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Kung Fu Hustle writer/director/producer/star Stephen Chow wanted to be a martial arts master like Bruce Lee ever since he was a kid: it didn’t happen, but now he’s faking it very well as a martial arts star, and working in the belief that we’re all ordinary yet special at the same time, he tells Andrew L. Urban. 

Stephen Chow walks into the very British gents’ club atmosphere of the Sydney Park Hyatt’s timber paneled The Bar in a blue track suit zipped up to the neck, with a nice wide orange stripe down the right hand side. His slight frame is thus hidden, his toned muscles invisible, but his youthful, clean cut face, framed by mid-length black hair is instantly recognizable. Had we been in a Hong Kong bar – or indeed, any other bar in Asia – I’d have been trampled into some unrecognisable motif in the smart carpet. 

Chow is of rock star stature in Asia, having made over 50 movies – and he’s just turned 43.

"a man of action"

He orders some sort of tea and looks vaguely bored, but I soon realize that’s the standard expression while not actually engaged in conversation. Rather quiet and withdrawn, Chow is not a loud talker; he’s a man of action, after all, who has just made his ultimate fantasy come true. In his new film (‘his’ being accurate: he wrote, produced, directed and stars), Kung Fu Hustle, he plays a hapless and hopeless character who turns out to be a martial arts master who kicks some serious ass, all the while peddling humour. 

“My first impressions of movies was a Bruce Lee film,” he says (a well known fact, but good to hear confirmed), “ and he triggered national sentiment, not just in me, which said that us Chinese need no longer feel like weaklings…” Little Chow was 9 and his mother had taken him to the cinema. It changed his life. He wanted to be like Bruce Lee, a martial artist. Poverty got in the way, when after a short period of kung fu training, Chow had to drop out. Years later, when he had turned to acting, his dreams were to be fulfilled in a second hand sort of way. Hence the repettion of this basic theme in his films: “from nobody to somebody,” he says. “We’re ordinary … I’m ordinary guy, but in everyone there’s something inside, something special. Ordinary and unique at the same time…A better understanding of yourself gives you strength and finally you become somebody. You gain self respect.”

The subtext is easy to understand. So is the story of Kung Fu Hustle: In a Shanghai slum, Pig Sty Alley, residents and business owners cower in the presence of a cruel landlady (Yuen Qiu), but at least take comfort from the fact that their poverty- stricken neighbourhood is largely left alone by the city’s criminal gangs. All that changes when the notorious Axe Gang muscles in and begins a war that looks to have only one possible outcome. At first, the locals’ only hope appears to be Sing (that’s Chow), a small-time operator whose impersonation of an Axe Gang member sparked the trouble. As the battle heats up, it seems many martial arts masters have been hiding in Pig Sty Alley and their re-emergence gives the downtrodden new hope in the turf war.

Kung Fu Hustle combines his obsession with Bruce Lee with his childhood years spent in a slum not unlike Pig Sty Alley, where there was indeed a landlady not unlike the one in this film, played by the remarkable Yeun Qiu who started her martial arts training at age 10 in the Peking Opera School. She starred in several films, made an appearance in The Man with the Golden Gun – the second Bond film starring Roger Moore – and she married and retired from showbiz in 1975. Stephen Chow persuaded her to make this comeback – and to beef up by 15 kilos.

The Landlord, by the way, is played by another veteran from the old days, Yuen Wah, who worked with Bruce Lee as a stuntman and action choreographer is the legendary Yuen Wo Ping.

"He still lives with his mother"

Chow was also influenced by that same period for some of the music he selected for the film. The song sung by Fong, the mute ice-cream girl (played by the lovely Huang Sheng Yi) is a mandarin classic from the 1970s called "Zhi Yao Wei Ni Huo Yi Tian". The song tells of a girl's unforgettable memory of someone she once loved and finds herself wanting to live for him again, even for just one day.

A cinematically driven director, Kung Fu Hustle contains scattered references to films Chow likes to honour, ranging from West Side Story to The Shining, The Blues Brothers to The Untouchables, Reservoir Dogs to The Matrix, Spider-Man to Kill Bill.

He still lives with his mother, now in a rather better neighbourhood of Hong Kong, with no ogre-like landlady. His mother doesn’t treat him like a star, and doesn’t talk about his films, other than to make quiet, disparaging remarks, like ‘it’s too loud.’

Published August 11, 2005

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