For most American viewers, Hong Kong writer-director-actor Stephen Chow probably seemed to appear from nowhere last year with Shaolin Soccer. But Hong Kong movie fans have been watching him slowly build a name and a fandom over more than 20 years, in roles ranging from the host of a children's TV show to the star of one of Hong Kong's most successful films to date.
Inspired by Bruce Lee films as a young boy, Chow initially wanted to be a kung-fu master, but his family couldn't afford martial-arts lessons, so he instead followed in Lee's footsteps by becoming an actor. Starting out in television and then entering film, he became known for pioneering an over-the-top comedy style in many successful Hong Kong movies, including the All For The Winner trilogy, which spoofed Chow Yun-Fat's hit God Of Gamblers films. In 1994, Chow co-wrote and starred in his directorial debut, King Of Destruction, the first in a series of several increasingly well-received satires, including the James Bond spoof From Beijing With Love, the goofy, good-hearted romantic comedy The King Of Comedy, and Shaolin Soccer, a hilarious simultaneous parody of martial-arts films and team-of-lovable-losers sports movies.
After two years of trailers, teasers, postponements, and re-cuts, a dubbed and edited version of Shaolin Soccer finally opened in America in April of 2004. A year later, with much less delay and difficulty, Chow's follow-up, Kung Fu Hustle, has been imported as well. Like Shaolin Soccer, it's an over-the-top, special-effects-heavy parody of traditional kung-fu movies, with an affable underdog story layered over the visual insanity. While on tour promoting Kung Fu Hustle, Chow sat down with The Onion A.V. Club to discuss his stars, his intentions for the future, and why he doesn't entirely hate acting.
The Onion: There seemed to be a lot of difficulty in getting Shaolin Soccer to theaters in America; it was re-cut, re-dubbed, and delayed several times. Has your experience with Kung Fu Hustle been very different?
Stephen Chow: Kung Fu Hustle is a different story from Shaolin Soccer, because I think they're going to play the movie in its original version, like there's no re-cut and there's no re-editing. So far, so good. [Laughs.]
O: Did you have any reaction to Shaolin Soccer's experience here, all of the delays? The joke you make at your entrance in Kung Fu Hustle seemed like a reaction to some of the troubles you had with that film.
SC: Actually, not really. Just wanted to have, just for fun–I wanted to have people in this movie, no more soccer. Kung Fu Hustle is the real combat, instead of soccer games, or any game. I don't feel bad at all for the re-cut and the delay and the small release for Shaolin Soccer, although they changed all the parts. I think they had a reason. For me, there's more like a lesson to learn, and I believe that they are experts, and know how to do their job in a good way.
O: Kung Fu Hustle features several actors who were stars in the '70s, and who you brought out of retirement for this film. Were any of those parts written with those actors in mind?
SC: No, I found all of them after I finished the script. It took time for the casting, because all the actors and actresses in Kung Fu Hustle are atypical and unusual–like the landlady, who is supposed to be an aged woman, but who can really fight, and also The Beast, the ultimate kung-fu master. All these characters took time, because the image in my mind was uncertain before I found the actors. So, for example, the landlady with the cigarette always on her mouth. Qiu Yuen is not the one who came for casting–she was accompanying a friend. She sat behind with the cigarette, and I said, "Who is that woman with the cigarette on her mouth?" You can feel such a specialty in her character, which inspired me. That woman, she looks so arrogant, so snobbish. That's the first time for me that the character worked, when I saw the actress. But actually, I found out she was involved in the film business before, a long time ago, but she's retired. I invited her to be in my movie again. When I made the movie, I proved I have this kind of sense about casting, because I really feel something from her. I didn't know her movies at all. But I found out later on that she actually did one James Bond movie, a long time ago. I totally didn't recognize her.
O: Was it the same with the actor who played The Beast? Did you know his films from when you were younger?
SC: Oh, he's different. Leung Siu Lung. He is one of the most famous kung-fu stars of the '70s, from right after Bruce Lee's death. There were a lot of "Bruce Li," "Bruce Leung," a lot of people trying to imitate Bruce Lee's image. I think Leung Siu Lung is one of them. But I think he was special from any other, because he has a real kung-fu technique, and he's a real fighter. His kick, really powerful and fantastic. He came up in my mind in the last minute, right before shooting. There were a lot of changes in my mind, a lot of testing different actors from different places, but I was not quite satisfied for all of the casting. I thought about him, and it took time to bring him back, because he was out of the business. I still remember, he was wearing a wig in my office for the interview. And then I asked him if he didn't mind to take it off, and what I saw when he did, this is exactly what you saw in the movie, exactly the same hairstyle, with a cute face, but with a balding head and thin, long hair. But it looked tough. It's so special. Then I told myself, "That's the one." [Laughs.]
