As part of the Odyssey 2023 film festival, Stephen Chow in Focus is the first retrospective of Chow’s career in the UK. While not fully comprehensive — hard to do for an actor who starred in around 70 films, let alone all 10 films he directed — the four films chosen give an insight into Chow as a screen presence and creative force, while highlighting his house style.

“The rewards keep coming,” reads a banner held by Stephen Chow at the midpoint of the ancient China-set comedy Forbidden City Cop (1996). The banner is public recognition for his character’s protection of the Emperor, and he receives it with a rictus grin and uproarious laughter — as a matter of fact, everyone in shot has a grin and is howling away, like the successful protection of the Emperor has sparked an unknowable joy in them all. It’s a burst of contagious nonsense, the type Chow is famous for. It’s also a meta moment: an oddball, celebrated wildly by the masses, informing the audience that the rewards don’t stop. Chow had been on top of the world long before 1996, and wasn’t going to stop for a long, long time.

Chow’s showbiz origins found him entering a training course for Hong Kong television network TVB. He shared classes (and shot a short film) with Tony Leung Chiu Wai, and the two would end up defining the country’s cinema in the 90s. Where Leung became the brooding, romantic hero of Hong Kong new wavers like Wong Kar-wai, Chow became the class clown and master of mou lei tau, a Hong Kong cultural trademark that inelegantly translates to “nonsense comedy”.

South China Morning Post columnist Luisa Tam described the reach of mou lei tau in everyday life for Hong Kongers: “As mou lei tau culture became popular, the term gained a prominent place in everyday Cantonese to describe both people who behave in a nonsensical manner, or things that don’t make sense.” Throughout Chow’s crowd-pleasing, anarchic comedies, you can see the toiled, often helpless grappling with outside forces. Sometimes it’s the threat of organised violence, sometimes it’s ecological displacement and sometimes it’s unknowable forces. Across these four films, we are shown an absurd vision for an absurdly harsh world, offering that the best medicine may just be a burst of pure nonsense.

Sixty Million Dollar Man (1995) and the aforementioned Forbidden City Cop sit right next to each other on Chow’s filmography, in the middle of his Nineties hot streak. Starting with his box-office breakthrough, the gambling-movie parody All For the Winner (1990), Chow ran through a staggering 20+ movies as a comedy lead. In 1994, he made his co-directorial debut with From Beijing with Love, a spy movie thriller where he played with James Bond iconography. The next year, he starred in five films, two of which as Monkey King in the Chinese Odyssey films (1995).

While Chow was starring in five films, Sixty Million Dollar Man was director Wong Jing’s third feature of the year. At its worst, the comedy (co-directed with Raymond Yip) is a bunch of sketches cobbled together. At its best, it’s the fuzzed-out manic work of overworked comedians, throwing first-draft ideas on screen with insane brio. The film’s plot has Chow as an arrogant rich kid in Hawaii — surely due to tax incentives — causing chaos until he is assassinated by the yakuza. An Einstein-lookalike mad scientist rebuilds him with $60,000, meaning that the film’s title is a lie. Chow transforms into a lot of household appliances and borrows liberally from The Mask (1994), Pulp Fiction (1994) and a famous line of commercials for supermarket chain PARK ‘n’ SHOP. It’s not created with longevity in the way other efforts are, but its genuinely unhinged reaction to the moment is exciting. Catch it with an audience.

Sixty Million Dollar Man is the odd duck of the retrospective, as it begins with Chow playing a high-status character. Usually, the actor is very much into underdogs, which comes out in Forbidden City Cop. Co-directed by Chow alongside Vincent Kok, it’s his second period film to parody the James Bond franchise, except this time it’s set in ancient China and a wuxia comedy to boot. His Ling Ling Fat is a fool as an imperial agent and a terrible gynaecologist, but a good husband and wonderful inventor, creating a one-man helicopter and a machine for better sex.

As you may expect from that previous sentence, it’s incredibly silly, often offensive, and has a similarly baggy structure to Sixty Million Dollar Man. After the scene where we find out that “the rewards keep coming”, the film ironically runs out of steam, dragging its feet to a convenient finale. However, the finale also showcases Chow’s growing precision as a filmmaker, with the wuxia sequences looking as technically adept as the epics he pokes fun at. His needling of the action genre’s conventions comes from a place of real love.



