Saturday, July 26, 2014
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The megastar no one knows -- yet
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Steven Chow as Sing prepares for battle in his new movie, "Kung Fu Hustle." Chow is almost unknown in the U.S. but he is one of Asia's biggest stars. (Image courtesy of Sony Picture Classics)
A few weeks back, not one, but two stretch limos drew up in front of MPR's St. Paul studios. That's unusual in itself. Yet what really got people talking was, no one recognized the man who stepped into building. But that may be about to change. The man was Steven Chow, Asia's hottest film comedy star. This weekend he's making an assault on the U.S. box office with his new film, "Kung Fu Hustle."

St. Paul, Minn. — It would be simple to describe "Kung Fu Hustle" as a martial arts film. But it's much more than that. It's a thriller, a comedy, and a redemption tale, with a love story thrown in for good measure.

Film critic Roger Ebert has described it as "Jackie Chan meets Buster Keaton, and Bugs Bunny meets Quentin Tarantino."

Steven Chow says he's reasonably happy with Ebert's assessment.

"But I will tell you, this is only (a) Steven Chow movie," Chow laughs.

Steven Chow has made more than 50 films in Hong Kong. His last movie, "Shaolin Soccer," set Asian box office records that were only broken by "Kung Fu Hustle."

A quiet man in a very fine jacket, Chow doesn't immediately look like an action film star. He arrives with a translator, but only needs to consult her occasionally as he goes through the film's basic themes.

"It's a battle between the good and the evil. Yeah, and ultimately the good win!" he laughs aloud. "Kung Fu Hustle" is set in pre-revolutionary China. The vicious Ax Gang controls its hometown. The cops hide when they appear. Its members wear top hats and tuck hatchets in their pants.

But there is one place the gang doesn't rule -- Pig Sty Alley. It's a poor slum; too poor to interest the gang. Things change when a hustler called Sing pretends he's with the gang to try to extort money. Unfortunately Sing, played by Steven Chow, isn't very convincing. The residents confront him en masse.

He announces he'll fight them all, but just one at a time. After rejecting several as unworthy, he says he'll start with the old woman holding an onion. As he moves forward she lets fly with the onion and hits him right in the face.

Staven Chow's characters tend to take a lot of both physical and verbal abuse in his films.

"Yes of course," he says. "That is my strength."

The dispute attracts the attention of the ax gang, and sets in motion a series of wildly improbable events, from a landlady who can outrun an express train to slum neighbors revealing they are martial arts experts.

Ultimately, Sing transforms into a Kung Fu master and takes on the entire ax gang singlehandedly.

The film is filled with references to other films, from "Spiderman" to "The Shining." It also pays homage to martial arts films of the past, and in particular Bruce Lee.

Steven Chow hired the fight choreographers behind "The Matrix"' and "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon." He brought in a host of veteran martial arts stars, including people who worked with Bruce Lee.

It's a special effects extravaganza. People crash through buildings unharmed, and of course, every once in a while they fly.

"Kung Fu Hustle" is an extremely important movie for Steven Chow. His last film, "Shaolin Soccer," got a lot of buzz, but limited distribution in the U.S.

This time it's different. A U.S. studio produced "Kung Fu Hustle." It's mounted an extensive publicity campaign, including TV and print ads, and this directorial tour.

"Kung Fu Hustle" opened in Los Angeles and New York two weeks ago, and goes nationwide this weekend, opening on 1,500 screens. It's a gamble, given American moviegoers' traditional ambivalence about subtitles.

The huge audiences in Asia were primarily teenagers. Steven Chow wants that audience again. He looked a little startled and turned to the translator when he learned he's got an R rating.

"We don't have the PG-13 for this one?" he asks. Again he smiles, but it's clearly not good news.

Yet, he may have little to worry about. Hundreds of people had to be turned away at a sold-out screening at the recent Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival. Steven Chow says he's already planning "Kung Fu Hustle 2."

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