Its been a few years since audiences around the world discovered Stephen Chow in the surprise international hit Kung Fu Hustle, which set the record for the highest grossing film of all time (a record Chow has already set and broken four times to date). Most people expect him to do it again with his big budget sci-fi fantasy comedy CJ7...
This time out, the 45 year old is exploring what happens to a poor father and son when an alien pet suddenly appears, transforming their lives. Insiders and casual fans alike are already commenting on what a departure it is for the actor, whose main claim to fame until now has been his 'mo lai tau' or nonsense comedies that he's made throughout his career. "CJ7 is a film I've wanted to make for a long time," Chow told us. "It's just that we didn't have the technology to make it then. "
It's also a subject that's obviously close to Chow's heart, judging by the comments that he makes on the subject. "I have seen UFOs more than once, and this fascinates me" he says, "I think this fascinates many people, right?" He better hope so. The film was shot in Ningbo on the Mainland of China for a reported US$l3 million dollars. Sony Pictures, which backed Chow for Kung Fu Hustle, wanted him to work on a sequel to that movie, but Chow abandoned that project in favor of this one, and they came running anyway.
"This was the most enjoyable shooting experience," he says of the film, which Chow claims was influenced by the Steven Spielberg 1982 classic film ET.
"Xu Jiao is a very intelligent actor, as well as a very lovely little girl, which makes the filmmaking process very smooth and relaxing," he says of the nine year old, who was selected ahead of 10,000 others to become the young boy named Dicky.
"Zhang Yuqi is very clever too, and she's got her own character, not to mention her beauty. The CGI is a little bit tough for me, cause you know, you have to build a virtual character from virtually nothing, and I'm trying to express what I have in my mind all the time, while the idea of mine is ever changing."
ON THE RISE
That sounds similar to how Chow's career has gone so far, His journey to superstardom began when he auditioned for TVB's Actor Training Course in the early 80s. Lacking traditional leading man looks and height (Chow is only 5'5"), he was put on 430 Space Shuttle, a children's TV program, while other students went on to star in prime time dramas. However, Chow quickly gained attention when he routinely teased the show's child contestants (in a harmless, light hearted way) with his witty, deadpan sarcastic remarks.
Soon, TVB realized Chow's natural comedic talent and placed him on a few TV serials. One of them was Final Combat, in which Chow's smart-mouth, wisecracking protagonist proved to be extremely popular with local audiences. The series further exposed Chow's comedic talents to the city, which eventually led to film offers.
For a while, Chow split his time between TVB and playing supporting roles in films. But in 1990, that all changed when he starred in All for the Winner. The film - a spoof of God of Gamblers, the highest grossing film in Hong Kong at the time - was a massive hit. As the star of what would subsequently become the highest grossing local film in the city's history, Chow wasn't about to return to television. A string of films followed and in 1992, four of the top grossing films of the year featured Chow.
Yet he did have his detractors. His brand of comedy, which combined slapstick visual gags with clever wordplay using Cantonese puns, was called 'mo lei tau', (meaning 'nonsense' in Cantonese). "I didn't feel uncomfortable at all," says Chow in his defense. "This is their tag for a certain kind of humor-making method, and I'm not bound by this."
Despite outgrossing every other star in the city on a regular basis, Chow was routinely snubbed come award time and watched as Chow Yun Fat, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li moved on to Hollywood. Chow's comedies were deemed to be too reliant on Cantonese wordplay or pop culture references and it was thought that it wouldn't translate to Western audiences.
"I hope I can entertain all the people all over the world, and I do my best to make it real."
CHOW SHOOTS! SCORES!
Far from deterred, Chow began experimenting as a director and writer, first by sharing directorial duties with long time collaborator Lee Lik Chee, then by taking on sole directing duties down the line.
As Chow matured as an actor and storyteller, his films developed stronger plots and less silly gags. "I take it as evolution," Chow explains. "I could not repeat the same thing over and over, whether it is the successful 'mo lei tau' or other unsuccessful trials."
The hardwork and 'evolution' eventually would lead Chow to start work on an ambitious project called Shaolin Soccer, a tale about a group of former Shaolin monk disciples using the sport of soccer as a way to market the ways of the Shaolin.
In a way, Chow must have known Shaolin Soccer would be the project that would allow him to leap over all the obstacles and criticisms of the 90s. Because Chow, who had been releasing up to seven films a year in the 90s, spent two on Shoolin, making it his longest drought away from the screen since he entered the business.
But it paid off in the form of a box office hit all over Asia, even in non-Chinese speaking countries, a Best Actor award at the Hong Kong Film Awards and attention from Western audiences for the first time.
"I'm grateful of course," he says in response to the accolades. "I hope I can entertain all the people in the world, and I do my best to make it real. "
Now, Hollywood is knocking on his door regularly, "Will Smith and I had a good talk," says Chow of their recent meeting. "We're trying to work out a project together," which Smith recently revealed was the remake of The Karate Kid. Although one must wonder how Chow found the time - he'd already been approached by 20th Century Fox to produce the live adaptation of popular Japanese comic Dragonball, in Dragonball: Evolution.
Now, Chow plans to start work on his next project, a retelling of the ancient Chinese story Journey to the West (ironically, Dragonball is loosely based on Journey To The West).
"I love Dragonball myself, and I think this is the best fighting comic of all time," he says of the project. "It's based on the some thing as Journey To The West, which is about an invincible monkey".
Whatever happens in the future, the release of CJ7 gave the local film industry a much needed boost. "I think the local industry needs more energy," says Chow, "Actors and directors need to put a wholehearted effort into their films and be serious as if that's all they can do."
Considering that this is coming from a one man powerhouse who claims he "hasn't made it yet", Chow's ascent may have only just begun.
ALL FOR THE WINNER (1990)
Many point to this film as the start of Stephen Chow's superstardom. What was supposed to be a spoof of God of Gamblers ended up outgrossing it.
GOD OF GAMBLERS 2 (1990)
After the success of All For The Winner, God of Gamblers director Wong Jing hired Chow and combined the two films into a sequel. Here, Chow teamed up with Andy Lou in this continuation of the saga.
ALL's WELL, ENDS WELL (1992)
A star studded Chinese New Year comedy which also starred Leslie Cheung and Maggie Cheung. An absolute riot from start to finish. Still one of the most popular HK comedies to date.
JUSTICE, MY FOOT (1992)
Although still a 'mo lei tau comedy', this Johnnie To helmed classic was praised at the time for being more intelligent and mature than Chow's previous works.
FROM BEIJING WITH LOVE (1994)
Co-directed by Chow himself, this is a hilarious spoof of the James Bond series. Chow stars as 'Ling Ling Chor' (Cantonese for 007), a secret agent who doubles as a butcher by day.
This witty twist on the classic Journey to the West novel has Chow in the role of the Monkey King. Considered to be his best film by fans for its mixture of humor and drama.
OUT OF THE DARK (1995)
This dark comedy about the supernatural flopped at the box office upon its release, but has since gained a cult following over the past few years. When the remastered DVD was released last year, it became one of Asia's best selling DVDs.
GOD OF COOKERY (1996)
Stephen Chow's solo directorial debut about the world of culinary cooking is one of his funniest efforts.
SHAOLIN SOCCER (2001)
One needs only to look at all the imitators that have come since (Kung Fu Soccer, Kung Fu Dunk, etc.) to understand the impact this film has had on the Asian film industry. Easily the most important film of Chow's career.
KUNG FU HUSTLE (2004)
A homage to the kung fu flicks Chow grew up on. Currently the second highest grossing film in Hong Kong history, second only to Titanic.