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Chow-mania: The Five Best Films of Stephen Chow on DVD

by Stephen Kelly

Whether you know it or not, Stephen Chow is a very funny man. Since bursting noisily onto the Hong Kong cinema scene in 1990, this prolific actor/writer/director’s crazy brand of moy len tau (nonsense) comedies have consistently struck a chord with Asian audiences, and six of his 50-plus films are among Hong Kong’s biggest box office hits ever. Now, with the international success of 2005’s immensely entertaining Kung Fu Hustle, Western audiences are finally in on the joke.

What they are finding is a cinematic style like no other, films that defy convention and, at times, description. Silly without being stupid, frenetic without being exhausting, his comedies are slap-happy blends of lowbrow humor, broad physical comedy, outlandish characters, and, of course, kick-ass kung fu. Those with highbrow tastes won’t find any Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon mysticism here. Stephen Chow, Hong Kong’s self-proclaimed King of Comedy, just wants to make you laugh.

Those who further explore Chow’s catalogue will discover a legacy of lunacy that may only be matched by a certain British comedy troupe. So, for the uninitiated and fan alike, here is this reviewer’s list of the five must-see Stephen Chow films available on DVD. Expect something completely different.

Everything Chow had learned in twenty years of filmmaking finally came together with the raucous Kung Fu Hustle. He throws it all into this wildly imaginative comedy, from dancing tuxedoed gangsters, a landlady whose scream can shatter brick, and a chase scene right out of a Road Runner short. Chow plays Sing, a loud-mouthed gangster wannabe who discovers that he is a kung fu master while in defense of a 1940’s Canton slum called Pig Sty Alley. Paced like a cartoon, director Chow never lets thing get out of control, and Hustle is his most focused film. Of course, the film is highlighted by furious kung fu battles, choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping, of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger fame. While Chow gives his usual reliable performance, Hong Kong actress Qiu Yuen steals the show as the landlady who rules with an iron hand and a very loud voice.

As a filmmaker Stephen Chow has demonstrated an uncanny ability to take two distinctly unrelated subjects and make them mesh seamlessly onscreen. In the hugely successful Shaolin Soccer he strikes the perfect balance between kung fu and the world’s oldest sport, and the result is a marvelously energetic, supremely silly comedy and his most ambitious film to date. Here director Chow takes full advantage of CGI technology and creates eye-popping special effects, like a flying soccer ball morphing into a flaming tiger, that never overwhelm the story of an ex-Shaolin monk who brings his love of kung fu to the masses through soccer. The first of his films to hit big with an international audience, Shaolin Soccer is the logical progression of a filmmaker honing his complex style into something very accessible.

Technically two films, A Chinese Odyssey and its sequel need to be studied as one to truly appreciate the scope of director Jeff Lau’s sumptuously realized period fantasy. In a role he was born to play, Chow is cast as Joker, a petty thief who just may be the reincarnated Monkey King of ancient Chinese lore. Which wouldn’t be so bad if he weren’t being hunted by two shape-shifting she-devils hell bent on eating his flesh to gain immortality. Chow’s formidable comic skills are in full gear as Joker runs from giant spiders, a monk who turns into grapes, and bloodthirsty zombies in his search for the Longevity Monk, the only person, dead or alive, who can save him. Filmed pre-CGI, the film was justly hailed as a marvel of special effects, high production values and complex wire-fu action and is considered a classic in the Hong Kong period genre.

True to his moy len tau roots, Chow takes great delight in mocking popular Hong Kong films and pop culture trends. Parody is a theme he revisits often in his films and the raucous God of Cookery is no exception. Here he takes aim at Iron Chef and the popular 1995 Tsui Hark film The Chinese Feast and cooks up the tale of disgraced chef who claws his way back to the top after inventing a snack called “Exploding Pissing Beef Balls”. In many ways The God of Cookery is the first complete Stephen Chow film, toning down the frenetic antics of his earlier work in favor of a more accessible mix of the broad physical humor he would perfect in Kung-Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer. As usual, much kung fu ensues and a climatic cooking showdown in a mainland Shaolin temple is pre-CGI wire-fu in the best Shaw Brothers tradition.

As a parodist, Chow has never been afraid to take playful jabs at the Hong Kong movie elite. But his 1990 hit All For The Winner not only dared mock revered Hong Kong acting superstar Chow Yun-Fat and the mega-successful God of Gamblers series (so popular they started their own genre), but solidified Chow’s status as a major star. His first full-blown comedy, the film showcases his style intact and fully formed, and sets the stage for everything to follow. Chow plays Sing, a mainland rube whose X-ray vision is exploited by his street-smart uncle for gambling. Naturally Sing’s amazing success in the casinos attracts the interests of underworld types and mayhem breaks out as he makes a run to win the world championship of gambling. Directed by frequent Chow collaborator Jeff Lau, All For The Winner would ironically make more money than the film it was mocking.