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Reign and Tears: An Interview with Stephen Chow

Reign and Tears: An Interview with Stephen Chow

With CJ7, Asia's most reliable funnyman takes to the street, stumbles into an alien, and once again single-handedly saves Hong Kong cinema. Stephen Chow tells APA why the "king of comedy" has more than laughs on his mind these days.

In Stephen Chow's imaginative new film, CJ7, a struggling Chinese worker and his mischievous young son are joined by an alien puppy who brings unexpected surprises to their otherwise routine series of personal and professional disappointments.

Seated on a posh sofa at the legendary Beverly Wilshire Hotel to promote the American release of CJ7, Chow looks less like the listless father he plays, than the adorable extra-terrestrial after whom the film is titled. Chow is all smiles, not evoking the broad mo lei tou nonsense comedy he made famous in the early 1990s, but lightheartedly exhibiting the playful curiosity of an outsider landing in a wondrous new planet. Dressed smugly in a denim jacket and sporting black-rimed glasses, Chow looks like a grown-up in kid's digs: a man-child basking in the sunny side of life.

Chow has plenty to be giddy about. CJ7 was, as expected, a massive hit throughout Asia upon its Lunar New Year release. It also marks his second successful collaboration with Hollywood major Columbia Pictures. The previous one was the international sensation Kung Fu Hustle, the film most responsible for solidifying his reputation in the United States among young fan-boys and martial arts film enthusiasts.

But CJ7 marks a significant turn in the actor-director-writer-producer's storied career. Admirers of his recent films Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle will encounter a somber, more soulful Stephen Chow this time around. And long-time fans in Asia have been scratching their heads over CJ7, which trades in the riotous Cantonese quips made famous in such films as Fight Back to School and Love on Delivery, for a straight-up family film complete with product tie-ins and adorable kids. The response has naturally been mixed, though nobody can deny Chow's enduring creativity.

Less remarked upon has been the maturation of Chow's art in the past nine years, and seen in this context, it's no surprise the direction that CJ7 has taken. Now in his mid-40s, Chow is less interested in being Hong Kong's perennial funnyman than embarking on more serious projects. CJ7 isn't just the rare science fiction film in Chinese cinema, it's one of the few family-oriented films in Hong Kong, Taiwan, or the mainland that feels as fresh as the latest picture from Pixar or Disney.

Though Chow continues to be one of the last genuine innovators in commercial Asian cinema, you'd never know from his laid-back, almost self-deprecating, calm. In a hodge-podge of English and Mandarin, APA talked to Chow about directing, classic Euro-pop, poverty in China, and being totally unfunny.

Interview with Stephen Chow
February 20, 2007
Beverly Hills, CA
Translations by Michael Berry and Brian Hu

Asia Pacific Arts: CJ7 is unusual not just as a Chinese-language film, but also as a "Stephen Chow film." Can you say something about where the idea for it originated?

Stephen Chow: Steven Spielberg's movies like E.T. left a deep impression on me for being great family films that both kids and adults could enjoy. These are films that bring joy and laughter to audiences, at the same time that they could make audiences cry. That Spielberg could achieve this level of filmmaking, I found quite amazing, and it provided for me the impulse to do a family film like CJ7.

APA: CJ7 has five credited writers. Could you talk about the process of writing? What was your role in the process?

SC: I was the chief screenwriter, and the others helped out. They are all writing partners I've worked with in the past. I typically like being able to write in a group so that there's a constant exchange of ideas.

APA: Hong Kong films of the 1980s and 90s were sometimes known for not having a finished shooting script, with filmmakers making it up day by day. Was CJ7 very planned out from the very beginning?

SC: We did have a complete script, though we were definitely making changes on the set every day, since there were constantly new sources of inspiration.

APA: I've noticed that since King of Comedy in 1999, your films have consistently been about the working class or about ordinary Chinese people. What is it that attracts you to this topic?

SC: Perhaps it has to do with my own background growing up in the streets. It's a world I'm familiar with and that I care about, so these types of characters naturally show up in my films.

APA: So would you consider yourself a personal filmmaker?

SC: I think so. There are aspects of my films that I consider to be very specific and personal to me. So yes, I do consider myself a personal filmmaker.

