You may not recognize the name Stephen Chow immediately, but you may have watched two of his films — “Shaolin Soccer” (2001) and “Kung Fu Hustle” (2004) — that caught many Americans’ attention in the 2000s.
Although Chow, 58, is somewhat unknown in the U.S., he is known as Hong Kong’s “king of comedy” within his fanbase, having appeared in dozens of comedies in the 1990s that sparked his fame.
Besides his slapstick comedy and deadpan humor that may remind you of comedian Jim Carrey or Bugs Bunny, he has a signature style known as “mo lei tau,” (冇厘頭) which literally means “without a head” in Cantonese. This type of humor is literally nonsense, using a combination of wordplay, anachronisms and tossing drama elements together that make you go “WTF?!”
In light of Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage month, it is worth checking out Chow’s earlier films that made millions laugh to tears. But be aware: some of the subtitle translations do not translate well into English, sort of like translating Dave Chapelle’s “Rick James” sketch to a Chinese audience.
1. All For the Winner [賭聖] (1990)
Also known as “Saint of Gamblers,” this film launched Chow’s stardom even though he had appeared in more than 15 films and TV series. Chow plays a nephew, Sing, from Mainland China, who is visiting his uncle in Hong Kong. He has a special ability to see through objects like Superman’s X-ray vision. His uncle, played by the late Ng Man Tat, exploits his nephew’s powers to help him win in underground gambling.
His uncle’s gambling habits go against Sing’s morality where he may not use his powers for personal gains. Sing eventually catches the attention of two local crime bosses where they try to “recruit” him to gamble for them in an international poker tournament.
This film is followed by two sequels where one teams with veteran actor Andy Lau, and the other takes Sing back in time to Shanghai in the 1930s where he meets his grandfather and gambles in a poker tournament.
2. Fight Back to School [逃學威龍] (1992)
Chow plays an undercover cop who plays a high school student to investigate whether some students are being recruited by the triads. Throughout the film, he has to overcome his fear of being in school, deal with an older, bumbling detective who plays the custodian (Ng Man Tat) and fight the temptation to fall in love with his guidance counselor (Cheung Man).
3. The Royal Tramp [鹿鼎記] (1992)
Based on a popular wuxia novel, “The Deer and the Cauldron,” by Louis Cha that takes place during the early Qing Dynasty, Chow plays a witty and fast-talking bard who unintentionally gets caught in a series of conspiracies. This includes a plot to assassinate the emperor, dealing with a princess who falls in love with him but he doesn’t really love her back and honoring the emperor’s friendship.
4. The King of Beggars [武狀元蘇乞兒] (1992)
In another historical role, Chow plays a lazy, spoiled son of a wealthy family who cannot read or write but excels in martial arts. He falls in love with a prostitute, who is actually an assassin seeking vengeance. To win her love, he must win the scholar and martial art competition that the emperor holds to select the top candidate for a court position.
Having been caught cheating in the written exam, the emperor condemns Chow to live a life of poverty. While trying to adapt to this new life, Chow discovers a sect of beggars who is trying to foil a plot to assassinate the emperor.
5. From Beijing With Love [國產凌凌漆] (1994)
A direct spoof of the James Bond series, Chow plays a mainland Chinese secret agent who investigates a stolen dinosaur skull from a Beijing museum. Not only does this film pay homage to several Bond films and novels, such as “The Man With the Golden Gun” (1965), it pokes fun at the stereotypes of mainland Chinese culture, mannerisms and politics that might land a Hong Kong filmmaker in prison today.