Happy Birthday Stephen Chow

At this year’s Annecy festival, Pearl Studios announced that Stephen Chow was attached to direct an animated feature film based on the classic Monkey King story.

Chow is my favorite working movie director. He started as an actor in kids TV, then moved to features, and eventually began directing. His work is very character driven and full of slapstick and special effects. If you have never seen Kung Fu Hustle, Shaolin Soccer, CJ7, or God of Cookery, you have missed out.  While many directors start out with fantastic vision, only to weaken over time, his work has steadily grown in energy and style. He was cast to play Kato in the Green Hornet remake, but left over creative differences.  If he had been in it, I would have seen the movie.  Here are some quotes.

“Right from the beginning of my work, I wanted to capture a mass audience. And I love the unusual: you never see dancing villains. For me, there`s a fine line between comedy and drama; so it`s not just played for laughs. There`s a little romance in this story, too – something for everybody.”

“I used to cry when I watched Chaplin`s films. It was from him that I learned about the role of the underdog. And because I`m also from a poor family, this kind of thing moved me and I found that it also worked for the audience because most of them are like me – ordinary guys.”

“As many people have pointed out, the scene in ‘Kung Fu Hustle’ where the Landlady was chasing after me resembled the Roadrunner, … I loved to watch cartoons and read comic books when I was small. In fact, I still watch and read a lot of them now. They give me great ideas.”

Here is the scene.

Commedia dell’arte and animation

The commedia dell’arte was an Italian theater of improvisation, developed in the mid sixteenth century. The literal translation is “the comedy of artists.” Performing in the outdoors, they would work from a basic scenario, with none of the action or lines fixed by a script. The beginning and ending were basically understood by the actors, and what occured in between was created on the stage. In order to maintain the laughs, they had developed an arsenal of possible dialog and physical gags, called “lazzi” which the entire cast would be prepared for.

The cast of characters usually included a merchant, a doctor, a soldier, two lovers and two servants. Once an actor or actress had assumed a role, it was kept for life. They lived and breathed the parts and knew exactly what their character would do in any situation. Much of the comic action came from the two servants, who were called “zanni”, the origin of the English word zany. Usually the pair included a quick witted first zanni, and slow witted second zanni.

Here is a good intro video:

The classic commedia was an actor centric theater. The troupes traveled in search of audiences and worked hard for very little money. Eventually a man named Goldoni began setting the various stories into scripts and producing stage plays for serious money. Gone were the wild and unpredictable performances, Goldoni’s actors did as they were told.

I can see a relationship to animation here. Animators are actors, and are quite capable of producing great entertainment. Goldoni, like modern producers, was a smart businessman who capitalized on the commedia styling. I’m not saying one was better than the other, I’m just saying that the business of entertainment has been the same for centuries, and it’s good to understand the contributions of artists and impresarios alike.

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