With Stephen Chow proving he’s still top of the comedy game with the phenomenon of The Mermaid, we look at some of his most memorable films…
After names such as Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Chow Yun-fat, the next most recognisable male name in Hong Kong cinema is probably Stephen Chow Sing-chi (周星馳). Unlike the other names, Chow deals exclusively in the realms of comedy. And whilst his International hits such as Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle have garnered him name recognition in the West, it could be argued that his cinematic CV is not that well known. As an actor, producer and director Chow has over 70 movies to his name, so let’s have a little look at 13 (or 14 depending on how you feel about the Chinese Odyssey duo) movies that I think are work checking out.
First though, let us have a little discussion about two phrases you’ll often see connected with his name. Firstly we have to talk about “mo lei tau”. It refers to a type of humour that fundamentally makes no sense. This might be in terms of anachronisms, slapstick, fast (often coarse) banter, surreal moments or breaking the fourth wall. Chow didn’t invent the style, but is certainly the Hong Kong personality most associated with it. This does set up a dichotomy when watching his films and performances as a Westerner – whilst the physical comedy translates fairly effortlessly, the frantic wordplay quite often simply does not translate. It is heavily based on the Cantonese language, so even speakers of other Chinese languages such as Mandarin can have trouble understanding and translating the jokes. So sometimes you just have to accept he is being funny.
Secondly you’ll hear about the “Sing Girls”. These are usually defined as actresses that have either made their debuts starring opposite Chow, such as Cecilia Cheung (張栢芝), Eva Huang (黃聖依) and Kitty Zhang (張雨綺); or actresses such as Karen Mok (莫文蔚), Kingdom Yuen (苑瓊丹) and Sharla Cheung (張敏) that have starred in a significant number of films alongside him, even if they were successful in their own right before them. You’ll also find such luminaries as Maggie Cheung Man-yuk (張曼玉), Gong Li (鞏俐) and Anita Mui (梅艷芳) in his films.
You’ll probably read and hear a fair bit of gossip about Chow and his romantic entanglements with his co-stars, his real life lack of humour, his penchant for avarice and suchlike – easternKicks isn’t a gossip site, so we shall concentrate on his impact on the silver screen.
I will take the movies in chronological order, the numbers are not a rating, just a countdown. Clearly these are all a personal choice, and I am sure everyone has at least one film here they would swap out with a personal favourite. But that’s the beauty of lists. Feel free to argue, agree and comment!
13. All for the Winner (賭聖), 1990
Famously rejected by TVB for being too short, Chow built his career via a popular Children’s TV show (430 Space Shuttle) and a number of small roles. An Award-winning straight role in 1988’s Final Justice hinted at potential, but 1990’s All for the Winner elevated him into the box office golden boy. The film itself is actually a parody of Chow Yun-fat’s God of Gamblers, though very much stands on its own. In addition to making Chow a star, it showcases the ‘Sing’ character that Chow will bring to other roles – a fairly naïve ingénue. It also paired him with Ng Man-tat (吳孟達) for the first time, an on-screen relationship which would last just over a decade (up until 2001’s Shaolin Soccer). It wasn’t only the public that lapped up Chow’s performance – famed producer/director Wong Jing (王晶) liked what he saw so much he signed Chow up to co-star in the Chow Yun-fat-less sequel to God of Gamblers and then headline the 3rd film in the franchise. Wong Jing’s influence on the embryonic career of Chow should not be underestimated.
12. Fight Back to School (逃學威龍), 1991
Chow’s career continued to grow, with a chance to reprise his hero (to a degree) Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury 1991, but it was another film that year which would further cement his status, and generating a successful franchise. Probably taking inspiration from the Johnny Depp TV show 21 Jump Street, Chow was an overage Policeman sent undercover at a High School. Mixing comedy with a strong storyline and a genuine romantic undertone, the first film in this series is well worth a look.
11. All’s Well, Ends Well (家有囍事) 1992
One for the Hong Kong star-gazers amongst you, this film has quite the ensemble piece, a Lunar New Year comedy which is about as mo lei tau as any film can be. If we had any doubt about Chow’s star power, he more than holds his own again megastars like Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing (張國榮) and Maggie Cheung Man-yuk (張曼玉). The tale of the romantic tribulations of three brothers is fairly standard Hong Kong comedic fare, but watching Chow opposite Maggie Cheung’s full-on performance is worth the price of admission.
10. Justice, My Foot! (審死官) 1992
Chow would make a number of period comedy films, and for my money this is one of the best. He plays a corrupt lawyer in a corrupt system in a film with a lot of subtext. However, as good as Chow is, he is utterly outshone by the performance of Anita Mui (梅艷芳) as his kick-ass kung fu wife. It’s one of the few Chow films available on UK Netflix, and well worth streaming.
