By Rafael Tsao
Stephen Chow and his slapstick crackers has been a feature of Hong Kong’s humour for almost thirty five years. His directorial debut was a James Bond spoof called From Beijing With Love which not only initiated a very Chinese film subgenre of parodies but also pointed out to some differences between Hongkongers and mainland Chinese viewers
It is almost a mission impossible to identify the exact time when the character of James Bond was first introduced to mainland China, but what it could be stated for certain was the precise moment when China “officially” welcomed her first James Bond: it was with Casino Royal in 2007. It was anything but a revealing cinematographic moment for average cinema-goers because they marveled at the similarities with their Domestic James Bond a decade earlier. And Domestic James Bond serves as the subtitle of a 1994 film called From Beijing with Love directed by Hong Kong great comedian Stephan Chow (周星驰).
But don’t mistake it for a B-movie because it turned its maker into a cult figure. Stephan Chow’s maiden directory work delivered an immediate bang, it made approximately HKD 37.5 millions at the box office, the third highest earner in 1994 Hong Kong’s film production, and subsequently sold an indeterminate number of DVDs in the 1990s. Mainland China, predictably, didn’t allow the film a mainstream screening. By “indeterminate” reads “huge” since everything produced of featured Stephan Chow’s became best selling merchandise in those years that characterised the prime of a triumphal Hong Kong popular culture.
This thing is a real deal. Yes, the title From Beijing with Love is too explicit to be even clever but in its script converges a plethora of kitsch James Bond elements: worn out secret agent; femme fatale turned lover; boss turned baddy; goofy assistant; incessant sexual innuendo which sometimes is obscene and sometimes romantic. But somehow Stephen Chow also manages to confer the film with a palpable dose of seriousness and subtlety.
The film starts with the urgent search for a stolen national treasure: the fossilised skull of dinosaur. A Mandarin-speaking “Northern General» initially leads the search before being assassinated by his colleague, a betraying “Southern General”, and surprise surprise, this “Southern General” speaks Cantonese. Chow hero juxtaposes two sensitive political and historical implications. At the time this film was made, Hongkongers’ already had a long brewed mistrust and distaste of mainland China. An attitude initiated by the 1989 Tiananmen event that abruptly ended the mid-1980s Hong Kong-Mainland honeymoon. That historical moment culminated with an influx of emigration as the hand-over was only three years away. And since the local politicians failed to stop the aggression from North then the film attempts to represent an unthinkable political reality.
In a broader sense, the Hong Kong versus Mainland antagonism is only the latest chapter of a millenary old theme. Qin Shihuang incorporated the vast region south to Yangtze River into his North-based empire in 221 B.C. Qin Shihuang’s success pioneered countless North invasions and subsequent conquests of South until 1842 when the British took Hong Kong. Since the XII century, the South has been economically far superior but the economic superiority has never translated into political autonomy. In fact in 1949 the north-based Chinese Communist Party (CCP) swept the South based Kuomintang (KMT) or Chinese Nationalist Party despite the majority of CCP elite politicians being Southerners themselves. Chow cinematises and subverts this profound historical frustration in an almost offhand manner. This is the most enduring feeling after watching the film, much more than any puerile detail of the actual plot.
This film neither distorts nor alludes to any real historical vicissitude. But that doesn’t stop Chow from caricaturing China’s A Million Deaths is a Statistic with exemplary lucidity. For instance 007 is sent to face a firing squad without a trial, beside him there is a guy accused of illegally reading confidential documents in spite of the fact that he is evidently illiterate. Mao’s era was rife with political terror so outrageous that often bordered on the farcical. But the farce didn’t end with Mao. When the steadfast “Southern General” turns out to be the haunting villain “Golden Gun”, neither 007 nor the viewers were too surprised due to their familiarity with institutionalised corruption spearheaded by officials like “Southern General.” For instance, privatisation proliferated while the Open and Reform programme gave rise to a national campaign of money grubbing. The bureaucracy didn’t even bother to conceal its misdeeds. Outrageous nepotism at the top of hierarchy, represented by Deng Xiaoping’s very own son Deng Pufang (邓朴方), was one the catalysts of that fateful Summer in 1989.
Chow most likely didn’t invent the subgenre Cantonese slapstick humor called Mo lei tau (无厘头 literally: “Can’t tell head from tail”) but he perfected it and made it more relevant than probably it deserves. Chow is an averse-intellectual, he has famously hassled anybody wearing glasses in his films. All his antics, artifices and his worldview are rooted in streetwiseness. He seems to embody the silent majority without succumbing himself to crass populism or narcissism. He is one of the least lovable pessimists and introverts one could encounter. A difficult character but a genuine talent of his generation. He doesn’t play his role, he “is” the role. He is not cultured or ignorant. Time and again he amuses by presenting us with unsettling truisms: the prospering capitalism of Hong Kong will never redeem you “people”. But “people” are often too naïve to grasp that reality. Withstanding their naivety, “people” still enjoy that ephemeral and surreal thrill of love and heroism performed by Chow. Chow’s best films aren’t motivational set pieces or depressive manifestos. Instead, they are incredibly easy to relate to, particularly if you are a discerning grown-up.
Mao’s era was rife with political terror so outrageous that often bordered with the farcical
For most of his contemporaries, Chow remains a cranky clown. His films are fin de siècle sprees of hopeless grassroots and Chow seems happy to promote that image. Chow’s characters refuse to analyse any situation, they act on practical wisdom and by an instinctive pursuit of freedom and dignity. Exemplified by 007, he prefers the life of a butcher rather than of a spy boss. As he seems to have implied it in his own autobiographical film King of Comedy: fuck those Communists or Confucianists or whatever patriotic homilies they profess, life is a shitshow and «I am just an actor”
Rafael Tsao lives in Shanghai and writes for Perro Negro about cinema and art. His previous article Arts is for Underperforming Students can be read here