April 10, 2005|Between the time that John Woo and Chow Yun Fat spawned a hipster fad on this island Hong Kong with 1986's A Better Tomorrow and the moment about a decade later when poor Jackie Chan starred with Chris Tucker in Rush Hour, a picture directed by solid gold jackass Brett Ratner (who still refers to Chan as "that Jap," possibly the worst thing you can call a Chinese man--worse than "that Chinaman," something Ratner also enjoys calling Chan), the HK film industry was the most vibrant and exciting in the world. It redefined action cinema by itself, pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in motion pictures, and valorized the "heroic bloodshed" genre by elevating old Chinese dictums of honour and brotherhood into ballets of romanticized violence. "One Cop, One Killer, 10,000 Bullets" became the byline for not only Woo's classic The Killer, but also an industry that made the Western world supple and accommodating to films like The Matrix, Reservoir Dogs, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Unfortunately, as Hollywood's siren call lulled away talents as diverse and incandescent as Ringo Lam, Jet Li, John Woo, Chow Yun Fat, Tsui Hark, and, finally, Jackie Chan, from Hong Kong (in Chan's case, for the second time), so, too, did the handover from British colony to Communist show pony take hold, rendering a film like Full Contact (where a bite-wound subbed for a wedding ring) impossible under the stringent censorship policies of Mainland China. The Hong Kong film industry has fallen, and hard. Almost as hard as its roster of superstars, finding themselves ethnic sidekicks and starfuckers in American dreck.
But of the folks left in Hong Kong, there's Wong Kar Wai and there's Stephen Chow. One makes studied, leisurely, high-brow romances; the other, Chow, makes slapstick genre bits that grind classic Shaw Brothers kung fu flicks together with Western influences as varied as Looney Tunes and music videos. In person slight, unfailingly polite, and reserved (a far cry from his screen persona's bundle of irrepressible energy), Mr. Chow speaks in a soft drawl that seemed to indicate some combination of jet lag and altitude sickness. Occasioned by the North American release of his latest, the effervescent Kung Fu Hustle, we chatted in his suite at the Hotel Monaco in the heart of Denver's downtown, a basket of fruit that I'd later ask him to juggle sitting on the table between us. I learned that he and I have similar immigrant tales, with both of our families fleeing prosecution from the Communist takeover of China--though where mine fled to Taiwan and eventually the United States, his found root in Hong Kong. Ours became something like a conversation between exiles, and when I asked him what he might do to change the perception of the Chinese people to a Western audience comfortable seeing us in overt shades of servile buffoonery, he took the question seriously.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: How do you maintain your identity as the United States begins to come calling?
STEPHEN CHOW: The dangerous thing is that I really want to work in the United States--who doesn't?--and that desire has led a lot of creative people to compromise. Speaking for myself, I don't know how, but I'm steadfast--I'm resolved to do things my own way and I think that begins by only doing projects, should they be offered to me by American producers, that I'm passionate about. It's easier to see the path to take when you're passionate--when the project is something that can be internalized, that is personal to you, then you fight to do things the right way.
Why have other stars of Hong Kong cinema been so compromised by Hollywood?
(laughs) Well, let me say that I think they're all great, all gifted, and that I'm a little uncomfortable offering what can only be an opinion of why it is that they haven't found the same level of success here as they did back home. Speaking just for myself and for my future projects, what I hope saves me is that I'm as serious about being a director as I am an actor and writer--that I would insist on a level of control in my projects. I want to be more than that, even, though--I want to be more than just a comedian, I want to be involved in the creation of ideas. Kung fu, sports, dance: I want to talk about innovation, about expanding beyond the preconceived notion.
Yet you relinquished a great deal of control to Miramax for their dreadfully-fumbled release of Shaolin Soccer.
A mistake. But Miramax... I believed that they knew the American audience and I trusted them to find an audience for Shaolin Soccer.
Tell me about the duality, the dual nature, of your characters.
I think that in Chinese culture there is such disdain held between the classes: are you weak, are you stupid, are you poor--and that this divisiveness tends to weaken us as a people. The Chinese are notorious, I think, for the strictness of their class divisions--so I try to comment on that a little bit by making the poor, the weak, the stupid, actually the heroes: the strong, the kung fu masters, you know--the ones who are actually the backbone of society. To my own thinking, they're the ones who are the real foundations of our culture. This instinct--Chinese, human, whatever--to classify people based on culturally-prescribed preconceptions is dangerous.
Do you think that has something to do with African-Americans being the key demographic for kung fu films in the Seventies?
I'm not sure what the fission point was between our two cultures at that period of time, but I think we're speaking again of the idea of the underdog, the underestimated hero who rises from poverty--the degradation of the lower class--to take his share of respect. I think it comments on the extent to which there's a class system in the United States as well, even though it's invisible here.
Staying in the '70s: Bruce Lee.
