Asia Society's La Frances Hui on the Subversive Humor of Stephen Chow

La Frances Hui, Film Curator of Asia Society New York, has recently published an appreciation of the seemingly nonsensical humor of Stephen Chow for the Asian American Writers' Workshop. Chow is a prominent actor in Hong Kong cinema whose specialty is humor that makes use of absurd language and imagery. La emphasizes Chow's use of absurdity, especially in language, coining phrases that quickly became slang in a culture that predominantly spoke Cantonese, a dialect that is mostly spoken and doesn't translate into formal written Chinese. In giving the youth of Hong Kong a voice, Chow created a space for a nonsensical reaction to what seemed like a transfer of sovereignty that seemed just as nonsensical:

Chow's world of nonsense offers a subversive challenge to reason, logic, and convention. Heroes in Chow’s films are often ungroomed, uneducated, and bumpkin-like underdog figures, whose extraordinary abilities are confirmed only after overcoming difficult hurdles: an unkempt bandit turns into the Monkey King, a superhero entrusted to protect a monk on his journey to collect important Buddhist scriptures (A Chinese Odyssey, 1994); a butcher who doesn't know how to handle automatic firearms proves to be a brilliant secret agent (From Beijing with Love, 1994); and an undercover cop on a lousy mission to infiltrate a high school — who can't even stay awake in class — eventually disbands gang control and wins the heart of a gorgeous teacher along the way (Fight Back to School, 1991).

At a time when Hong Kong young people felt helpless — felt indeed that a senseless situation was being foisted upon them — Chow's cinema of the absurd provided them with a source of empowerment, allowing them to claim a linguistic space — one that excluded non-Cantonese speakers and older generations — and develop a sense of identity and solidarity. Everyday nonsense was used to fight political nonsense. In the face of an encircling absurdity, Chow's films of the '90s offered young people a collective and dismissive cry: "You are talking!" (你講嘢呀!)

To read the full article, visit the AAWW website.

Video: Stephen Chow in Fight Back to School II (1 min., 19 sec.)

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Bo Ruo Chen is a contributor to Asia Blog. He was born in Shanghai but grew up in New York City. His time is mostly spent avoiding trolls and memes on the internet.