O: What was the hardest thing for them about coming back out of retirement for this film?
SC: I think they're all happy. Because they are professional, and they are so experienced. I think for the acting, there's no problem at all. And with the action, and all the stunts, I had the best choreographer, Yuen Woo-ping, and I'm paying him to do the job, so I didn't see any problems. [Laughs].
O: What style of kung-fu do you practice?
SC: Well, most of the time, I train on my own. Like, I watch movies and then I imitate those actions. [Laughs.] You know, Bruce Lee… I train my muscles, and I do a lot of stretching, and try to kick higher. But for me, practicing kung-fu is a way to relax myself. I did learn Chinese kung-fu in a school for a short time, but I couldn't afford to pay for long-term learning. The form is called wing chun; it's exactly what Bruce Lee learned in the old days. That's what I learned.
O: Is there anything particular that attracted you to that martial art over others? Anything about the philosophy or method?
SC: I would say it's all because of Bruce Lee. Because I fell in love with Bruce Lee after I watched his movies, and I wanted to become a kung-fu practicer, and I would like to be someone like Bruce Lee. That's why I learned kung-fu, and that's why I picked the wing chun style, because it's his style. That's why I decided to be an actor, to go into show business, because of him. It's all because of Bruce Lee.
O: You decided to be an actor when you were very young, but when did you decide you wanted to be a director?
SC: It's hard to tell you when. I don't know the exact day that I started to think about if I could become a director. I just kept thinking about it. When I was an actor in some movies a long time ago, I was so curious about all the camera movements–why is the camera placed here, and why does it move like this? And why the set and the background, the color? It's a lot of questions for me to ask, because I was so interested, not only in acting, but also the whole process of filmmaking. So I kept asking the director at that time about these strange questions. For them, you know, it's "You're an actor. Why do you need to know about camera movement? You want to know the reasons? Are you crazy?" [Laughs.] But I really wanted to know. So one day, one of the directors, my best friend, Jeff Lau, he told me, "What you are thinking about is beyond an actor." Then he gave me a book about directing. "Why don't you read this book? Maybe it will be helpful for you, and hopefully you will find your own way in this business, in your career." He told me, "I know someday you will be a director."
O: Was his directorial style a strong influence on your work?
SC: Yeah. Jeff Lau, I like his work, of course. But also, a lot of Western movies. Hollywood influences me. Like Steven Spielberg, my all-time favorite. Also Clint Eastwood recently, Million Dollar Baby. And also Martin Scorsese. There are so many.
O: What kind of things have you learned from those directors?
SC: I'll tell you what I've learned from Steven Spielberg. I think he always picks fantastic subject matter, fantastic ideas. Jaws is a story about a shark that attacks people. It's so simple. It's such a good idea. [Makes thumbs-up gesture.] So therefore what I think right now is, to make a movie, you have to have the right direction of the story. You have a good idea first, and that's the most important thing. Then you have all the rest. If first of all you have a wrong idea, then it's kind of wasting time. No matter how hard that you try with a wrong idea, it makes it difficult to be successful.
O: Steven Spielberg has become known for pioneering technical effects in his films, which you're doing as well. Has the increasing use of effects and computers changed your career and your process significantly?
SC: Yes, of course, it's totally different. Any of my work in the past–especially in Hong Kong, CGI is not that popular, and not used very often. I think everything starts from Shaolin Soccer, the CGI involved. That was the only way to make Kung Fu Hustle. I don't think we could have made it without CGI. For me, it's more difficult to make a film with all these complicated processes. With a lot of CGI people in one single shot, it takes time for the tests, shooting over and over again. Somehow you have to accept this and you have to face this. The CGI nowadays can really help if you can use it in the right way. It's the same thing–you have to move in the right direction, and not overcome the story. Because in the movies, it's always the story. The main theme is the story structure. In Kung Fu Hustle, I had no choice but to put a lot of CGI in, because the idea is so exaggerated and so imaginative. Like the fighting with musical instruments–I can't imagine doing that without CGI. But CGI should always assist the story, so the story can go on and work, and can move people. So it's no problem for me. I don't mind doing hard work with CGI.
O: Was there a specific inspiration, or a specific point, where you decided you wanted to do this kind of effects-based humor?
