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An Interview Sidebar with Stephen Chow

by Ange Hwang

Prelude: On a beautiful March day, Hong Kong superstar Stephen Chow made a surprise visits to Minnesota to promote his new movie "Kung Fu Hustle." I had the honor and the pleasure to serve as a translator for him.

Over the next one and a half day, I found out that, away from the screen, Stephen Chow was a humble, charming and a very considerate man.  Over an entire day, interview after interview, he had no complaints. His only request was a hot Vietnamese beef pho (noodle soup).  But because of the tight schedule, he only ended up with a cold soup with lumpy noodle.  He had no complaints, only continuously repeated to me that in Hong Kong, the best Vietnamese beef pho is pouring the hot boiling soup over the raw beef and the noodle, with the bean sprouts at the bottom.

Looking at him, listening to his description,  after a long day of interviews, what he really wanted was only a hot noodle soup, but he could not even get that.  What an irony in life, with all of his successes, yet...  Oh, well, that will be another movie.

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Photo Stephen & Ange

On the week of April 8th, "Kung Fu Hustle" opened up with limited engagement in Los Angeles and New York.  It was a huge success, brought in over $40,000/per day/per theater.  Many speculate that Kung Fu Hustle may do even better than "Crouching Tiger,  Hidden Dragon." CTHD brought in over a billion dollars in box office receipts. It is so far the most successful Chinese film in the U.S..

In the coming weekend of April 22, Kung Fu Hustle will be released nation wide, and will play at the Lagoon and other local theaters.  With an unimaginative U.S. distribution of his last film "Shaolin Soccer", Stephen Chow has taken extra steps to ensure the success of "Kung Fu Hustle." 

With a super-rushed 2-week, 10-cities press tour, he squeezed in one day in the Twin Cities and met with the local press.

Following are excerpts from various interviews. They illustrate Chow's philosophies in film and movie making.

Press: What was the motivation for you to get involved in the movie business?

Chow: When I was a young boy, I watched Bruce Lee's "Fist of Fury" in the theater.  I was so impressed by his fighting skills and the power of the movie language.  When the film ended, everyone stood up and clapped.  My heart pumped so fast. The excitement, that feeling of pride is something I have never forgotten. And I want to recreate that for my audience through my films.

But of course, at that time what worked for us was beyond the action itself. There was some national sentiment. As a Chinese, China was no longer seen as a weak nation; we had overcome problems. That was what I felt at that time.  That is what I try to do, to bring that kind of energy back.  But right now times have changed. Different time, different century, but we still need heroes to look up to.

Press: Why did you choose kung fu, using martial arts as an element in your film??

Chow: I love kung fu, and have been practicing it since I was young. There is this ultimate meaning in martial arts - "never give up." Try your best to achieve what you want.   This is what I like about martial arts. But of course traditional Chinese martial arts means to me something more than that, more than just never giving up, but also sacrificing.

The spirit of kung fu is sacrifice.  You are willing to give up your life for love, justice, friendship, for your family and for your country.  I think this is more like a fantasy to me, but it is always attractive and always romantic.

So it is perfect for this kind of thing to be mixed together on the big screen - with the action excitement along with the romantic "sacrificing" spirit.

Press: People all over the world like "Kung Fu Hustle." How do you balance those different tastes of Eastern and Western audience?

Chow: Actually in this film, many of my Hong Kong fans complained about the lack of my "out-of-no-where" style of comedy.  They wanted to see more of that.  And the Western audience like the kung fu part.  So I tried to balance it with some jokes and some kung fu, so the film can attract diverse audience.

I see many Western audience that they like the Matrix style of special effects, but can not accept the wire work that people flying in the sky.

So I kept it at a balance. In the film, I use real fist fights mixed with the computer CG effects to create something very different. But at the same time the effects were unified and supported the story, not overpowering it.

With so many different styles, I had to be very careful in running it fluently and smoothly, so I wouldn't confuse the audience. So far there is no complaint from the audience about conflicts of different styles of fighting sequences in one movie. No difficulty or confusion with the action sequences. I think I have resolved the problem successfully.

Press: Where did the ideas for all these lively characters come from?   I really like the landlord couples.

