Monday, 31 March 2008

Stephen Chow the greatest Asian Heroes

The star of Shaolin Soccer doesn't mind if the joke is on him

Stephen Chow shuffles like a Mongkok street sweeper as he leads me through his Hong Kong offices. He's so subdued that for a moment I wonder what's happened to the manic Chow of films like Fight Back to School and All for the Winner. But then the diminutive actor-comedian-writer-director laughs his movie laugh, mouth open like a jack-o'-lantern, eyes sparkling and nearly rolling out of his head, body leaning forward just enough to draw you in on the joke—the happy joke that's at the heart of his career: "Can you believe where I am?"

Chow certainly doesn't seem to believe it, but success speaks for itself. His brand of lowbrow comedies—which mix dizzying verbal wordplay, banana-peel pratfalls and kung fu (think the Marx Brothers with jump kicks)—are wildly popular with Asian audiences. His 2001 film, Shaolin Soccer, was Hong Kong's highest-grossing Chinese movie of all time, taking in nearly $46 million Asia-wide, and is also set to be released in the U.S. this August by Miramax. Chow's star turns have included five of the other biggest box-office hits in Hong Kong history. "I wanted to capture the mass audience from the start," he says. Mission accomplished.

In films, Chow usually plays the fool but almost always gets the girl. Moviegoers swallow the conceit and cheer, because "Little Stevie," as he is known to fans, is one of them. "Acting is my job, and directing and producing," Chow says. "But it's only a job. Besides that I'm just like anyone else."

If Hong Kong has a Charlie Chaplin, he's it. The 40-year-old Chow started off as the lint in society's navel but has pulled himself up through wit, will and a keen appreciation for the cinematic uses of insanity. After growing up impoverished in working-class Kowloon, he tried to break into acting at age 19 by auditioning for a training course run by a local TV station. Knowing his height might be a problem—he's dubiously listed at 1.73 meters—he bought an expensive pair of elevator shoes. The judges never gave him a second glance. "At that time the concept of a star has got to be somebody tall like Chow Yun-fat," he says. "Someone like me on the TV or the screen is impossible."

Denied access through the show-biz front door, Stephen Chow probed the side entrances. An actress friend secured him a place in a less serious nighttime acting class ("a lot of people my size were studying there" unlike in the full-time course, Chow says). That led to a job co-hosting a popular children's TV show with future art-film icon Tony Leung Chiu-wai. It was a comedown for Chow, who had once told his mother he wanted to grow up to be either a kung fu master or a thespian. "I was someone who kept talking about method acting and Al Pacino or Robert De Niro," Chow says. "One of my friends said, 'Yeah, your point is very good and you know a lot, but unfortunately you're a children's show host.' And that was true, and it hurt."

The six-year sentence he spent amusing kiddies was not wasted. Children's shows proved an ideal outlet for his brand of mo lei tau (nonsense) talk and toilet humor. He worked his way into other TV roles; they led to his first movie part, in the 1988 film Final Justice, for which he won the Best Supporting Actor honor at Taiwan's Golden Horse Awards. "It was like, finally I got it," Chow says. In demand, Chow started pumping out 10 or more bankable comedies a year. Still, by the time he began work on Shaolin Soccer, Chow was starting to worry that his movies were getting stale. "The ones I make before are not that good," he says, shaking his head, "so this one I think, it's gotta be great or I'll die!" Needless to say, he survived.

For a dedicated populist whose slapstick comedic antics have included chewing a condom like a piece of gum and suspending a string of gleaming mucus from his nose while sucking face with screen goddess Karen Mok, Chow has earned some highbrow praise. Asiaphile director Quentin Tarantino has called him the best actor working in Hong Kong, while film critic Shelly Kracier, editor of the Chinese Cinema Digest, has written that Chow is a "genius." Genius or not, Chow is still as down-to-earth as an eager film extra. "He's one of the kindest, most charming people on earth," says Dede Nickerson, Miramax's Asia consultant, who helped Chow dub Shaolin Soccer into English for its U.S. cinema release. "He never compromises himself to the people around him."

At a time when economically and epidemiologically challenged Hong Kong seems to be the butt of an endless series of cosmic putdowns, the SARS-stressed masses need Chow's brand of comedic escapism more than ever. "He can really help you cheer up," says Ruby Chan, a local fruit-juice vendor. "I can watch his movies again and again." Hong Kongers want to feel that they can take all the abuse the world is giving them and still bounce back with a rubbery smile—just like a Stephen Chow hero. Not that the icon is without his critics. Like others in Hong Kong's allegedly triad-ridden film industry, Chow has been accused of having underworld connections. He's long disputed the charge and even participated in a famous celebrity protest march against triad involvement in cinema, but in August 2001 he was rejected for residency in Canada after a lengthy fight on the grounds of alleged triad associations.

Chow has put that controversy behind him. At the height of his success, he remains mostly invisible offscreen. You won't find him making the scene at the Dragon-i bar with the rest of Hong Kong's cinematic swells; his mug rarely appears in the city's voracious tabloids. His offices are a pair of cluttered rooms in Kowloon that could easily pass for a fly-by-night travel agency, except for the myriad awards scattered like paperweights. "Yeah, I don't really remember what that one is for," he says as I point to a statuette. Together we shuffle into another room, where his production company is celebrating a staff member's birthday. Chow offers me a slice of chocolate cake, then fades into the background. When I look again, he's gone. I imagine him escaping into the crowded streets of Kowloon, just an ordinary guy, with extraordinary talent.

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