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Among the most famous Hong Kong directors, Stephen Chow may be the hardest to define. Johnny To is the cool guy, Wong Kar-wai the elegant one, and Tsui Hark the inventive one, but which description best fits Chow?
His films bear distinctive tags, such as underdogs as protagonists, absurd, slapstick, and crazy and exaggerated body language. But, behind his larger-than-life performances is a vague image with mixed reviews.
Chow has recently been appointed a member of the Guangdong political consultative conference because the cultural and artistic cooperation between the special administrative region and the mainland has been greatly boosted in recent years.
The 51-year-old actor/director maintains an impossibly low profile. Even in Hong Kong, where the paparazzi are known for their perseverance, Chow is seldom caught.
He rarely gives interviews or talks about himself, his family or love life.
Even if one pieces together comments about him, one does not get a full picture of Chow. Fans worship him as a genius and king of comedy, an Asian and an improved version of Jim Carrey. The not-so-flattering labels given to him include mean and harsh, resulting in many of his co-workers leaving him.
He never responds to such comments.
In Hong Kong, he represents the local grassroots culture, while in the mainland he is a cultural hero/icon among the 20- and 30-somethings thanks mainly to his A Chinese Odyssey in 1994. It tells the love story of the Monkey King, which is loosely adapted from the classic novel Journey to the West.
The film was not a commercial success in Hong Kong, but it caught the attention of mainland youngsters who watched it on DVD and the Internet. Some netizens analyzed every detail of the film and thought of it as a masterpiece of post-modernism, which decodes everything but love.
The comment stunned even Chow. When asked about his opinion of post-modernism, he says: "To be honest, I know nothing about it."
"Is the film that good?" he asks, his confusion seeming genuine.
"I was so flattered. Looking back, I find a lot of flaws, but I will keep that to myself," he adds with a sly smile.
"Post-modernism" is a big word for the man, who grew up with three siblings and his mother in a lower-class Hong Kong community. He remembers how depressed his mother once was at the loss of HK$50 ($6.40). In his middle school days, he worked as a part-time street vendor and waiter. After graduation, he became an extra actor at a local TV station. For about six years he did not get any real movie roles.
His 1999 film, King of Comedy, is widely considered his biopic. It starts with the protagonist, a temporary actor, shouting to the sea and himself: "Work harder! Keep on!" It shows how Chow, during his days as an extra, used Russian actor Constantin Stanislavski's book An Actor Prepares as his bible, to design his own gags. He never gave up even when he had to play the role of a corpse.
His unyielding efforts may explain why he won many awards and rose to stardom quickly when he was finally the lead in a film, in 1988.
He became the most popular Hong Kong comedian and has 47 comedies under his name. A typical Stephen Chow protagonist is an underprivileged young man, neglected and humiliated, but in the end becoming really powerful.
That is also the theme of his new film Odyssey, also based on Journey to the West, which will be released on Feb 10. The protagonist is now the Buddhist monk Xuanzang, instead of the Monkey King, but it is still a tale of the growth of an ordinary boy faced with setbacks and heartbreaking romance.
Although the plot is based on the same novel that inspired the 1994 hit, Chow is unsure whether the film will win over young audiences today as the old one did.
"I never know how the audience will react," he says. "Sometimes you try very hard to please them and they don't like your work at all, but sometimes they surprise you with their tremendous enthusiasm. That's why I only do things that really interest me."
His endeavor to please the young audience, however, is obvious, with the 3-D version and numerous special effects. It also portrays the main characters in Journey to the West in a subversive way. The storyline is a result of two grueling years of brainstorming between him and two young scriptwriters.
One of the writers is Lu Zhengyu, a 30-year-old filmmaker. A hard-core fan of Chow, Lu met his idol in 2007. He made a short video about Chow and presented it to him on a talk show when Chow was promoting his last film CJ7. Chow liked his creativity and invited him to work together. On set, they always talked for half an hour before shooting began, and the talk continued during filming, with all actors joining in. Sometimes the talking would go on for longer and the script changed all the time.
"No one knows what's on his mind, what we always do is talk and talk, to bring about different ideas one after another," Lu was once quoted as saying. "Maybe that is why many people say he is harsh, but he is very harsh to himself, too."
Chow agrees innovation can be tortuous, but if this film is the same as the last one, "what is the point of doing it anyway?"
"Most of what we discuss is crap, but the effort is worthwhile if we can find one useful sentence in a thousand," Chow says.
His talkativeness and passion is not visible in the interview, however. He is shy and a bit nervous, dealing with every question with one or two sentences only. For questions he does not want to answer, he softly ends it with a joke. For example, when asked why he does not act in the new film, he says: "The roles are all villains, how can Stephen Chow play a villain?"
After the interview, there is still no clear answer as to what kind of person Chow is.
"All I can say is, filmmaking makes me the person I cannot be in real life. About myself, nothing deserves to be asked or answered," he says with an apologetic smile.
|1. Seeking Mr. Right|
2. Princess and Seven Kung Fu Masters
3. Ip Man: Final Fight
4. Journey to the West
5. An End to Killing