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Director Cooks Up Original Kung Fu Comedy

It seems true that no other comic film star than Stephen Chow enjoys such popularity among young moviegoers on the Chinese mainland.

Since December 1, the Hong Kong film artist has been busy traveling across the mainland and giving lectures, often in overcrowded halls, to his enthusiastic fans, many of whom are university students.

It has been reported that meetings with the comic star have often turned out to be something of a carnival for thousands of young fans who grew up watching Chow's unique comic films such as Jackie, the Valentino, God of the Gamblers, God of Cookery, Tong Pak Foo, and Shaolin Soccer.

"I have not figured out why they love my films so much. But I am happy with their support. It is a good chance for me to communicate with them face to face and find some inspiration for my future films," Chow was quoted as saying to the media.

The 42-year-old artist has long been described as Asia's answer to Jim Carey or Charlie Chaplin and creator of the Hong Kong comedy genre mo lei tau, or "nonsense comedy."

He said that his latest comic film offers audiences more surprises and delights, but with a slightly different flavor.

With an investment of about HK$150 million (US$19.3 million), the film is a presentation of Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia and Beijing Film Studio of China Film Group Corporation, and a production of the Hong Kong-based Star Overseas Ltd.

Having begun screening right before Christmas Eve, the new film has so far been warmly received by local moviegoers.

Kung Fu Hustle grossed more than 10 million yuan (US$1.2 million) on the first day of its release on the Chinese mainland and had raked in at least 50 million yuan (US$6.02 million) in box office revenue by December 26.

For the home base of Hong Kong, it reportedly had at least HK$15 million in box office income by December 26, 10 times more than the opening box office takings of DreamWorks' Shark Tale and Warner Bros' The Polar Express in Hong Kong, and double that of the latest flick A World Without Thieves.

The popularity of the film is increasing with people learning about the film by word of mouth, not just through film reviews.

"I like the movie very much. It is so far the funniest Stephen Chow comedy I have ever seen. The whole cinema was full of laughter all through," said Ou Lipang, a Beijing moviegoer.

"I recommended the film to many of my friends. It is a film you cannot afford to miss for the holiday season."

The work will probably become one of the top-grossing movies of the year 2004, film experts say.

A 'made-in-Hong Kong' comedy

Chow has appeared in many comic films but said he has long cherished the dream to shoot film that perfectly combines kung fu and his trade-mark humor.

"A film artist should not repeat himself. He must try something new in his new films though he may take the risk of losing some of his fans," Chow said. "Jackie Chan has tried out his luck and developed his style. I want to find my own in this genre."

In his acting career, Chow says he has constantly brought new comic elements into his work.

Hong Kong has a long tradition of making kung fu, or martial arts films. Originating in Shanghai in the 1920s, the first of these action-packed screen dramas cashed in on the contemporary popularity of pulp novels, drawing liberally on traditional tales and legends of superhuman swordsman and magical feats.

Among the most influential kung fu film stars are Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li.

The film took three years' preparation to make, using the Hong Kong film industry's best cast and crew - including legendary action choreographer Yuen Wo Ping. Yuen's work on Columbia's smash hits like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix series has set the standard for breathtaking action sequences over the past few years.

For Kung Fu Hustle, Chow chose some veteran actors from the classic period of Hong Kong cinema.

For instance, Yuen Wah, who plays the landlord, has appeared in hundreds of Hong Kong films over the past 30 years and for a time was even one of Bruce Lee's stuntmen.

Playing the landlord's wife, the landlady, is Yuen Qiu, a star from the 1970s, who retired from filmmaking more than 20 years ago. Chow tracked her down and begged her to come out of retirement to join his film.

Chow himself plays Sing, the lead male role, while Lam Chi Chung acts as Sing's Sidekick, and Chan Kwok Kwan as Brother Sum.

Not everyone in the cast has a familiar face. Newcomer Huang Shengyi, who just recently graduated from the Beijing Film Academy, plays Fong, a mute ice-cream seller, Sing's love interest in the film.

Set in the early 20th century in an unnamed Chinese city that looks very much like Shanghai in the 1930s, Kung Fu Hustle tells a story of gangsters who try to take over a street populated by kung fu masters disguised as ordinary residents.

It is so rich with imaginative visual gags, physical humor, computer-rendered special effects, clever lines, and so deep in the scope of its great action setpieces that it goes far beyond the restrictive limits of mere parody, critics say.

A comedy with a universal appeal

"As filmmakers, we should understand what audiences want from us," said Chow. "I hope that audiences from all over the world understand and appreciate my film."

As usual, Chow portrays common folks at grassroots level of society who realize their dreams, in a "from zero to hero" comic format.

But Chow says he does not believe in fate.

"Everyone's future is in their own hands. That is why in my film, at each critical moment, the common people do make their own choices although they achieve their goals with help from others or from a certain mysterious, supernatural force," he said.

Love is a key element in all of Chow's films. "In my view, love is vital for anyone either in films or in real life. A life without love is meaningless and a film without love can never move the audience."

The audience may also be impressed with the director's adept use of contrasting the protagonist's fresh memory of his puppy love, the birth of a butterfly, symbolic of the protagonist's metamorphosis into a kung fu master, and the hidden weapon of the "golden lotus," which is symbolic of the kung fu lunatic.

Fans familiar with Hong Kong kung fu films may find Kung Fu Hustle deliberately gives them a feeling of the old Hong Kong movies in the 1970s such as the gray, make-shift run down residential buildings often seen in kung fu films of that period. Chow said the film is a tribute to kung fu film masters such as Bruce Lee.

The clever use of traditional Chinese music helps create stronger comic effects in the film.

It is not particularly surprising that Chow finally decided to make a kung fu comedy. What was unexpected, though, was that he wanted to recapture in his own way the feeling of the older kung fu films made in Hong Kong over the past century.

Kung Fu Hustle is widely considered by critics and moviegoers alike to be a rare Chinese action blockbuster for years, particularly in camerawork and editing, which helps create suspense and achieve comic effects, critics say. The kung fu stunts and computer-generated special effects serve the storyline well.

Kung fu action choreographer Yuen Wo Ping praised Chow for his innovative approach.

"When shooting, I told Chow that those kung fu stunts are old-fashioned and may not be received by today's audiences. But he showed great confidence and insisted that his film would be an exceptionally good work," he said. "Now I believe he has proved himself in making a real kung fu-flavored blockbuster and I myself have learned so much by collaborating with him to make this unique film."

(China Daily December 30, 2004)

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