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Bruce Newman's Sundance Journal





Wednesday, January 26, 2005

How Now Stephen Chow?

It was a couple of hours after a packed screening of his comedy "Kung Fu Hustle" had ended here, and Stephen Chow still looked a little alarmed by the reaction. Chow is one of Asia's biggest box office stars, as well as one of the film world's few legitimate comic geniuses, and yet he is unaccustomed to the stomping and whooping of an American standing ovation.

"I saw people standing up and applauding," Chow said, sounding as if he had been worried he was about to be engulfed by an angry mob. "It was surprising."

"Kung Fu Hustle" is the Sundance Film Festival's first obvious breakout hit, although any movie that doesn't instantly cause you to burst into tears here at the mopey mecca of the dysfunctional family drama is likely to be considered a laff riot. Chow wrote, produced, directed and stars in the picture, which not only spoofs the conventions of the martial arts movies made in his native Hong Kong, but also honors, and then surpasses them.

Set in a teeming housing complex called Pig Sty Alley in pre-revolutionary China, it is the story of a smalltime con artist named Sing (played by Chow), who wants to join the ruthless Axe Gang. His actions set off a kung fu war between the gang and the residents of the Pig Sty, who turn out to be martial arts masters.

The picture's action choreographer is Yuen Wo Ping, who designed the fight scenes for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "The Matrix." And while the comedy is as broad as any Three Stooges movie, the martial arts scenes in "Kung Fu Hustle" are as entertaining as any in those hits.

As I can affirm from awkward experience, Chow has never heard of the Stooges, who turn out to be as conceptually difficult to explain to a Chinese person as deconstructing Dadaism to a duck. Chow created a new comedy style known in China as Mo Lei Tau, or, literally, "nonsense," which his movie delivers in such sly abundance that "Hustle" has already broken all box office records in Taiwan. Sony Classics will roll it out in this country on April 1.

If you would like to read more about Chow and "Kung Fu Hustle," I'll have a longer story in Thursday's Mercury News. Or you can find it online at www.mercurynews.com

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