APA: While watching the film, I suddenly thought of Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life. Have you seen it?

Yes, I have.

I was wondering if you could comment on the role that UFOs play in the lives of the poor.

SC: [laughs] My films are simple and are certainly not "artistic" films like Still Life.

APA: But it's undeniable that your film is similarly commenting on the plight of the poor in China today.

SC: There is poverty everywhere in the world, and China is no exception. The goal was simply to pay my respects to the poor of China. So to prepare for my role as an ordinary laborer, I went amongst the workers in China and did a good amount of research. I had many discussions with them. It's a matter of respect. These are people who quietly go about their work every day, dedicating their best years and their energies to constructing the future of the nation. Look at how quickly China is growing, with its impressive new skyscrapers. And with this modernization, the true heroes are the workers.

APA: It was moving to see this kind of sincerity and respect for social issues in a Stephen Chow film. Were you ever afraid that your fans would be turned off by this sincere -- as opposed to purely comic -- approach to social issues? I ask this because there's a moment toward the end of the film when your son in the film tells your character, "Dad, you're not funny!" It's almost like you're self-reflexively admitting how unfunny you are in the movie.

SC: [laughs] Basically, that's just the kind of character he is. He's not funny. He just goes out everyday like the average laborer. All he knows in life is to sacrifice for his son. So the comedy doesn't belong to him, but rather to his son and the alien dog.

APA: So in a sense, you're passing the torch on to the next generation of actors in Hong Kong and China. When we watch your films, we're always expecting to see the same team of actors, and we do get some of them here. But more impressive are the young actors who we've never seen before. Do you see them joining the Stephen Chow team?

SC: If there's an opportunity, then definitely. I can't say for sure that it's going to happen, but if there's an opportunity, then for sure.

APA: In addition to the young actors, I also really liked the use of songs in the movie [Gazebo's "I Like Chopin" and Boney M's "Sunny"]. Can you talk about why you chose them, and why you integrated them into the film the way you did?

SC: They happen to be songs I really like. They're old songs, and audiences who recognize them will immediately know how old I am.

APA: [laughs] It creates a great effect though, hearing songs from the past juxtaposed with sci-fi elements, and with little kids who represent the future. In the film, the future feels invigorated by this nostalgic inclusion of the past.

SC: Yeah, I'm quite interested in the intersection between the past and the present, just as I am in the intersection between the comic and the very tragic.

APA: I have another question related to the soundtrack. The version of the film I saw was in Mandarin. Is this a dubbed version that's different from the version shown in Hong Kong?

SC: There is also a Cantonese version, though you can say that both versions are "dubbed," since I speak Cantonese and the child actors speak Mandarin. Ultimately, they're all going to be "dubbed" anyway.

APA: Do you do your own Mandarin dub? You clearly can speak it fine.

SC: Well, if you heard my Mandarin next to the Mandarin of the other characters, you wouldn't think so! [laughs]

APA: But what I always found so charming about Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle is that there are characters who speak in Mandarin, and others who speak in Cantonese, yet everyone seems to understand each other perfectly. I missed that while watching CJ7.

SC: I miss it too. But in Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, I could get away with it because those were primarily Cantonese films, with some, but relatively few, Mandarin parts. But CJ7 would have been half-Mandarin and half-Cantonese, so we really couldn't get away with that mix. It'd have to be all-Mandarin or all-Cantonese.

Do you have a preferred version?

SC: Personally, I think the Mandarin version is better because I think it's more important to maintain the original spirit of the kids' dialogue. It has a more substantial part in the film. My dialogue on the other hand isn't that important. [laughs]

APA: Finally, like all of your fans, I wish you made more films these days. Why did CJ7 take so long to produce, and are we going to have to wait another four years for another Stephen Chow film?

SC: Actually, I didn't need to take so long for CJ7, but we spent so much time planning Kung Fu Hustle 2, and since I couldn't figure out how to film it, we ultimately put that project aside. That wasted over a year. So hopefully the time it took to make CJ7 will be an exception and that things will be smoother for the next project.

CJ7 is now playing in select theaters in the United States. Check out its North American official website here and its international website here.

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Published: Friday, March 7, 2008