Chow: I created the Pig Sty from my childhood experience. The design of the crowded apartment complex is similar to the labyrinthine Hong Kong complexes that I grew up in – crowded, crazy and fun.

I also had the characters dressed up like in the 60's TV shows with many cartoonish effects, such as the landlord was thrown out of the third floor window but still lived; or the landlady raced me down the country field, and ran even faster than the car, etc.   I intended to create these surprises, and wanted one surprise after another.  Towards the end of the movie, I even flew into the sky, stepped on a bird, and came down with Budda's Hand.

Many of these ideas came from the 60's TV soap operas. And using today's technology, I can improve on the production quality. And I transfer all these elements into my own style with a good balance between them.

I also hoped to design each fight scene differently with different styles, and each one will top the pervious one.  Often times, during the shooting, crew member would suggest "If we do this, it would be better."  Often time, they are right.  For example, the original design for the 2 twin killers were Ninjas. Later with suggestions, they became musicians that could kill using musical instruments. And we used CG to create the effects, instead of another sword fight scene.

Press: How do you see your film is different from Hollywood films?

Chow: Hollywood films tend to divide things in black and white, you are either purely good or purely bad. But Asian films have a lot more complexity in the characters' development.  For example, in Kung Fu Hustle, all my heroes were ordinary people, such as tailor, landlord, etc.

But extraordinary situations pushed them to become heroes.  But a hero is not just a glorious figure, he suffers, he needs to sacrifices his own peaceful life, or even his own life to help others.

Press: You have been an actor for a long time, what made you want to direct?

Chow: When I was an actor for director Jeff Lau, I kept asking him questions. One day he said to me: "You know, that is not an acting question, that is a directing question."  So he encouraged me to think about directing my own films.

When I start to direct, I like to have a group process. I like to hear everyone's inputs to put the story together.  I think the difference between me and Jackie Chan and Jet Li is that they are great actors, and I am more like a scriptwriter and a director. For me, looking back in my career, I kept creating something in my own way instead of waiting for a script or waiting for  some offer. To be an actor is always a passive, because you just wait for good opportunities or a good script. But for me I wanted to create something good instead of waiting. That is what I did in the past and ultimately will keep doing it this way.

Press: Who are your intended audience for "Kung Fu Hustle?"

Chow: My target audiences are families and teens.  But I was very disappointed to find out that Kung Fu Hustle was rated "R." There are very different ways of rating films here in comparison to Asia.

Press: What would be your next project?

Chow: I am working on a sequel to "Kung Fu Hustle." Many characters were so interesting, worthy of bringing back to the big screen again.  I also hope that I can do more behind the camera work. Maybe just being the director, so I can enjoy the whole process of creation.

Once I decide to make a film, it is always my ambition to go international.

I am from Hong Kong, whose population is only 7 million, and that is not enough for us to stay alive on.  "Kung Fu Hustle" was a record breaking film in Hong Kong but earned about $8 million U.S.. This was the record in history, a hit! So you have to go wider and broader.  That's why the Hollywood films can spend $80 million for their production budgets, because they have worldwide market. Why can't Hong Kong films do the same thing? Because they are local. So that is the only way to make progress. This is always my goal - to go wider; but how? I have been thinking about this for a long time, and I am still thinking and I am still learning. With "Kung Fu Hustle," I want to reach all sides - the U.S., Asia, and Europe.  Someday it will happen, but I am still trying and learning.

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Postlude:  With his humble final remarks, Chow rushed out of the room to catch the flight to Chicago.  In order to make up for the unfortunate noodle soup debacle, we decided to take him to the most traditional American fast food restaurant - the White Castle.  We tried to impress Chow, and told many stories about how the one-bite steamed burger became a legend.  Chow looked at that soggy, square looking burger with yellow mustard all over the edge, smiled at it, and ate it. He said nothing and signed the movie posters for us.  I think he still missed so much of that hot Vietnamese beef pho. Nothing is going to make it up for him.  But he promised that he will be back to the Twin Cities with his next movie.  Yes, there is always another chance, and another movie...

PS. Special thanks to Asian American Press reporter Tom LaVenture for sharing his notes with me, to provide a more complete picture of the interviews.