Final Justice (1988) — December 19, 2013
Stephen Chow, in his breakthrough film role (he won the Best Supporting Actor Golden Horse award) is introduced as a young car thief who wears a denim jacket with the word “FUCK” spelled out in rainbow colored stickers across the back. Apparently this is meant to be taken seriously as a sign that he is a rebellious and criminal young man. Chow’s performance is almost entirely dramatic, and actually is pretty good, as he is arrested by Danny Lee and coerced into informing on the murderous gang that is terrorizing the city (for whom Chow has been stealing cars as getaway vehicles). Seemingly half the film takes place in the police station, with the barely literate, rule-breaking Lee arguing with his boss (yes, he gets thrown off the case). Director Parkman Wong makes excellent use of the neon reds and blues of the Hong Kong night, but for the most part this is a pretty standard cop movie.
All for the Winner (1990) — December 25, 2013
The thing about these Hong Kong gambling movies is that they’re sports movies, but they’re not about making yourself a better person or coming to terms with your past or personal redemption or any of those things American sports movies are about. They’re about perfecting your skill such that you can get away with cheating. They’re the manifestation of free-wheeling Hong Kong capitalism in the last days before the Handover to China. A last gasp of anarchy before the fall. It’s a world where everyone is cheating, everything is a hustle, and the naive hero (a bumpkin from the mainland city of Guangzhou (population 6.3 million in 1990, more than twice that today) must learn how to cheat consistently and effectively to get ahead.
He’s also lectured near the end by co-director Corey Yuen that he should use his superpowers to help the poor. And maybe he will. But even then it’ll be the philanthropic largesse of the robber barons, the laissez-faire capitalists that cheated their way to the top then built libraries and universities and museums with their spare change. Social goods all, does it really matter where they came from?
Also, Ng Man-tat begins convulsing and starts humping everything in sight whenever Stephen Chow says his name.
God of Gamblers II (1990) — December 27, 2013
Wong Jing takes what is essentially a normal sequel-type story (Andy Lau’s character, now a success after being adopted as a disciple by Chow Yun-fat, loses touch with his roots and his identity as he chafes under the rules of superhero gamblerism and must overcome these doubts to defeat a new enemy, a disciple of the bad guy from the first film) and destabilizes it by throwing in Stephen Chow and Ng Man-tat from All for the Winner, a parody of the first film. It’s like if Tony Scott had made Top Gun 2 starring Val Kilmer and Charlie Sheen’s character from Hot Shots!. Considering that God of Gamblers itself was a kind of half-parody of Casino Raiders, the result is an almost wholly unmoored film. Andy Lau’s sadness is the only thing that holds it together.
Tricky Brains (1991) — December 26, 2013
I think this is the closest I’ve seen Stephen Chow get to a Michael Hui comedy, more classically structured than the standard Chow/Wong Jing strategy of just filming any crazy thing that happens to come to mind. Maybe it’s just the setting, with Chow as a “Tricks Expert”, someone who gets hired to play elaborate pranks on people with the hope of driving them crazy or into ruin (kind of like Fincher’s The Game, if it was run by Jerry Lewis), which reminds me a bit of the structure of the Huis’ The Private Eyes or Security Unlimited. Andy Lau is the perfect straight man for Chow to play off, and there are not one but two terrific musical sequences: a goofy duet with Chow and Lau and a bit where Chow, Lau and Ng Man-tat talk to each other in Peking Opera verse. Also with Rosamund Kwan and Waise Lee, who is, as ever, a terrific heel.
In this one, when Chow says Ng Man-tat’s name, he doesn’t begin humping everything, he simply begins to gyrate uncontrollably. This is a running joke I do not understand.
Added March 19, 2017:
Stephen Chow as the “Handsome Tricks Expert” hired by heel Waise Lee to disrupt Andy Lau’s romance with Rosamund Kwan by convincing Lau and his father, Ng Man-tat, that Chow is Ng’s long lost son and having him sabotage every aspect of their professional lives. Tasteless, crude, silly, it’s peak Wong Jing and maybe the best film of Chow’s mo lei tau period, building sublime nonsense out of the simplest of filmic elements. Half the jokes are Cantonese puns I can’t understand. It doesn’t matter.
