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He’s quite serious about his nonsense

Special to The Times

In Hong Kong, he’s the King of Comedy, but Stephen Chow is quick to point out, “I’m not a funny man at all,” adding in halting English, “I’m actually a very quiet person.”

This is Asia’s Jim Carrey? Where are the antics, the slapstick comic style that’s made him a superstar overseas (even if American audiences have barely heard of him)? Reed thin in a jogging outfit, his lank black hair flopping over his forehead, Chow seems too slight, too soft-spoken to be a movie star.

He has to offer some explanation for his elevated reputation as master of careening screwball comedy. So he tries to explain: “Fortunately, I have a lot of very funny friends, and I like to observe people, and maybe I get some ideas from them.” And maybe he’s not giving away any trade secrets.

Chow’s “mo lei tau” (or nonsense) comedy is on full display in “Shaolin Soccer,” a megahit in Asia that Miramax picked up for distribution here. When it opens in the fall), it will be the first of his hundreds of films to gain a major nationwide release in the U.S. Chow not only stars in this one, he also directed and wrote the story about the down-on-his-luck but determined Sing (Chow), scrounging for his next meal on the streets of big-city China.

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When he meets down-on-his-luck soccer coach Fung (regular collaborator Ng Man-tat), he gets the bright idea to form a soccer team by reuniting his former classmates from the Shaolin Temple -- and isn’t a major soccer tournament coming up? Alas, the rest of them are also losers in the modern rat race, so they constitute a ludicrously ragtag team, fat, skinny, nerdy and combinations thereof. Fortunately, Sing proves to possess miraculous powers with his kicking leg.

Like some of Chow’s most successful films, “Shaolin Soccer” combines zany comedy with over-the-top special effects, in this case soccer kicks that bend goalposts and cause tornadoes. This time he’s also thrown in a large dose of martial arts movements, a dream come true for one who grew up under the spell of Bruce Lee.

“Lee became my idol when I was 13,” says Chow, 41, who was born in Shanghai and raised in Hong Kong. “I started to practice kung fu and did whatever Bruce Lee did.” As a boy, he scraped together money to pay for a master who could teach him Lee’s style, the Wingchun school, but the money lasted only three months. Later he struggled for years to enter TVB network, Lee’s training ground. Chow was initially rejected for his lack of matinee-idol looks, but he finally got into their actors program.

A year later, he became host for a daily children’s program, “430 Space Shuttle.” “I had no choice at the time,” Chow says. “What I really wanted to do was drama, action.” After six years he was bored and transferred to a dramatic series for two more years.

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In 1988 he got into his first film, a supporting role in the police drama “Final Justice,” but it was in comedies that Chow found his forte, starting with “All for the Winner” in 1990, a parody of Chow Yun-fat’s “God of Gamblers.” He introduced a character he would play over and over again, with different story lines and historical settings. This character would blithely say the most ridiculous things or rattle off the most inane explanations with a deadpan expression.

In “Shaolin Soccer,” Sing’s singing even inspires a Michael Jackson “Thriller"-style group dance in a public plaza among businessmen and shopkeepers -- no smirking.

“Create? I didn’t create the character by myself,” Chow modestly insists. -- but I have my own style.” How to characterize that style?

“I would say I go all the way,” he says. “Once I get the role, I go all the way.”

Spoofs are his specialty. “Shaolin Soccer” pokes fun equally at stern martial arts films and their heroic poses, as well as sports movies with their calculated roller coaster rides between troughs of defeat and peaks of triumph. Chow is known is his fearless indulgence in the crude and the rude. In “Shaolin Soccer,” for example, much is made of a female character’s acne-scarred face and Sing’s ratty running shoes.

Such was the ravenous appetite of the Hong Kong film industry in the ‘90s that Chow made nearly 50 films in a dozen years. Today he’s slowed to one or two a year, especially since he’s become the writer-director of his films as well as the star. He’s already multitasked in three previous films.

Putting on these different hats, he insists, is not megalomania, it’s necessity. “Sometimes I have no choice but to do everything myself, because the idea is in my mind,” he says. When he first mentioned his “Shaolin Soccer” idea to others, for example, they were highly dubious. “They asked me, how can you make it happen? How can you use kung fu in a soccer game? It was hard to explain to other people.”

In fact, he sees a parallel between himself and Sing and his impossible dream; despite Chow’s own reputation for being box-office gold, it was an uphill battle convincing others to financially back him. “You try to convince someone, but someone tries to convince you not to do it.” Like Sing, he had to keep pumping up his self-confidence to forge ahead.

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To him, combining soccer with kung fu was a natural. “Soccer players use every part of the body [in the game],” he points out. “They use their head, they use their chest to hit the ball, they kick. It’s all about attack and defense, so very similar to kung fu fighting, and easy to adapt to kung fu style.” He adds, “I wouldn’t use golf or pingpong, for example, but soccer, it’s perfect!”

Crossover potential

Miramax isn’t the only American company that has spotted Chow’s potential for international markets. Several years ago Fox purchased the rights to “God of Cookery” with the notion that Jim Carrey would star, and rumors were that Chow would direct. That project didn’t pan out, but Columbia Pictures is funding Chow’s next film, “Kungfu Hustle,” an action comedy being shot in China.

They were impressed by the spectacular success of “Shaolin Soccer,” which made Chow a star in Japan, where he wasn’t well known before. As far as Western markets, says Barbara Robinson, managing director of Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia, “he hasn’t made the crossover like Jackie [Chan] or Chow Yun-fat or Jet Li so far, but here [in Hong Kong] Stephen outranks them all in box office.”

But the crossover potential is there, which is why they’ve banked on “Kungfu Hustle,” another Chow-starring, Chow-directed, Chow-written vehicle in which he stir-fries up “that comedy and action combination.”

Hollywood will be watching closely to see if the subtitled “Shaolin Soccer” to see if Chow’s “mo lei tau” comedy translates to American audiences. But Chow argues there’s more to his films than mere nonsense, that there are certain sentiments he wants to convey through the buffoonery and the exaggeration.

His ragged Sing, he says, is a character who’s “funny and at the same time touching. He’s someone who really believes in himself, he believes in his fate, he believes kung fu can take him to his goal.” Or take the street-dancing scene. Everyone starts dancing because Sing launches into a song in praise of the wonderful steamed buns that acne-faced Mei (Vicki Zhao) has made at a street stand.

“What I’m saying is that everyone can be like this,” Chow says. “It seems like nonsense, but actually there’s a connection.” For him, Mei’s ugliness emphasizes the fact that it doesn’t matter what you look like on the outside. “If she can have a beautiful heart, that’s the most important thing.”

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