Stephen Chow: Hong Kong hustler

He's South-east Asia's biggest star, and now he's conquering the West too. Kaleem Aftab admires his kung fu moves
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The Independent Culture

Chow, 42, is director, writer, producer and star of Kung Fu Hustle, set in a pre-revolutionary China of sharp-suited gangsters wielding Tommy guns and axes. The action takes place on the grounds of a tenement building named Pig Sty Alley; Chow plays Sing, a wannabe gangster whose hapless efforts to prove himself as a hard man start a hilarious chain of events that pits an unlikely group of geriatric kung-fu masters against Shanghai's most notorious gangs.

The action, choreographed by Woo-Ping Yeng, the man behind Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Matrix and Kill Bill, is joyfully overblown and frenetic. Kung Fu Hustle's influences are an eclectic mix of Busby Berkeley musicals, Bruce Lee, Takeshi Miike comic violence and Charlie Chaplin. The result is a breathtaking, tongue-in-cheek kung-fu movie. Having broken box-office records wherever it opened in South-east Asia, and having already taken $20m in the US, Kung Fu Hustle may be the film that finally allows Chow to make the transition from Asian to international superstar.

It has been a long time coming. On his home island in 1992, four out of the five biggest-grossing movies of the year starred Chow. Quentin Tarantino was calling him the best actor in South-east Asia. Hong Kong cinema, through the work of the directors Chow Yun Fat and Wong Kar-Wai, was being fêted as the most exciting in the world. Chow seemed set to make the jump to Hollywood.

Yet he stayed at home while his less successful domestic rivals got the big American bucks. The failure to break the North American market was not through a lack of desire or a want of trying. Instead, there was a general consensus that Chow was a peculiarly Hong Kong phenomenon. The films he was staring in were parodies that quickly became termed mou lei tau – "nonsense" or "meaningless talk"; action films mixed with slapstick comedy, in which the characters would frequently converse in a seemingly incomprehensible tongue that was a bizarre mix of Monty Python-speak and Shakespearean rhyming couplets. When deciphered, the conversation was usually packed with obscure pop-cultural references that only those well versed in Hong Kong life could understand.

In a London hotel, Chow is sitting on a huge white sofa, which envelops his tiny frame. Officially, he is 5ft 5in, but he seems smaller. Off screen, he looks his age.

Chow says of mou lei tau: "That is my style, and I have no choice but to act in this way because it represents the way I think about life. And I like it. Why, I can't tell you. It's the same thing with kung fu – I cannot tell you why I love it; I was just born to do it."

Like many children of his generation, Chow fell in love with martial arts while watching Bruce Lee movies and was inspired to learn wing chun, a discipline invented by a woman, characterised by small movements that deflect and utilise the power of the opponent. It is the comedic influences on Chow that are more unusual for a Hong Kong native: he is aching to tell me why Charlie Chaplin is so much better than Laurel and Hardy: "Charlie Chaplin is my all-time favourite, alongside Buster Keaton. Laurel and Hardy for me is slapstick with no innocence and no heart: it is all just jokes. Charlie Chaplin is somebody who has jokes and slapstick, but it's motivated from the heart, with a sense of goodness and humanity.

"So I don't really mind that people call my films 'nonsense' or 'slapstick', or whatever they choose to name it, but actually, something in my movies I always pay attention to is that I give my audience a movie with a heart. No matter what packaging you give a movie, a kung-fu film or a romance, it has to have heart; otherwise it is only a movie."

Chow began to put that theory into practice after the director Jeffrey Lau, who had worked with him on Love on Delivery, suggested he try his hand at writing and directing. He took a co-directing credit on the film Love on Delivery in preparation for his first job as writer/director, on From Beijing with Love. This James Bond parody starred Chow as Ling Ling Chai, sent on a mission to locate a dinosaur skull. It was another domestic box-office success.

But the American door remained firmly shut, and the death knell to Chow's global ambitions seemed to have been rung when he was refused an application to move to Canada in 1995 because of his supposed links with the Triads. Chow states: "I'm not going to talk about the influence of the Triads on Hong Kong cinema. You know there was definitely a link between the two in the past – I agree with that. That is how I came to be one of the victims, wrongly accused of having links with the Triads. A long time ago I was an actor, hired by a film company, and I was only interested in trying to work as an actor on a movie. I did not care what the company background was or who it had links with. That was not my concern.

"Actually, what I don't get, or understand, is how the Canadian immigration department did not see the difference between being an employee of the company and being a director who could make decisions. The whole thing was totally nonsense."

The Hong Kong public saw North America's loss as its gain, especially as Chow was proving to be brilliant gossip-column fodder. But in spite of the supposed turmoil in his private life, he was going from strength to strength as a film-maker. His films God of Cookery and Forbidden Cop followed the winning formula of the little man overcoming the odds to get the girl and win the day through a devilish use of martial arts, and Chow's following expanded out of Hong Kong and on to the Asian mainland.

Yet the urge to make it in the West remained, and Chow's next directorial effort, The King of Comedy, was inspired by the Martin Scorsese film of the same name. It was then that he had the brainwave of making a movie that merged the beautiful game with kung fu, and the result was the spectacular Shaolin Soccer. It featured a defender with a physique for sumo wrestling wearing a shirt emblazoned with David Beckham's name across the back, a goalkeeper sporting Bruce Lee's famous yellow tracksuit, and footballs that magically turned into flameballs and hurricanes.

When it smashed the box-office record held by Titanic in China, the Weinstein brothers bought the film for Miramax. Chow's conquering of the American market seemed to be at hand, but it was not to be. Harvey Weinstein sat on the film for three years, then cut it to shreds; when it was eventually released, most of its target audience had already seen a pirate version.

In those three years, Chow was working on Kung Fu Hustle, and China was becoming an increasingly important market. More important for corporations, Chinese audiences seem to prefer Asian films to the quota of 20 foreign films shown each year. Chow is China's biggest star, and Kung Fu Hustle has broken the box-office record held by Shaolin Soccer. It took $7.7m in the first weekend, more than double the $3.3m taken by Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith.

So it is not surprising that Sony is now pushing Chow as an international superstar. But Chow admits that he is becoming less interested in appearing on screen. "I would like to focus on directing instead of acting," he says, "no matter where my next film takes place – be it in the East or the West. That's because I think I can develop more as a director than as an actor. As a director I have more control."

I ask him which director he most admires and would like to emulate. "Steven Spielberg," he replies. "You know why? Because you can find a heart and innocence in all of his films."

'Kung Fu Hustle' is on general release