In 2019 Chinese comedy legend Stephen Chow released The New King of Comedy, a loose sequel to his King of Comedy (1999) from twenty years before. It was a surprising choice of material – as King of Comedy, a bittersweet pratfalling story of a struggling actor, seems small scale next to the super-productions Chow is now regularly mounting. His previous film The Mermaid was briefly the highest-grossing Chinese film of all time, a CG spectacular about mer-people fighting against redevelopment. But King of Comedy marks an important transition point in his career, the moment at which he shifted from local Hong Kong hero to worldwide juggernaut. It was the last of his small-scale nonsense comedies before moving to FX-heavy spectacles, beginning with 2001’s Shaolin Soccer. He has stayed in that CG zone ever since, adapting to mainland China blockbusters far more smoothly than could have ever been predicted by looking at the slapstick bodily-fluid-rich comedies that made him famous. The New King of Comedy is in a sense an attempt to look backward, to recapture a style and a mood that first brought him fame.
Stephen Chow was born Chow Sing-chi in 1962 and was raised in the Hong Kong neighborhood of Kowloon. His parents divorced when he was seven, so he grew up in a 300-square-foot government housing apartment with his mother and two sisters. He became obsessed with Bruce Lee as a kid, telling the Village Voice his career was “all because of Bruce Lee. I still remember the yelling, the atmosphere in the theaters. I decided to be someone like him.”
He told the Los Angeles Times that he saved enough money to take Wing Chun classes for three months before running out of cash. So he pivoted to acting, applying to TVB’s performing artist training program (TVB is Hong Kong’s largest public television channel).
The program, according to the Associated Press, was “founded in 1971 amid a shortage for TV talent when the medium was still developing in Hong Kong.” Its training is more practical than artistic, educating in TV production, hosting, make-up, dance, and martial arts. Initially rejected, Chow eventually got into the program and became the host of the kids show 430 Space Shuttle alongside another future star, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (In the Mood for Love).
This was his entry point into acting, in which, remarkably, he started out in dramatic roles, even winning a Golden Horse award for his performance in Final Justice (1988) as a car thief.
His breakout part was in All for the Winner (1990), a raucous parody of God of Gamblers (1989) in which Chow plays a mainland everyman moving to Hong Kong to live with his gambling-addicted uncle (Ng Man-tat, Chow’s frequent partner, and a TVB alumnus). Chow also happens to have x-ray vision, a helpful tool in a poker tournament. One of the iconic moments in God of Gamblers is Chow Yun-fat’s dramatic slow-motion entrance into a gambling hall, which Chow burlesques here in an acrobatic bit of pantomime. All for the Winner would outgross God of Gamblers 2, and that franchise’s producer Wong Jing was so impressed he would end up casting Chow in God of Gamblers 3.
All for the Winner set the template for what would become known as mo lei tau, or nonsense, humor. Chow became the avatar for this suddenly popular style. Shelly Kraicer in Cinema Scope defines it as “a fast, dexterous, and impossible-to-translate speaking style that creates comedy out of witty, allusive wordplay.” Non-Cantonese speakers are missing out on the subtleties of the language, but can still hear the cadence and rhythm, which has a careening stop-start quality, as well as it’s digressive and unpredictable hairpin turns in subject matter. Through his wholesale redevelopment of the Cantonese language, he provided a subversive rallying point for Hong Kong youth. La Frances Hui elaborates in the Asian American Writers’ Workshop:
"The ever-transforming slang that was a dominant feature in Chow’s films became the language of the young. In fact, language had always been a problematic issue for the westernized colony. While English had been used as the medium of instruction in most schools, a majority of the public did not speak it in everyday life. Most comfortable in Cantonese, which, unlike Mandarin, is a spoken language and cannot be directly transformed into formal written Chinese, Hong Kong people were trapped between Chinese and English and sometimes considered “native” in neither. Chow’s slang effectively gave Hong Kong’s youth a voice they could claim as their own."
His phrases entered the lexicon, and he became a ubiquitous part of the cultural landscape, appearing in nearly fifty films in the 1990s alone, and dominating the box office charts.
Though Chow has become more widely known in the U.S. with the Looney Tunes martial arts energy of Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, it is these mo lei tau films that cemented his popularity in Hong Kong and throughout Asia. And despite the centrality of language to their appeal, they remain subversively, grotesquely hilarious to a non-Cantonese speaker like myself. Chow is not just an agile talker but he is a master of the slow burn. He keeps his face still, more of a Buster Keaton deadpan than a Chaplin emoter (though he cites Chaplin as one of his major influences). Whether it’s taking a chalkboard eraser to the face in megahit Fight Back to School(1991, a variation on 21 Jump Street) or repeatedly getting his groin set on fire in A Chinese Odyssey (1995, a mythological retelling of the founding of Buddhism – with lots of dick jokes), there is a delicious second or two where Chow lets the tension build, letting the audience realize his cruel fate along with him before releasing the tension with a grimace or a howl. This underplaying also allows him to fade into the background – he is always ceding ground to Ng Man-tat or another of his regular company of actors, like the droopy eyed Wong Yat-fei or reliably manic Karen Mok.
One of my favorites is another one from 1990, a supernatural comedy entitled Look Out, Officer! in which Chow is a newly hired cop who is haunted by a dead detective demanding he investigate his murder. It is just non-stop invention, from the self-reflexive way Chow arranges objects in a doctor’s office to hide his penis from the camera (a joke later used in Austin Powers) to the balloon pants that catch the emissions of a farting ghost. You are guaranteed to see something genuinely new in each 1990s Stephen Chow production.