Fist of Fury 1991 (1991) — April 17, 2019
Really the best thing about this is a big supporting role for Corey Yuen, who never acted as much as he should have. And also the note-perfect reconstruction of Raging Bull’s masochistic “You never got me down, Ray” fight.
Fight Back to School (1991) — April 15, 1991
Is to Ringo Lam’s On Fire films what Hot Fuzz is to Michael Bay. With a little bit of Kindergarten Cop thrown in, because why not.
Love on Delivery (1994) — February 28, 2019
So lo-fi relative to Chow’s later works, for example Kung Fu Hustle, with which it otherwise has a whole lot in common, that it’s almost hard to believe they’re from the same guy. Like The Ramones turning into Radiohead or something.
From Beijing with Love (1994) — April 16, 2019
Extremely silly, but I probably laughed out loud more watching this than with any other Stephen Chow movie.
A Chinese Odyssey (1995) — April 3, 2018
This is I think the third time I’ve seen this, but the first two were years ago. I figured I’d have a better handle on it now, having seen so many Journey to the West and Monkey King movies in the intervening years, and I’ve even read some of the book itself.
I was wrong.
Somewhere near the end, I managed to figure out what was going on, and not only that, I caught an inkling of why it was all happening. In this sense, the two films, with their impossible plotting and maddening tangle of relationships made all the more inexplicable thanks to a fungibility of identity, mirror the spiritual condition of humanity. We’re all too dizzy to understand anything, let alone actually achieve some kind of peace or enlightenment.
I think Stephen Chow captured the philosophical nature of the quest more successfully in his Journey to the West movie, but no maker of wuxia farce was more elaborate, and more dedicated to parodying Ashes of Time and Chungking Express, than Jeffrey Lau in the mid-90s.
Added August 12, 2019:
One thing I couldn’t quite figure out how to cover when I wrote about this at The Notebook was that while the Chinese Odyssey films are the end-point of the mo le tau genre, they’re also one of two endings for the high-speed comic wuxia subgenre of the early 90s (the Swordsmans and Fong Sai Yuks and Kung Fu Cult Masters). The other is Tsui Hark’s The Blade, also released in 1995. The one emphasizes the genre’s bright and goofy side, the other its worlds of unrelenting violence.
Forbidden City Cop (1996) — March 8, 2018
Maybe the slightest Stephen Chow movie I’ve ever seen. He’s one of the Emperor’s personal guards, but he doesn’t have any martial skills, he just invents stuff like a giant fan (to blow away the Yuen clan’s assassins’ killer leaves) and magnets (to take their swords). Mainly three episodes: he gets kicked off the force for not knowing kung fu, then he rescues the Emperor from the Yuens, then he goes undercover to procure a prostitute (Carman Lee, from The Odd Ones Dies) who may be an assassin. Would be utterly forgettable if it wasn’t so much fun or without Carina Lau, who plays his wife. Their relationship is maybe the sweetest thing in any of Chow’s films.
God of Cookery (1996) — February 20, 2016
Stephen Chow plays an asshole who’s faked his way to the top. He gets exposed as a fraud and hits rock bottom. With the help of an oddball community of lowlife friends he manages to rebuild his success and achieve a surprising degree of enlightenment. The inspiration is the previous year’s Tsui Hark film The Chinese Feast along with the TV series Iron Chef (I assume: the show premiered in 1993 in Japan, but I don’t know if Tsui or Chow were familiar with it, or when or even if it aired in Hong Kong. But I can’t imagine these movies without it.)
Chow will return to this formula again and again over the next 20 years, with the important distinction that in King of Comedy, Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle, and Journey to the West, Chow (or the Chow surrogate in the case of the latter film) starts out at the bottom, a deluded but decent guy with dreams of greatness. Instead, he begins God of Cookery at the pinnacle of his profession, wealthy and famous and monstrously empty. This is also the only one of the films he directed in which his character’s name is “Stephen Chow”.
