The Tricky Master

Chow, baby: Actor-director Stephen Chow on the set of 'Kung Fu Hustle'
Sony Pictures Classics

Onscreen, Stephen Chow always plays a killer salesman--a fraudulent super-chef hocking high-priced crap (God of Cookery), a movie extra talking his way into a nonspeaking role (King of Comedy). But in person, the actor-filmmaker more closely resembles his directorial persona: modest and shy, yet able to bust guts, splinter genres, and smash audience expectations. As he tells me during a recent visit to Minneapolis, the 16-year veteran of the Hong Kong film industry first had to break type.

"I started my career as a comedian," says Chow from a comfy couch at Le Meridien. "That's [how] people looked at me--as a comedian. But I had more ambition. Action was always my favorite. I tried to convince all these directors: Why don't you give me a chance to be an action star? But they all thought I was joking. I had no choice but to do it on my own."

The next stretch after directing himself--reaching a global audience--would be considerably more difficult. In the U.S., Chow's HK megahit Shaolin Soccer was a casualty of Miramax's pre-Hero foreign policy, getting kicked around the studio's release schedule for two years amidst threats of dubbing, shortening, and re-scoring. Now, with Hero and House of Flying Daggers having proven that at least some subtitled films are worthy to share multiplex real estate with J-horror remakes, Chow's Kung Fu Hustle is poised for the crossover success that Soccer should have had.

In this, the movie's ready-made global marketability is a boon: All Sony Classics did (besides cut a misleading trailer) is add the word hustle to Chow's original title. But why hustle? Because a movie called Kung Fu runs the risk of being mistaken for another Tarantino-directed comeback vehicle for David Carradine? Because hustle is hipster-speak for cool, out-there irreverence?

Or is the hustle in deference to Chow's knack for casting himself in roles that mirror his real life? In Shaolin Soccer, Chow played a kung fu promoter trying to repackage the martial art for the mass market. In Hustle, he plays a small-time con man who ends up unlocking the ass-kicking potential of a seemingly ordinary band of villagers--and later his own.

When I rave to Chow about my favorite surprises in the film, he leans back in his seat with a knowing smile, his pinstriped gray blazer falling open to reveal a purple lining (the sort of costume that a member of Hustle's Axe Gang might sport). But for most of our chat, the director muses--in diplomatically general terms--on the split interests of his new global audience.

"I try to aim for the world market," he says softly. "But you need to adjust all the time. A lot of audiences in Hong Kong have complained about how the lines [in Kung Fu Hustle] are not good enough. They want more jokes--verbal jokes. Yes, the action is good and exciting--but what about the jokes?"

The emphasis on action won't likely alienate or disappoint American audiences: The final showdown is the same hundred-against-one bloodbath that Kill Bill borrowed from every kung fu film ever made; choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping once again suspends hoodlums in midair like ping-pong balls; and one eerie sequence involves a string instrument à la Hero. But the execution is dead-on: Even these reappropriated martial-arts movie tropes come to life for an HK crowd that has seen everything--including Hero, which Chow says the Eastern audience found "good, but normal."

Normal how? Chow pauses uncomfortably for a moment, then offers this tasty metaphor.

"I have been in Chinese restaurants in the United States. Because I'm from Hong Kong, I know what the traditional Chinese food should be, so I [expect] more. I have a higher [appreciation] of this kind of thing. All my friends from the West really enjoy that 'Chinese' food, but I'm not satisfied, because I'm used to having something of really good quality. I eat it and think: not good enough."

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