The Kickup Artist

“In real life, I am nothing,” says Stephen Chow, 42, the star, director, writer, and producer of Kung Fu Hustle. (Of course, that's exactly what a hidden master would say.) “That's why I want to do something special when I make a movie.”

In his second Hong Kong blockbuster to find stateside release (after 2001's Shaolin Soccer, a zippy bit of cleat kune do), there are at least a half-dozen crouching tigers (including Chow as a wannabe hood) who rise to the occasion when the merciless Axe Gang comes to town. Though his multitasker's fingerprints are all over the film—a literal handprint figures in the climax—Chow as actor operates at a slight distance in this '40s period piece, often granting center stage to a cast that includes dusted-off HK film demigods with ties to his hero, Bruce Lee.

“It's all because of Bruce Lee,” says Chow, who was 11 when he saw his first Lee film. “I still remember the yelling, the atmosphere in the theaters. I decided to be someone like him.”

Chow's early showbiz breakthrough was as the host of a children's TV program. Going in with no particular affection for tykes, he found the show agreeable. “All the kids were lovely, but sometimes naughty. You couldn't find a way to handle them. Overall, it was an easy job for me at that time. You only have two days shooting in the studio, and five days off, which gave me plenty of time to think about acting.” A childlike spirit runs through the Chow oeuvre—as does the theme of the dreamer, waiting for his moment to shine. In KFH, as in many other Chow starrers, his glory-seeking outcast character goes by his real first name, Sing. (In 1996's Iron Chef-goes-ballistic God of Cookery, he begins the movie as the already famous and hysterically arrogant “Stephen Chow.”)

Chow draws from his stable of comic actors again in Hustle—surely a sign of the star's loyalty. “I use the same group of people because they are always available!” Chow explains. “And I don't need to reschedule them! The fat guy in Kung Fu Hustle [Lam Tze Chung]? He's one of my scriptwriters.”

Chow's mix of martial arts and comedy is just one of many hybrids at work here. East meets West, with a nod to Road Runner cartoons, a poster for Top Hat. But though Chow is vocal about his love of American movies (Spielberg and Kubrick are favorites, and he says of Jim Carrey, “For me, he's like the master”), he's ambivalent about American culture in general. In Shaolin Soccer, Team Evil dope up with U.S. performance enhancers; here, the bad guys wear natty Western suits, while the townsfolk hang out in their undergarments.

Chow explains the appeal of the '40s era in terms of its liminal possibilities. “It's something in between the past and modern times. You can have gangs, cars, airplanes, but still have a hidden kung fu master.” Also, and perhaps more to the point, “There was a lot of violence at that time. They solved problems by hitting each other.”

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