Asian tiger's hidden comedy

Actor: Action figure Chow Yun Fat can do slapstick with the best of them.

March 24, 2001|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

Somewhere in the middle of the 1989 Hong Kong movie "Diary of a Big Man," a man takes it upon himself to strap French bread loaves to his head and run around a hotel room screeching wildly.

It's the type of oddball scene found in many Hong Kong comedies, but one detail makes it noteworthy - the actor committing what seems to be career suicide is America's current It-man from Asia, Chow Yun Fat.

Chow, the most popular actor in Asia since the 1980s, is a folk hero among action-movie fans worldwide thanks to his turn as a smooth hit-man in John Woo's 1989 classic "The Killer." With equally suave roles in the more recent "Anna and the King" and the Oscar-nominated "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," Chow has become etched in the public psyche as a sexy, strong leading man.

But there's another side to the 45-year-old Hong Kong native that most Americans probably haven't seen - he's as adept at slapstick as he is at playing smoldering passion. However, judging from where Chow's Hollywood career seems to be heading, this talent likely will remain largely unseen in American film.

"Chow is mainly a dramatic actor, but he has a real versatility, and comedy was always a secondary calling for him," said David Bordwell, author of "Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment."

"He's really good at silly comedy. Now it depends on what kind of star image he wants to construct for himself here. It probably wouldn't include comedy ranking ahead of drama and action."

Chow began his career at age 18 when he enrolled in a Hong Kong television station training course. The young actor starred in several drama series, most notably "The Bund," which earned him legions of fans all over Asia. He ventured into dramatic film roles in the late '70s and began doing comedy soon after - most actors in Hong Kong dabble in a variety of styles.

The former British colony long has had a prolific film industry, which in its production peak in 1993 churned out 250 movies - a phenomenal number for a place with just 6 million people. And actors usually do between two and six movies a year. By comparison, in the United States, such A-list actors as Julia Roberts or Brad Pitt star in about two movies every year.

"Stardom isn't quite as rewarding financially there as it is here," Bordwell said. "Julia Roberts gets $15 [million]or $20 million for a movie. In Hong Kong, if an actor makes $1 million total in all the roles that he has in one year, that's great. Someone like Jackie Chan might make $2 million."

And so it's hard even for a superstar like Chow to be too selective about roles. While Chow made such classics as "A Better Tomorrow" and "God of Gamblers" in the '80s and '90s, he also starred in "Eighth Happiness," a 1988 romantic comedy in which he pretends to be gay to win the heart of a woman. Several films reveal a flair for humor that audiences might not expect from an actor who has built a career playing an ultra-cool dude.

In "Diary of a Big Man," for example, Chow plays Chow Ting-Fat, a less-than-smooth investment banker who falls in love with two women, marries both, and spends the entire movie trying to keep each one from finding out about the other. The plot is far-fetched and the structure of the movie is so contrived that Chow periodically addresses the audience to lament his situation.

But somehow, Chow carries off his role with aplomb. His ability to pull off comedy can be attributed not just to his acting talent but also to his willingness to put aside his suave persona and portray coarse or stupid characters.

In the memorable 1987 romance "An Autumn's Tale," Chow convincingly portrays a crude, uneducated character - and makes a tremendously funny foil to the sophisticated Cherie Chung, who plays his love interest. And in the 1988 "Tiger On Beat," Chow is unafraid to sink to the depths; as a lazy cop who's more than slightly uncool, he wears a silly sun visor and loud Hawaiian shirts tied at the waist.

While movie industry experts have predicted that the success of "Crouching Tiger" - which has grossed more than $100 million in the United States - will fuel an increased interest in Chinese and Hong Kong film, it's doubtful that Chow's comedies will gain huge popularity here.

"I remember having this conversation 10 years ago when Zhang Yimou was releasing films like `Raise the Red Lantern,' " said Christian Gaines, the American Film Institute's director of festivals.

Zhang's movies, he said, "were all about the fabulous costumes and the romance and the history, and `Crouching Tiger' is definitely an evocation of that. I'm looking forward to the time when other Chinese films can break into the mainstream that aren't necessarily evoking an ancient Chinese era, that are set in contemporary places."

Even if "Crouching Tiger" sparks an interest here in other Asian films, viewers probably will seek out drama or action movies, Bordwell said.

"Hong Kong comedy has a lot of slapstick, inside jokes and puns in Cantonese," Bordwell said. "And the humor is often over-the-top. Hollywood always feels slapstick doesn't travel particularly well."

But for the adventurous, the foray into Chow's early flicks could be worth it. Think about it - the sight of the soulful heartthrob tying a pink scarf around his head and strapping a trash can to his hip while prancing and singing "Flower Drum Song"? With Chow unlikely to do comedy in Hollywood anytime soon, this glimpse is valuable in its rarity - and, not to mention, its humor.

For those interested in seeking out Chow's early films, Chinese video stores in Maryland, Washington and Virginia are unlikely to carry movies so far back, especially if they aren't dramas or action films. Netflix.com is your best bet.

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