Actually, to be a filmmaker right now, I think it takes a lot of faith and a lot of courage. At least it does for me. When you mention Bruce Lee, I have to tell you that when I'm at my lowest point--when I have doubt or fear and wonder how I'll get through the next day of shooting, the way that I pull myself through, the way that I combat my depression is I think about Bruce Lee and what he did for us as a creative community. So many doors opened. He's my inspiration, he should be the inspiration for all Chinese filmmakers.
Are you making a social statement with your films? Are they satires?
To tell you the truth, I don't see my films as satirical or sociologically relevant. They've become very popular so, in that respect, sure, they must be touching on something in my culture that makes them relevant to the Chinese population at large, but I never go into them intending on making any kind of social statement. The gay guy, the old lady--the main purpose of all those characters is to mine them for broad humour and then to undermine those stereotypes for another, different kind of punchline later on down the line. It isn't a commentary on a particular society so much as an observation of human nature.
|The Man with the Golden Gun's Yuen Qiu as the landlady in Kung Fu Hustle|
Interesting that you cast a lot of kung fu legends, coaxing many out of retirement.
Yeah, it wasn't that difficult to coax them, really--they all wanted to do something for the Hong Kong movie industry, I think, and it was just a matter of asking them. It took time, though, to think of them, to track them down--the landlady, for instance, we spent so much time trying to find someone who looked that dowdy and yet could perform kung fu and, also, provide a link back to the old films that I used to love as I was growing up. It took us over a year and it wasn't even her who was auditioning, she was just tagging along with a friend and as her friend was auditioning, there she was sitting behind and off to the side, slouching there with a cigarette in her mouth. The feeling that I got when I saw her--and then I found out who she was... We were very, very lucky.
You mention them wanting to help the HK movie industry--what's happened to the HK movie industry?
That's a complex problem. My own opinion is that it's all to do with the crumbling of the creative infrastructure in Hong Kong. It takes time to build up a talented base of artists, crew, craftsmen--it takes a lot of time. Personally, it's taken me decades to get to a point now where I feel confident in the choices that I make, it took a long time for me to mature. So in Hong Kong you suddenly have such a massive export of talent like we had in the late-'90s, it just collapsed the infrastructure that had taken so long to build up. I try, very consciously, to cast young talent, to hire young crew to try to rebuild from within--but it's been a long, uphill climb. I'll tell you the truth that I was surprised at how fragile we turned out to be.
I read you had a falling-out with Sammo Hung.
Not true. I am a huge admirer of Sammo's, I actively sought him out for my film, I love his work. But unfortunately he was injured during the filming and we only got to work together for a very short time. I hope, very much, to work with him again in the future.
I've also read that Jackie Chan was giving up on Hollywood and coming home.
Jackie is brilliant, you know, but that makes the point for me a little in that after all this time, we're not talking about some hot new Hong Kong director, you're still asking me about Jackie and Jet Li and John Woo and you're interviewing me... That's the problem, isn't it? That after all these years, twenty years later for a lot of us--we're old men!--the question on everybody's mind when Hong Kong's movie industry comes up is what is Jackie doing? We feed that--we wonder who will be the next Jackie, the next Chow Yun Fat, the next me in Hong Kong--and we don't do that much to cultivate new ways to enliven our industry.
Your fans in Hong Kong are worried that you're next to leave.
I take this very seriously and I want to say categorically that it's just not true. I'm not going anywhere. I'm not going to Hollywood. I'm not compromising my vision. They edited Shaolin Soccer but when you rent it in the United States, you have the option to watch the original version, too. Kung Fu Hustle was co-financed by an American company, but it's a Hong Kong film through and through. I used all my own people, I had no interference from any outside source, and its success is testament to Hong Kong talent as viable talent--Yuen Wo Ping, of course, the West thinks that he's theirs now, but he's still a son of Hong Kong.
What sort of responsibility do you feel as an ambassador for Chinese culture in the West?
I feel a greater burden, of course, as the West becomes more familiar with my films. What Western culture knows of Chinese culture is, what, Jackie Chan? Hero? There's more to it than that. That's wonderful, don't misconstrue what I'm saying, but there is so much more to the Chinese people I think, that has never been represented properly in films that make it over here. I should ask you--how do Americans see the Chinese?
We [as in the Asian community] know kung fu, we have magical fortune cookies, we press shirts, and our restaurants are open on Christmas Eve.
(laughs) So it's a problem. Let me say this, that I love Hollywood movies--I grew up on them, I love them, and I use a lot of elements of them in my films. Clips, whole routines, the Roadrunner in the new film, floods of blood from The Shining--so many perfect images. I want to take them and incorporate them, and more than just imitation, I want to demonstrate how important those films were to me, how much I love them. And I think that my willingness to incorporate so many western elements in my films will, in a way, humanize these films for American audiences. To say, in a subtle way, that this isn't that foreign a film or foreign a filmmaker after all because we all grew up loving the same movies.