent Sing (Chow) and his obese and slow-to-catch-on sidekick (Lam Tze Chung), who together dream about climbing up the social ladder by joining the powerhouse Axe Gang in a small town in 1940s China.
While action films have no problem hopping borders, comedies can be hit-or-miss at the box office as they try to transcend different cultures and languages. Despite that formidable hurdle, however, Chow's movie has already garnered plenty of fanfare: Slapped with an R rating for its exaggerated and comical ultra-violence, "Kung Fu Hustle" became Yahoo's second most watched trailer in the weeks leading up to its Friday release in the U.S.
"The humors in 'Kung Fu Hustle' are both specific to the Chinese culture and universal in appeal," said Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Classics, which picked up the movie for distribution. (Film critic Roger Ebert described it as "Jackie Chan and Buster Keaton meet Quentin Tarantino and Bugs Bunny.")
"Kung Fu Hustle" was an immediate hit upon opening in Asia last year, breaking records set by Chow's own "Shaolin Soccer" in 2001. The movie has grossed more than $65 million in Asia so far, and recently beat Wong Kar-Wai's masterpiece "2046" for best picture at the Golden Horse Awards, Hong Kong's equivalent of the Oscars.
Oddly enough, Chow said he never sets out to make a comedy.
"My goal is simply to try to tell a good story," Chow said, discussing his filmmaking philosophies recently at his Hong Kong production company. "There will be moments that are funny, moments that are not so funny, and then moments that are very sad. It's never about 'trying to make a comedy.' Then, of course, I want some funny jokes and have my audiences enjoy some laughs. Eventually the humor parts of my movies stand out and they become comedies."
Chow said as much while making the rounds of universities last year to promote the new movie. At one point, during question-and-answer sessions with college students, he was asked about his growing legacy. Chow responded, only half in jest, "I thought I made many movies about human tragedy; but the audiences interpret them as comedy."
The audiences responded with more laughter.
Basis of his appeal
It's exactly this approach that makes Chow the comic master of Asia. A lightweight, slapstick comedy is about facile jokes and cheap thrills. But the best comedies touch the audiences' hearts, exploring the sadness that lies beneath the surface.
"Chow is becoming the Charlie Chaplin of Hong Kong," said Geoffrey Wong, a Hong Kong film critic, describing Chow's enormous appeal. "Chow likes to portray grass-roots characters that speak for most of the people in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. He would always be the smart little street kid who struggles and tries hard to find a way to succeed. His films speak to audiences from different cultures because the jokes and references are universal. The story of 'Kung Fu Hustle' surpasses any significant cultural differences."
Chow joined Hong Kong's TV station TVB in the early '80s as mostly a sidekick. After years of struggling, he got his first breakthrough when his debut movie performance, in the 1988 police drama "Final Justice," won him the best supporting actor honor at the Golden Horse Awards.
That triumph, however, did not lead directly to stardom. Chow found himself relegated to B movies, where he toiled away in an effort to become a character actor. Frustrated, he turned to comedy in his search for success. He broke through with a 1990 gangster spoof, "My Hero," in which he used a beguiling combination of outright nonsense and comic book influences that confounded -- and mesmerized -- Asian audiences. Chow alternated between sure-fire commercial fare (the "God of Gambling" series and the "Saint of Gambling" series) with more sophisticated comedies (the "Royal Tramp" series, "The Deer Duke" and "Mad Monk," which reinterpret common ancient Chinese tales as modern-day satires) that allowed him to build a following and expand his range as an artist.