Stephen Chow was one of the most renowned comedians in Hong Kong, with a level of fame that reached international status. He rose to prominence with his films “Shaolin Soccer” and “Kung Fu Hustle,” but then shifted his focus to directing. Despite having a large collection of work, it was not widely seen in the western world until Eureka Entertainment began releasing it, starting with his 1994 Bond parody “From Beijing with Love.” However, comedy can be subjective, and what may be hilarious in Kowloon may not be as well received in Kansas. Let’s take a journey back to the 1990s and witness Stephen Chow at the peak of his comedic career.
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A man in indestructible armor and armed with a golden gun steals the head of a dinosaur. Ling Ling Fat (played by Stephen Chow), who has been inactive for 10 years, is called back to duty to investigate the situation as many other agents are unable to work. He teams up with Leung-kam (Anita Yuen), who he initially believes is his ally but is actually working for the villain. Along the way, they encounter a mysterious woman (Pauline Chan), a man with metal teeth, and a group of bank robbers from their hometown. In the end, a final showdown occurs, testing loyalty and revealing the truth amidst comical chaos.
This is a clever parody of James Bond films with some additional references to other cultures. Some are quite obvious (such as the Golden Gun and Jaws), while others are more subtle, like the use of “Ling Ling Fat” as a Cantonese version of 007. There is also visual humor, mimicking the style of Wong Kar-wai films. As with any scattered approach, some jokes are funnier than others. The scene with the firing squad is a standout, and it’s hard not to laugh at the boss giving orders from a hidden video screen in a toilet. While some of the humor may not translate for all audiences, there are still plenty of genuine laughs to be had. The opening credits pay tribute to the iconic Maurice Binder titles from the original Bond movies and would be used again in “Forbidden City Cop” two years later.
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Comedy often involves violence, and this is especially true in the works of director Stephen Chow. His use of slapstick humor is expected, with characters being treated like cartoon figures and flying around. However, there are moments when the tone shifts drastically, such as during the jewel heist scene. Here, the typically silly violence takes on a more serious and emotional tone before returning to its comedic roots. Even veteran viewers of Hong Kong cinema, which can have uneven tones, may be caught off guard by these shifts. They seem unnecessary and serve only to set up more jokes. This is a common occurrence in Chow’s self-directed films. Another example is a scene where the main characters attempt DIY surgery after one of them is shot, which is played for laughs despite its bloody nature.
Stephen Chow typically allows the other actors to participate in the humor. In the absence of his usual partner Ng Man-tat, Anita Yuen takes on the role of both the main antagonist and the love interest. She plays the part sincerely, responding to the situations rather than joining in on the jokes. As a talented comedian in her own right, this dynamic works well and it’s a pity that they didn’t collaborate more often. Look out for the recurring group of actors who appear in most of Chow’s later works. Pauline Chan, in an unusual non-Category III role, plays the mysterious woman who primarily serves to look stunning and recreate a certain Madonna outfit in the climax.
In his role as an actor, Stephen Chow exudes his usual charm and charisma. This performance fits his typical character of a brash, overconfident individual who ultimately learns the value of love and responsibility. However, this time there is a hint of innocence to his self-assuredness. The familiar theme of financial struggles is present, but with less emphasis on greed. As a director, this marks the beginning of Chow finding his unique style, with verbal humor taking a back seat to visual elements. This style would reach its full potential in “Shaolin Soccer”. While it’s difficult to determine the exact contributions of each co-director, comparisons with Chow’s later solo work suggest that he held a stronger influence behind the scenes than Lee Lik-chi.
A notable aspect of the piece is its focus on government corruption, which may give it a dated feel. While this leads to some humorous moments in the film, it may not be received as well in modern-day mainland China, where there is a more favorable view of the government. Satire has long been used to comment on societal institutions, and in Hong Kong comedy specifically, the pursuit of wealth often involves some level of corruption. However, with the impending handover only a few years away, opportunities to criticize officialdom would soon diminish.
“From Beijing with Love” is a well-crafted piece, with consistent humor throughout most of its duration. However, the sudden shifts in tone can be jarring, momentarily disrupting the comedic flow before quickly returning to it. Despite this, there is still plenty to appreciate in this Hong Kong comedy, including clever cultural references, slapstick humor, creative storytelling, and toilet humor that would make any British person proud. As an introduction to Stephen Chow’s earlier works, it’s a strong start!