Stop Making Sense: The Strange Auteurism of Stephen Chow

Sep 27, 2020 | China, Hong Kong, POP

Scene from Kung Fu Hustle

Auteur theory is a complicated subject to broach, seeing that the debate to place a definition on the term “auteur” has been ongoing since the 1940s. 

Everyone has their own variation and take on the term that gets assigned to monolithic and specific directors. To me, however, an auteur is a director with a singular and specific vision that manifests visually, aurally, and thematically over multiple works. There are many filmmakers we celebrate in this vein, but some become lost or forgotten and some like Hong Kong director, actor, writer, and producer Stephen Chow are just plain underrated. An artist with a singular vision, he has somehow all but disappeared from the conversation about auteurism, despite being one of the most artistically innovative and financially successful directors in the world. 

A Humble Beginning

Stephen Chow was born in 1962 in Hong Kong to working-class parents. From a young age Stephen wanted to become a martial artist like his idol Bruce Lee. Unfortunately due to financial constraints, his family could not afford for him to practice Wing Chun (Bruce Lee’s discipline) for very long. He decided he would pursue his idol’s other profession of acting. 

After graduating acting school in 1983, Stephen went on to start a successful career in television, starring in a kids’ program called Space Shuttle 430, and eventually transitioning to more dramatic roles before breaking onto the big screen with his first feature film, Final Justice.

Being an admirer of the works and techniques of Steven Spielberg, Stephen Chow was also interested in the action behind the camera. Stephen would ask veteran directors about why a camera would move a certain way or how a scene should be blocked. This would eventually lead him to direct and star in his first feature film From Beijing With Love, a spoof of the James Bond series.

Stephen Chow’s Take

From this point forward, Stephen’s style became something that no other filmmakers (with the exception of the few associated with him) were doing. Even among other Hong Kong legends like Sammo Hung, John Woo, Yeung Wo Ping, and Jackie Chan, Stephen’s brand of action-comedy was in a school all of its own.

The action is as over the top as you can possibly get, especially with later films like Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle using CGI to exaggerate the action to Dragon Ball Z levels of absurdity. The comedy combines everything from Looney Tunes-style slapstick (there’s a foot chase between two characters in Kung Fu Hustle that could be straight out of a Roadrunner cartoon), rapid-fire screwball dialogue, deadpanning characters, and comedy so broad that the fruit is not just low-hanging, it is touching the ground, which means that sometimes the jokes are a little cheap and very mean-spirited.

Pushing Nonsense to the Next Level

This is all due to Stephen Chow adopting and perfecting a school of thought and comedy movement called “Mo Lei Tau,” a Cantonese phrase that translates roughly to “coming from nowhere” or “makes no sense.” It has its roots in the films of the Hui Brothers, a trio of siblings that would mix kung fu and comedy to wild success in Hong Kong. Stephen grew up watching these films along with those of Charlie Chaplin and developed the idea into something far more farcical and illogical than anything that came before it.

Mo Lei Tau is characterized by the fact that things happen for no reason. Fights can break out over nothing, people can burst into song and dance, characters break the fourth wall, and story threads get picked up and dropped for no reason. A prime example is the ending of King of Comedy where the two main characters fall in love with each other, only for the movie to suddenly become a blatantly vulgar advertisement for Pringles. In order to have these ridiculous digressions and surprises, Stephen has developed a simple and reliable storytelling method.

Stephen Chow’s protagonist and story structures are very similar from film to film. The protagonist (usually played by Stephen himself) is a low-class narcissist trying to prove or accomplish something beyond his means.

The movie usually has them ending up attaining physical or spiritual, Buddhist-like (or in the case of Journey to the West, actual Buddhist enlightenment) ascension to obtain these means (usually with the help of a woman). This focus on low-class characters is important to Stephen given his lower-class upbringing and the class system within Hong Kong and China as a whole. The characters may be narcissists, but their arcs usually have them endearing themselves to the audience by the end of the film.

Stephen Chow - Kung Fu Hustle Scene

The protagonist backstory scene from Kung Fu Hustle

You can see these elements of his style pop up in other filmmakers’ work. Joseph Kahn’s Torque has a finale that looks like it could have fit right into any of Stephen’s later work. Edgar Wright’s video game- and anime-inspired Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is the closest that West has come to combining all of Stephen’s signature components but is far too logical to be from the same school of thought.

Unrivaled Talent

Stephen himself has slowly moved away from Mo Lie Tau (Kung Fu Hustle is the last film with significant elements), as he himself has become less of an actor and more of a writer/director. While always a successful director, his last two films, Journey to the West and The Mermaid, have gone on to break Chinese box office records with the latter becoming the highest-grossing film in Chinese history in just three weeks.

Filming of Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid – Behind the Scene

Stephen Chow’s unique brand of action and comedy is underrated and rarely mimicked but that doesn’t mean he’s any less important to the conversations we devote to the filmmakers who get branded as auteurs. He may be unconventional and every joke may not land with the grace and wit of more high-brow comedy, but there’s no denying that Stephen Chow is one of a kind.

David Carter

Special Thanks to David Carter for his luminous writeup on Stephen Chow – one of the most talented auteur in modern cinema. David is a film lover and a menace, find him on Twitter @SamuraiFlicks and Blog.

This article was republished with permission from the Indiana University Cinema, A Place For Film™.