9. Love on Delivery (破壞之王) 1994
This will probably be the movie you don’t know about even by reputation on this list. But it is a delightful little comedy caper that has both heart and possibly the funniest moment in any Stephen Chow film. Why our lead character decides to perform his beat-downs whilst wearing a Garfield™ mask I cannot possibly explain, nor Ng Man-tat’s Ultramar homage. But it is side-splittingly funny.
8. From Beijing with Love (國產凌凌漆) 1994
1994 was Anita Yuen’s year, with the multiple award winning C’est la Vie, Mon Cherie being top of the list of her achievements. But close behind must be this James Bond spoof/homage. Hugely entertaining on all levels, it’s possibly Chow’s most accessible film so far for a Western Audience. Yuen just about manages to keep a straight face when confronted by Chow’s antics.
7. A Chinese Odyssey Part One: Pandora’s Box (西遊記第壹佰零壹回之月光寶盒)/A Chinese Odyssey Part Two: Cinderella (西遊記大結局之仙履奇緣) 1995
Two films for the price of one now, with Chow’s first attempt to adapt some part of the Journey to the West stories. Spread over two totally different movies (in terms of tone, the storyline continues), this one mixes in time travel with some quite brilliant comic set pieces. It does help to know a little about the stories that inspired it to grasp some of the overall story, but the physical slapstick moments translate wonderfully. Interestingly this wasn’t terribly well received in Hong Kong, but was the movie(s) that made Chow a success on the mainland. It is possibly one of the more challenging movies on this list but certainly worth watching.
8. The God of Cookery (食神) 1996
Probably Chow’s signature film, The God of Cookery is as funny now as it was 20 years ago. An arrogant TV Chef is humiliated and reborn, via an “Iron Chef” style cookery competition. It also marks the first clear change in his comedic style with a darkness creeping into the humour. Karen Mok’s character gets shot point-blank in the face, which certainly dries up the laughs. It works well to drive the plot forward, and everything works out in the end, but it is an interesting moment in Chow’s career. This one was meant to be remade by Hollywood, with Jim Carrey mooted as taking on Chow’s role (a surprisingly good casting choice in my opinion), and Chow himself up for directing. For all sorts of reasons, not least of which being Chow’s discomfort in the stricter environment of Hollywood, this one didn’t happen. Luckily, it really didn’t need to.
5. King of Comedy (喜劇之王) 1999
Or “The one that isn’t actually very funny” as some reviewers have said. Which is entirely unfair, as it has a lot of laughs. But it is also probably Chow’s most mature work, a thinly veiled memoir of his early days as a struggling actor. Karen Mok is a lot of fun as the superstar actress, but it is the debut of Cecilia Cheung that astonishes here. It is a star-making performance, and one she would probably never top again (so far). Even the strange tonal shift into Tarantino territory in the final act can’t stop this one being a personal favourite.
4. Shaolin Soccer (少林足球) 2001
The masterstroke. Mix Chow’s brand of comedy with some effective (if dated now) CGI, Kung fu and the world’s most popular sport and you have his first truly international hit (though please hunt out the original Hong Kong version and not the re-cut Western Version). I remember getting chunky email attachments with clips of the more outrageous moments, so it is probably one of the first movies to gain word of mouth via the fledgling internet. Yes kids, there was an internet before YouTube! Let’s face it, you wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t seen this one right? An attempt to recapture the lightning with Shaolin Girl with Kō Shibasaki in Japan with Lacrosse isn’t worth hunting out.
3. Kung Fu Hustle (功夫) 2004
In some ways, this film is the culmination of Chow’s career, mixing his love of Kung Fu movies with the CGI from his previous film into a love letter to martial arts cinema. It is funny, but personally I am not a huge fan of the film. Chow’s character is really rather unlikeable, and his eventual redemption seems completely unearned. However, plenty of people do love the movie, and it was another international hit in terms of awards and box-office. It also made a star of Eva Huang, even though she doesn’t say a word.
2. CJ7 (長江七號) 2008
So how do you follow up two of the biggest Hong Kong movies of all time? You make a fairly low key family film apparently. Whilst amusing, Chow dials back the mo lei tau and replaces it with a story of a deadbeat dad, and young boy and the cutest alien ever. It’s utterly atypical of Chow’s oeuvre, but it’s rather charming nonetheless. It’s probably most famous for making a star of Kitty Zhang and Josie Xu (try and find any article online about the latter actress that doesn’t make capital of the fact she played the little BOY in the movie) What we didn’t know then was that was the last time Chow would really star in front of the camera. And he wasn’t going to make another movie at all for quite some time…
1. The Mermaid (美人鱼) 2016
Chow co-directed Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons was a fairly flat, but financially successful outing in 2013. It didn’t prepare us for the phenomenon that was (and as I write still is) The Mermaid. A joyously hilarious, ecologically-sound tale that has broken all kinds of records. A new star uncovered in Lin Yun, proof that he can pull off a script that works for mainland audiences (it is in Mandarin, not Cantonese), a success without his appearance in front of the camera – and it is honestly like he hasn’t effectively been away from straight up comedy films for a decade.