SC: One very important element for me to make a movie is, it has to be unique and different from any other. Sometimes it's really hard to analyze, or hard to tell you what works and what doesn't work. For me, it's a kind of feeling. Somehow, I believe my feelings. With Shaolin Soccer, I had this script in my hands, and I went to some investors about the idea, but there was hesitation. I think because it was [a type of film that had] never happened before, and there were no checklists to follow. "What's the relation between kung-fu and soccer?" There were a lot of questions, a lot of uncertainty. But that is what's hard about movies. You really don't know what's going to happen next. Somehow, you have to take a risk. You need to. You cannot avoid this situation. Every project for me is a risk that I bet on. I believe my senses, and hopefully it will be successful. But sometimes you make it, and sometimes you fail. [Laughs.] If you can keep going and never give up, ultimately you will get something that you really want.
O: Have you ever tried to do something in a film that just didn't work as a CGI effect?
SC: Of course, yes. In Kung Fu Hustle, there is a scene in the script where–it sounds crazy, but there's someone fighting with a shark underwater. [Laughs.] But when I talked to the CGI people, they said, "No, forget about this." It was about in the middle, when the two assassins appear. This was how they came along. It's quite different now, because there's a different setup, and they're different characters. They were from the sea, and they fought the shark to show their power. It's a crazy idea. Obviously, the CGI people didn't think they could make it.
O: Do you worry at all that effects-based films could devalue more traditional, naturalistic kung-fu films?
SC: Yes, of course. But if I could fight like Bruce Lee, I'd really prefer to show this power, instead of any wires or CGI. Unfortunately, I'm not as good as him. I'm quite far away from this level. [Laughs.] So I do what I can with the CGI. But in my point of view–what a kung-fu movie means to me is not only a kung-fu performance, not like a kung-fu show or demonstration. It's a story with action packaging. If we're talking about a story, a drama or a comedy or a combination, I don't think it has to be a real kung-fu demonstration. Unless you are someone like Bruce Lee, with the charm to draw people's attention–just a self-demonstration is good enough for the audience, because he's so good and so charming, but I'm not. I don't think anybody can do the same as Bruce Lee did. So now for me, everything is the backup for the story itself.
O: Is it true that at one point you were asked to direct a remake of your film God Of Cookery, but starring Jim Carrey?
SC: Yeah, I heard about this.
O: What happened with that project?
SC: I don't know. Can you tell me what happened? I don't really know. [Laughs.] I wasn't approached about it, I just heard about it. It's quite strange.
O: Would you be interested in a project like that, remaking one of your movies with American actors?
SC: Sure, why not? Yeah. That's my ambition. To only be a director, instead of acting and directing. Of course, to repeat my work one more time, that seems like not a first priority. If I can have a choice, I prefer to vote for a new project instead of a remake.
O: You spend less time onscreen in Kung Fu Hustle than in your previous projects. Is that part of your move away from acting?
SC: Yes. But it's going this way very naturally, because I have to direct and I'm so busy. To run around the camera and act, and then back to the chair, then focus on the set, then act again… [Laughs.] So from a director's point of view, if I can create different characters which impress the audience, that's fantastic for me. So in Kung Fu Hustle, you see, there's a lot of different characters. Not only me as the center of the story. Because I am the director as well, I would like to create more and more different types of characters to tell the story.
O: But you haven't stepped out of your features completely. Is there still some reason acting appeals to you?
SC: Acting is more simple. I think acting's easier. Also, they want me to do it. [Laughs.]
O: Who's "they"? The audience? The people you make the movies with?
SC: I don't hate being an actor. But if there's a choice, I prefer to direct. I've been an actor for such a long time already. As a director, everything is fresh and new. For me, if I can make a choice, I would prefer this, to go this way more than the other. But it doesn't mean I hate to act and I don't want to act anymore, it's not like that. I still enjoy everything about being an actor.
O: As a filmmaker, have you seen a major difference in the Hong Kong industry since the city returned to Chinese control?
SC: No. Not really. There have been big changes, especially right now, that we're facing in the Hong Kong film industry. But it has nothing to do with the takeover from mainland China. No. There, I think we have a better situation for the film industry, because we have a big Chinese market as a backup now. The problem that we are facing–and I have no idea how it happened–is the lack of talent. No newcomers, no new talent. I'm getting old. [Laughs.] I'm going to retire. Twenty years ago, I started to get involved with this business. From then until now, it's already twenty years, but I'm still the one. It's not healthy. So you see a lot of new faces in my movies. In every one of my movies, I just want to take someone new, and try to provide them a chance to become something.