His productivity slowed when he added directing to his duties in 1994’s From Beijing with Love, a profoundly silly James Bond parody which he co-directed with frequent collaborator Lee Lik-chi (Shaolin Soccer). And with more control his films gain more geometrical precision, with thought placed into every last prop, whether his trusty meat cleaver in From Beijing with Love or his precious acting manual in King of Comedy.
For King of Comedy, also co-directed with Lee Lik-chi, Chow pulled from his own struggles breaking into the movie business – it’s the first of his films that could be called personal. He plays Wan Tin-sau, a down-at-heel actor scrounging for gigs as an extra while working at a community rec center to pay the bills. There are some pitch perfect movie set parodies, including a John Woo gun-fu extravaganza (with Karen Mok as action star Sister Cuckoo) filled with wire-work, flapping doves, and a grenade launcher standoff. Wan, who is gunned down immediately, revives and starts staggering in the background of a shot, an attempt at upstaging that just gets him fired (he is replaced by Jackie Chan in a killer cameo). The closest thing he gets to a paying acting gig is when a group of nightclub girls need help to act convincingly as schoolgirls so they can get more tips from male customers. Wan takes the job as if he is teaching Shakespeare, and convinces one of the girls, Lau Piu-piu (Cecilia Cheung), to fall in love with him. After Sister Cuckoo gets in a fight with her male co-star, she decides to hire Wan as her co-star on a whim, and though this will fulfill all his most grandiose fantasies, it could also destroy his relationship with Lau. The film mimics Chow’s initial rejection from TVB and then his swift ascent to the top. In this alternate reality Wan/Chow never gets his big break, and instead joins a police task force mounting a sting against the triads – and successfully mounts one of his community theater productions. It’s a sweetly bizarre conclusion, and indicative of the ambivalence Chow seems to have towards the movie business and his enormous success within it.
The more famous Chow became, the more his image darkened. No longer the working class everyman who spoofs the powerful, he has become something of an isolated genius, earning a rep as a prickly perfectionist who has driven away his former friends and collaborators. In a 2009 article in the South China Morning Post entitled “No One Seems to Like Stephen Chow Anymore”, it quotes God of Gamblers director and frequent Chow producer Wong Jing as saying “he was difficult to work with” and Danny Lee Sau-yin, Chow’s co-star from his debut film Final Justice, criticized his “over-calculating” demeanor, and that if he saw him now, he would say to him “Sometimes, money can’t buy you everything. He should learn the importance of friendship”. In an interview in 2019, Ng Man-tat lamented their split: “I don’t know how to bring our friendship back. Will he come to me first or should I go to him? It’s very sad.”
Choosing to remake King of Comedy in 2019 could be seen as an attempt at changing the narrative around himself, to refurbish the bond he had made with Hong Kong youth, now made up of kids who are rebelling against the mainland that Chow is now so firmly ensconced in. The New King of Comedy is one of the lowest budget films Chow has directed, taking place mostly on film sets and with an unknown actress in the lead. Chow wanted to cast people who had lived the struggling actor’s life. And E. Jingwen, who landed the starring role, fit the bill. Chow said, "She has a lot of experience being an extra and playing minor roles, but she has never given up on her dream of being an actress. That fits the story of the character and of course, her performance was very good. I think I picked the right actress for this part."
Like the original, The New King of Comedy opens with a shot of waves rolling in, but instead of facing the water yelling about hard work, as Stephen Chow did twenty years ago, E. Jingwen strolls right by the shore without a glance, gripping a book entitled “An Actor Prepares”. Her character of Dreamy is even more singleminded than Chow’s Wan Tin-sau, viewing everything around her as a performance. Her first interaction is with a car accident victim whom she believes is a con artist, so she tells him: “your acting lacks depth.” When he passes out with blood dripping down his nose she claims he has “already lost his audience.” Jingwen has seemed to internalize the old Stephen Chow persona, an ingratiating everyday goofball who blithely strolls into a world collapsing around her, reacting with a smile. She doesn’t even have the rec center job to fall back on, instead living with her parents, who are growing tired of her long-suffering dream. She shows up to her dad’s birthday dinner with an ax still lodged in her head from the day’s shoot.
Daisy’s story is compared to that of Marco’s (Wang Baoqiang) a former star on his way down the ladder of fame, lured to star in Snow White – Bloodbath in Chinatown, an absurdly violent remake (I would love to see this on Disney+). Wang also came up through the bottom of the ranks as an extra, giving a tremendously moving performance of a insecure artist reckoning with failure, his primadonna routine on set masking the creeping fear of failure.
Dreamy inadvertently rockets Marco back to stardom through a viral video, while her route to fame is more circuitous and grandly melodramatic. She has to navigate the drama in her own life before getting to display any on-screen. Everyone in The New King of Comedy is performing on some level – from her secretively duplicitous boyfriend to her apathetic ladder-climbing bestie, they are all playing roles, very consciously, and more successfully, than Dreamy. Just as in the original, this takes an improbable turn in its last act, one that has Dreamy finally take control of her image, transforming herself from Chow’s sadsack everyman and into a glamorous leading lady like Karen Mok’s Sister Cuckoo. All of a sudden Dreamy has entered the dreamlife. And where in the first film Chow imagined an alternate reality where he maintained his community of artists, in the sequel he displays the path taken, one of impossible fame, ridiculous wealth, and walled-off loneliness.
Though it did not top the box office like the original King of Comedy, The New King of Comedy was one of the top 20 grossers in China of 2019, once again proving Chow’s enduring appeal. If in another twenty years he makes a third, I would hope for a mo lei tau version with Ng Man-tat, a joyful reunion of the two kings of nonsense.