With his recent films, Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, Hong Kong writer-director-star Stephen Chow has made a conscious effort to reach out to an international audience, with simple, accessible plots packed with cartoon-y special effects. But for much of his career, he's worked alongside a coterie of comedy actors and directors, turning out frantic parodies that are nigh-incomprehensible to anyone not heavily steeped in Chinese history and culture. Fortunately, slapstick comedy and wu xia pageantry are fairly universal. In 1992's two Royal Tramp movies, written and co-directed by frequent Chow collaborator Jing Wong, it's sometimes difficult to understand exactly why Chow is running around in sped-up motion with his pigtail sticking straight out from his head, but that doesn't make it any less funny to watch.
In their broadest particulars, the Royal Tramp plots (drawn from a popular '60s Chinese serial novel) more or less make sense: The first introduces Chow as Wei Shu Bo, a clumsy, goofy, but quick-witted suck-up with no martial-arts skills or shame. Bumbling his manic way through a series of nested plots against the Chinese emperor, he winds up as the emperor's confidant, spy, and weapon against a power-grubbing general. In the more sedate, polished sequel, released the same year, rebel leader and faux empress Brigitte Lin attempts to avenge herself on Chow. But these plotlines are buried under an immensely complicated political background, and a lot of the nervy, insane babble—mo lei tau, translated as "silly talk" or "nonsense talking"—that typifies Chow's '90s films. The visual gags, like the kung-fu strike that turns a man into pink goo, are hilarious, but the lengthy sequences focusing on a eunuch's pickled penis are harder to grasp. Or stomach.
The Weinstein Company's two-disc set of the Royal Tramp films leave a lot to be desired—the subtitles don't cover signs or all the dialogue, and they're weirdly colloquial, with characters calling each other nerds and shouting "Baloney!" with surprising frequency. But these discs contain invaluable commentary tracks from Hong Kong film expert Bey Logan, who explains the nonstop pop-culture references and the background behind the unfamiliar jokes. Chow's uncontrolled, ridiculous antics are only fitfully hilarious, but knowing exactly what cigarette ad is being parodied onscreen, or which Royal Tramp star was primarily known for his porn films? Priceless.
Key features: Logan commentaries on both films and a moderately informative 10-minute subtitled interview with Wong.