That love is even more evident in Kung Fu Hustle (2004), his follow-up to sports/action smash hit Shaolin Soccer (2001) and his calling card for Western audiences. Funnily, after experiencing the plotless anarchy of Chow’s mid-Nineties films, Kung Fu Hustle is comparatively staid. To Western audiences unaccustomed to mou lei tau, it still hits like a splash of cold water, merging kung-fu with Forties gangster romps and CGI-enhanced comedy antics. It still surprises in its tale of underdog Sing (Chow, grungy but at his most movie-star handsome), who desires membership to the notorious Axe Gang. As he tries to become a legit gangster, the Axe Gang threaten the livelihood of the Pigsty Alley slum.

It turns out that the slum is full of the best fighters in the world, which is what Chow’s really interested in as a filmmaker, ceding much of the screen time to a collection of genre greats. Dong Zhihua, the staff-wielding baker, was a close collaborator of legendary Shaw Brothers director Chang Cheh. Yuen Qiu, the show-stealing landlord from hell, was a stuntwoman/actress coaxed out of retirement by Chow. Siu-Lung Leung, who plays the villainous Beast, was Bruce Leung in the ‘Brucesploitation’ wave following Bruce Lee’s death. There’s plenty of Chow’s trademark nonsense, but it’s softened for surprisingly dramatic stretches and a love letter to a bygone era of Hong Kong filmmaking.

Hustle was released in the United States by Sony Pictures Classics, who believed they had a crossover mainstream hit on their hands.  “What we [grossed] on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) in eight weeks, we are going to do here in two,” boasted Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker. It didn’t really do that, but it made a healthy amount at the US box office, bringing Chow to the attention of Columbia, who tagged him to direct and star in The Green Hornet (eventually directed by Michel Gondry in 2011, without Chow attached). His Hollywood sojourn side-stepped, Chow finally began to slow down his output. By the release of The Mermaid (2016), he had largely stopped acting — including in his own films. It didn’t stop The Mermaid from becoming arguably his biggest film ever, gaining the record as mainland China’s reigning all-time box office king after nine days of release and a gross of two billion yuan. (It was toppled by the next year’s action megahit Wolf Warrior 2.)

The Mermaid also represents a shift in Chow’s output. Kung Fu Hustle was filmed in a mix of Cantonese and Mandarin, and his films afterward — including CJ7 (2008) and Journey to the West (2013) — were filmed in Mandarin. Despite Chow (as of 2015) not being fluent in Mandarin, there’s little awkwardness in transition: his signature absurdity cannot be lost in translation. Neither can the film’s ecological concerns, focusing on a mermaid (Lin Yun, charming in her debut role) who needs to assassinate an uber-wealthy industrialist (Deng Chao) before more wreckage can come to her mermaid community.

As with Kung Fu Hustle, Chow shows a filmmaker interested in more than his trademark slapstick: The Mermaid is the only comedy I remember opening with scenes of bloody waters and Gulf War-era pollution. Chow’s bleeding heart messaging about how humans treat Mother Nature is particularly effective for emotionally grounding the mermaids’ plight; less successful is the hard shift into speedboat-heavy action sequences in the film’s final act, which is handled with less homemade-style craft than the action in Hustle or Forbidden City Cop. But it’s still a resounding success as a comedy, with a failed assassination sequence being a slapstick highlight. It’s amusing as Chow had a memorable Hustle scene with a botched hit; in Mermaid, Lin Yun takes the concept to another level, heightened by Chow’s mastery of comedic rhythms. It feels like a passing of the torch moment, like the heritage of his mou lei tau styles are safe, even in another language or in the hands of other performers.

Since The Mermaid, Chow has directed The New King of Comedy (2019), a loose remake of his The King of Comedy (1999). The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed things down for him, but Chow’s blockbuster films usually take quite a while to develop before shooting. Lately, he’s teased sequels to Hustle and Mermaid, dabbled in Web3 investments and largely kept his public profile to his Instagram, @stevenchow.

He hasn’t appeared in any films, but has teased a creative collaboration with Mandopop star Jay Chou. Whatever’s next, it’d be nice for Chow to keep the rewards coming.

Catch the remaining screenings at The Prince Charles Cinema in June.