The New King of Comedy (China, 2019): The Unexpected Shape-Shifting of Stephen Chow

In 2008, Stephen Chow Sing Chi retired from acting, announcing that he would focus entirely on directing and screenwriting. He then co-directed a re-interpretation of the Monkey King called Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons (2013) and shattered Chinese box office records with 2016 hit The Mermaid. Yet one of the most popular opinions in film criticism is that Chow’s work is not what it used to be.

This issue comes to mind every time there is a new movie by a legendary genre filmmaker coming up. It might be a tie between our minds and the films themselves (and not only Chinese or Cantonese). On the one hand, nostalgia clouds our judgment and it seems impossible for filmmakers to compete with the past. We love Yuen Woo-ping’s Drunken Master (1978) too much to give Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy (2018) a fair chance. The same goes for Tsui Hark’s The Legend of Zu (2001) when we can instead re-watch Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983). But when some auteurs go back to explore the foundations of their legacies – consider John Woo’s Manhunt (2017) – it might not be for the best. I personally welcome all these movies with an open mind but there is always the paradox that we, as viewers or fans, want them to change, but not so much they become unrecognizable. And I think Chow found the best way to be progressive yet stay in the same familiar comic mode.

He has a particularly interesting status in Cantonese (by extension Chinese) culture. He is not only a fabulous actor, director, and a screenwriter, he is an icon. His mo lei tau dominated the Cantonese box office through the 1990. Then international success came with Shaolin Soccer (2001) and Kung Fu Hustle (2004). Now he is trying to revive the brand King of Comedy (1999) with its sort-of-but-not-really-a-sequel The New King of Comedy. This might seem like more of the same but there is actually an interesting twist to this film.

When writing a piece on A Chinese Odyssey: Part Three (2016), I proposed that Jeffrey Lau himself couldn’t reproduce his earlier two successes because he lacked the influence of the Chow poetics. That being (a) nonsense comedy delivered with especially charming charisma, (b) being aware of genre conventions he is parodying, (c) certain motivic way to bind the episodic narrative together, and (d) clever fast-paced editing, which emphasized the comedic moments. Here is the funny thing. The New King of Comedy is the perfect Chow film, yet it shatters one of these aspects. He does that willingly to explore new ways of building a gag or a joke delivery.

The New King of Comedy tells a story of a young woman named Rumeng (latest Sing girl E Jingwen) who dreams of being an actress but her career as an extra is filled with more and less comical failures. The humour is wonderfully silly and the story deals with some reoccurring motives – the never-ending hunger for success, being rewarded for hard work, the influence of social media on stardom and the power of will. The usual tropes of Chinese comedy. E Jingwen’s delivery in the lead role makes most of the jokes work while the episodic plot is brought together by her rise to stardom. And when Chow makes fun of movies, such as the horror genre, he knows exactly how to resemble them stylistically. What I want to talk about here is the last part, fast-paced editing, which is the one thing his newest film lacks. And that is what makes it so incredible.

When I think about editing in a Chow film (vehicle or directing), fast cutting comes to mind. His exaggerated reactions, poses and fast movement in Fight Back to School (1991), From Beijing with Love (1994) or Shaolin Soccer were fragmented into series of short takes in a way symptomatic for Cantonese cinema. But The New King of Comedy is composed of dozens quite long takes and some sophisticated staging. Most of the takes run for thirty to ninety seconds or even over two minutes. Chow deliberately plays with filmic space and experiments with composition and staging to create a brand-new way to deliver jokes. How is it possible for a fast-paced Cantonese comedian to make a funny film which utilizes long takes without destroying what makes it work?

For example, take a scene which reinforces a goal for our protagonist, intensifies and then destroys her relationship with a friend and presents a job offer and a gag in just one take. It is a wonderful example of how smart, exciting and efficient staging and camera movement in this film is.

We see these two girls enter the camera space and walk slowly from background to foreground. They are situated in the middle of the frame because that is where our attention is needed – the dialogue about hard work as an actress and impossibility of being discovered on the street. Keep that in mind because it is a set-up for a joke.

The camera then pans to the left situating both girls on the right side of the frame while leaving the left side empty.

This smart movement happens because Chow is creating a space for a new figure – an agent who comes to the frame fills the unbalanced compositions and proposes an acting gig.

At first, we are led to believe this offer was for our heroine by the camera position and staging – Chow is a witty filmmaker, the camera moves behind the newcomers back, blocking the friend and underlining the connection between the agent and Rumeng in a traditional shot-reverse-shot composition.

What happens next is even more fascinating – the camera doesn’t stop moving. Therefore, it circles behind her back now blocking ambitious protagonist and revealing the actual receiver of the proposal, her friend, creating the inverted version of the shot-reverse-shot.

This incredible take doesn’t end yet, we are amused but Chow needs to make sure we know Rumeng is in shock. But he won’t simply cut to her reaction. Instead, he finishes the camera movement, revealing her stunned face.

The take ends right after the agent points a finger towards the building where the casting is happening making it almost two minutes long. Two minutes of efficient, funny and smart staging and camera movement as an alternative to the usual Chow (or Cantonese) fast editing.

This approach brings to the table a few exciting things. Chow gives his actors more freedom to create a cohesive performance and continuous joke delivery. The other aspect is utilizing complex camera movement and staging to sneak in little jokes. Also, it precisely takes the viewer where he needs to be. And lastly, Chow creates an alternative not only to his own poetics but even to Cantonese/Chinese popular cinema in general.

Let me end this piece with one further example. There is a scene when the protagonist scares an experienced actor played by Wang Baoqiang. The set-up of the scare is phenomenal!

It starts with a production assistant walking from the right side to the left one while a camera moving with him.

He then stops to speak with the superstar and after a short dialogue – about a girl dying in a red dress – camera slowly moves behind Wang revealing someone wearing the same dress on the other side of the room through the mirror.

We may not know what the space exactly looks like, but we have a good idea about the spatial relations between him and her. And through the mirror, we not only see a woman wearing a red dress but even Wang’s face.

He then walks towards her, still in one take, changing the visual dynamics – now he is the one in the mirror.

This again is proof of Chow’s understanding of how to lead our attention in a single take. This composition is not only a visual parallel to the first one, but it intensifies the spatial relations between the two figures and allows us to see Wang’s reaction even though he turned his back to the camera. All of this happens in one take which lasts for again almost two minutes.

Here is the thing, Chow adapts new techniques – the long takes, complex staging and camera movements – and utilizes them to reinforce the important aspect of his poetics, humour. While still making sure the viewer knows what is happening. And don’t get me wrong, there are shorter takes, we get the usual reaction shots, important confrontations go back to shot-reverse-shot and when he tries to create visual parallels or time ellipses, he utilizes fast-paced cutting. But the main principle on which The New King of Comedy is built is that of the long take. Stylistically, Chow moves away from the Cantonese norm, or even his own poetics, searching for a new way to say what we are used to hear from him. Viewers get silly jokes, touching story and wonderfully charismatic cast in a brand-new style – literally.

Chow is no Tsai Ming-Liang or Hu Bo but watching The New King of Comedy makes me think of Feng Xiaogang, whose Youth (2017) relied on long takes and complicated staging in a similar way. Maybe even Johnnie To who utilizes the same stylistic aspects in some of his films, notably The Mission (1999) or Office (2015). But for Chow, this is a brand-new way to tell a story. Therefore, being a filmmaker who is not stuck in the past but always thinks of new ways to progress. Chow, even after more than thirty years in the industry, did not lose his creative spirit and might be one of the most exciting contemporary Asian filmmakers. It’s always a pleasure to watch his work.