In the early 2000s, Hong Kong comedy star Stephen Chow stole Jackie Chan’s crown as Hong Kong’s clown prince of kung fu comedy. He was dubbed the Jim Carrey of Hong Kong by American critics, but that completely misses his appeal. Sure, Chow is a brilliant physical comedian with an unpredictable streak, but he also has the spirit of an overly excitable kid (even at 40), and he was more than just an actor: he wrote, directed, and produced is best films. Just watch his two biggest international successes, Shaolin Soccer (2001) and Kung Fu Hustle (2004), and you’ll see why he was such a phenomenon.
Shaolin Soccer is full of Chow’s trademark talents, from martial arts spoofing to verbal games (most of which are lost in translation), and it’s a lot of fun watching him goof through the creation of a team consisting of his Shaolin brothers into the Harlem Globetrotters of soccer to take on the league bullies, the aptly named Team Evil.
No it isn’t subtle, and why should it be? Between Ching Siu-Tung’s choreography, who fills the stunts with plenty of imagination (think of a cross between the supernatural magic of A Chinese Ghost Story and video game fantasy a la The Matrix), and Chow’s flashes of whimsy, he creates an eye-popping comedy with all the chemistry and self-effacing fun of a Bob Hope / Bing Crosby road movie (without the mercenary humor) and the crazy turns of a Looney Tunes cartoon. Vicki Zhao is hilarious as the kung-fu bun chef with a crush on Chow, who droops her head to hide her acne-mottled face and speaks in a near whisper that still manages to come off deadpan, and Man Tat Ng and Patrick Tse co-star. Cecilia Cheung and Karen Mok make cameos in drag.
Released at 111 minutes in Hong Kong, Miramax cut the film down to 97 minutes that whiz by like a Beckham penalty kick. That’s the version that Netflix presents, in original Cantonese with English subtitles.
Even more successful was Kung Fu Hustle, a go-for-broke goof on classic Chinese warrior dramas and revenge thrillers that packs a lot of action, a crazed cascade of comedy, a parade of characters, and a non-stop barrage of loving jabs at classic martial arts adventures into 99 minutes. There’s a little bit of everything here: a band of hatchet-wielding gangsters who (quite literally) dance their way to the top in tuxes and top-hats; an impoverished slum where (by sheer coincidence) the greatest fighters of the land are all hiding out incognito; oddball villains with supernatural weapons; and a dim beggar named Sing (Chow) whose modest goal in life is to become a bully, if he can just find someone puny enough to beat up.
Chow is amazingly generous as a director and a writer, giving the most memorable moments of the first half of the film to other members of the cast—notably the skinny swivel-hip slumlord (Yuen Wah) and his brassy windbag wife (Yuen Qiu)—while the over-the-top ending belongs to him. Chow has a fondness for cartoon effects, as a zippy roadrunner-esque chase scene (complete with whirls of motion in place of feet) attests, and Yuen Wo Ping choreographs with the same cartoonish overkill. It feels like the film is tripping from scene to scene, rushing to keep up with the energy and momentum that outpaces the slim story, but in a film all about the spectacle and eye-popping set-pieces, that has its own rewards. Also in original Cantonese with English subtitles.