King of Comedy (1999) — October 25, 2014
Stephen Chow plays an aspiring actor who keeps getting banned from a film set (an action picture starring Karen Mok, the one sequence we see is a hilarious John Woo parody) for causing slapstick hilarity rather than keeping to his role as an extra. He also manages a local community center and takes on some acting students: a group of local club girls (led by Cecilia Cheung) who need to learn how to act more like innocent college girls for their wealthy clients. He also helps a local wanna-be Triad act more intimidating and then an undercover cop catch some crooks.
So there you have it: actors are goofballs, prostitutes, crooks, and ultimately heroes.
Like the Hui Brothers’ The Contract it’s an ode to an older, sillier style of comedy, with weird visual gags and escalating joke construction. It’s looser than that 1978 film, Michael Hui had a kind of precision that Chow’s free-wheeling style could never match. It’s also much more of a one-man show. The Huis’ films are collective expressions, with great parts and set-pieces for all three of them, The Contract thus capturing the group endeavor that is show business. But Chow’s film is about stardom, and there’s no doubt who that star is (though Cheung, Mok, and as always Ng Man-tat do some great work).
When the film was released in 1999 (New Year’s of course), it was noted how much heart the film had. How surprising it was that Chow would veer ever so slightly into drama and romance. That only really makes sense if you know his earlier films first. As most of us in the West first encountered him with Shaolin Soccer or Kung Fu Hustle, the more conventional, less anarchic story isn’t so much of a revelation. But compared to Tricky Brains or the God of Gamblers sequels or Royal Tramp films, the romance here is surprisingly moving. Most of the credit for this probably goes to Cheung, she really is terrific here, in her first film role.
Shaolin Soccer (2001) — September 4, 2016
Feels like there’s something missing with the Zhao Wei storyline, an explanation for why Chow is so mean to her. Compare the lovely romance in Kung Fu Hustle or the nuanced rejection of romance in Conquering the Demons. Chow’s cruelty toward her comes out of nowhere, and is left unresolved, but for a vague slogan on a billboard.
The film is at its best exploring the underbelly of capitalism, the followers of an ancient tradition pushed outside the margin of society. A century earlier, the itinerant master in Once Upon a Time in China turned to evil as the only viable way to practice his skills, while these guys simply lose their abilities, their faith, under the crushing weight of progress. Only after literally being beaten into the ground can they regain their dignity.
As I’m writing this, I realize the connection here: in the same way the monks have to be beaten and humiliated to shed their loser skin, so Zhao Wei has to be first cruelly taunted for her terrible taste in fashion and make-up and then brutally rejected by the man she loves, before she can shed her own poisoned skin and realize her true potential.
Actualization through degradation as the spiritual endpoint of slapstick.
Kung Fu Hustle (2004) — August 13, 2014
I hadn’t seen this since it was released a decade ago, but it strikes me that in all that time since Marvel has released like 30 superhero movies and not a one of them is half as entertaining, imaginative and profound as this. And it runs only 99 minutes.
Things I learned on rewatching:
1. Lam Suet! Lam Suet is in this!
2. The landlord and landlady (types in homage to Chor Yuen’s The House of 72 Tenants, a non-action movie that was Hong Kong’s biggest hit of 1973, topping even the mighty Bruce Lee) are played by Yuen Wah and Yuen Qiu. Yuen Wah, of course, is a longtime stuntman and actor (you can see him as the villain in Eastern Condors, for example) and former member of the Seven Little Fortunes Peking Opera troupe that also featured Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, and Corey Yuen. Yuen Qiu also studied under their same teacher at the China Drama Academy, but she rarely appeared in films (she did some stunt work on a James Bond movie and some random small roles and stunt performing in Hong Kong) and hadn’t appeared in a movie at all since 1985. She only agreed to star in this after Stephen Chow begged her for months. And she pretty much steals the movie.