Can't knock the hustle

Chinese phenom takes on Hollywood, kung-fu style

Soft-spoken, thoughtful and instantly endearing, Stephen Chow, the Chinese Charlie Chaplin, seems more interested in asking questions than answering them. The 46-year-old's hair is graying a little, but he still has the endearing smile of a class clown who's just farted. Chow is a legitimate movie star - the total revenue of his films tops Jackie Chan's in Asia - but there are few in the United States who even know he exists. It is easy to tell he his hoping that will change soon.

Chow first became a box-office sensation in 1990, starring in a film called "All for the Winner," a spoof of a Chow Yun Fat movie called "God of Gamblers." Chow quickly became the biggest movie star in China throughout the 1990s, even coining his own style of nonsense humor called Mo Lei Tau, which loosely translates to "makes no sense."

In 2001, Chow released "Shaolin Soccer," which he wrote, directed and starred in. "Shaolin Soccer" quickly became Hong Kong's highest-grossing Chinese movie of all time, taking in nearly $46 million in Asia. However, Chow remained virtually unknown in the states. Miramax sat on the U.S. distribution rights to "Shaolin Soccer" for a few years, and the movie suffered re-cuts, dubbings and musical changes, and finally reached a new low by having "Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting" inserted in many attempts to make the film potentially successful in America. By the time "Shaolin Soccer" finally opened in spring 2004, Miramax luckily opted for a subtitled version, but the movie failed to be an overwhelming success in America.

"There's still a lot of interesting Chinese film I would like to present to Western people," Chow said. "'Shaolin Soccer' was only a starting point. I don't think the whole world likes that soccer movie."

"Shaolin Soccer" has amassed a small cult audience here in the States, eager for Chow's next film, the epic "Kung Fu Hustle." Asians have been waiting almost four years for Chow's follow-up, and the fanfare of "Hustle"'s release in December has been incredible. "Kung Fu Hustle" had already broken the box-office record set by "Shaolin Soccer" by February.

"Kung Fu Hustle" has the same zany style that Chow is famous for, but it is entirely more ambitious than Chow's past films. This movie could be Chow's big break in the United States and could make him a global phenomenon. But Chow said he is not trying to cater to Western audiences.

"Overall, ['Kung Fu Hustle' is] a very traditional Chinese martial arts kind of thing," Chow said. "Just like, if I'm a chef, and I'm going to cook something for you, I will give you a very traditional Chinese dish, instead of one burger."

One thing not so traditional about the film is Chow's use of computer effects within his fight sequences. It's no surprise to anyone who's seen "Shaolin Soccer" that Chow employs a huge amount of computer generation.

"It's quite different from the purist sequence of fighting," Chow explained. "[It's not] the traditional master, and they fight with real kung-fu without wire work and [computer generated imagery]. So actually in 'Kung Fu Hustle,' you see some different kind of action this time, in a different style."

In the film, two kung-fu masters must face two blind assassins doubling as musicians. With every pluck of their instrument, a giant sword flies at the masters (the swords move so fast you can only see them in slow motion).

"The idea is kind of crazy to have this musical instrument to kill people," Chow said.

The idea is "kind of crazy," but it is so beautifully done and well paced, it's one of the best scenes Chow has ever shot. It wouldn't seem out of place in a film like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," but maybe that's because for "Kung Fu Hustle," Chow collaborated with "Crouching Tiger" choreographer and kung-fu film legend Master Yuen Wo Ping.

"Yuen Wo Ping is such a good action director," Chow said. "I think he's one of the best in the world. He looks like a master, old-fashioned, but actually he's someone with an open mind and he can accept all kind of different things, no matter how crazy it is."

With the epic scope of "Kung Fu Hustle," there is so much going on within the film. Chow said he tried not to overwhelm the audience.

"That's the real difficulty," Chow said. "How to put all these different styles in one movie? I don't want to make the audience still confused about, 'What am I looking at? Is it Bruce Lee, or is it 'Matrix,' or is it Wong Fei Hung [a popular character in Chinese action cinema]?' If you do it in a wrong way it would be a problem for the audiences because it's not unified. I mean, once you direct you have to do it fluently. Up until now I don't have any complaint about the States being confused about the style."

The early indication is that Chow has nothing to worry about. The early reviews are gushing, and the film has made roughly $623,000 in New York and Los Angeles on a mere seven screens since opening on April 8, according to Chow explained the success of his films by their reliability, despite the fantastic elements.

"Even ordinary people, they have their strengths, their heart," Chow said. "That's my idea. So that's why you see a lot of ordinary people in ['Kung Fu Hustle']. They actually have their strength and they will explode in a way."

Chow is one of the last Asian stars yet to go Hollywood, and he seems cautious about appearing in an English-language American film.

"I'm not sure, but why not?" Chow said. "As long as it's something that I like, and I know how to do it, I think I'll go for it. But not because of any specific market, I can't to force myself to do something that I don't quite understand. I don't think I would do something like that"

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