Struggling actor Wan Tin-Sau (Stephen Chow Sing-Chi) can’t seem to catch a break. His obsessive dedication to every tiny aspect of his acting roles irritates everyone around him and scuppers his chance to land a bit-part in an action movie opposite Hong Kong superstar Sister Cuckoo (Karen Mok - whose character name doesn’t sound quite as strange in Cantonese). On-set caterer Mao (Ng Man Tat) is the bane of Wan’s existence, continually denying him the lunchbox that comes to symbolise his dreams of making it.
In his spare time, Wan teaches acting at the poorly attended local community theatre, where his students consist mainly of old folks and teenage triad wannabes who want to learn how to act tough. However, a group of prostitutes from the nearby “hostess bar” bring along Lau Piu-Piu (Cecilia Cheung), an achingly lovely yet hopelessly uncouth young hooker, hoping Wan can teach her some acting tricks to lure more big-spending clients. After some initial misunderstandings, the earnest actor and downtrodden hooker discover they have a great deal in common and fall deeply in love, but face an array of often brutal obstacles before they can grab their frail chance at happiness.
King of Comedy seems like a deeply personal film for Hong Kong’s top comic superstar Stephen Chow Sing-Chi, one that harks back to his early days as a struggling unknown. Chow ran the gamut from bit-part player to character actor in b-grade action movies, to children’s television presenter and as such there is a ring of authenticity around Wan Tin-Sau’s every calamitous mishap, setback and heartbreaking rejection. However, the film has none of the resigned despair of Ricky Gervais’ BBC series Extras and is very much the work of a go-getting optimist. Indeed the film opens with Wan’s rallying cry before the crashing waves in Hong Kong harbour: “Work harder! Keep on!” and proved something of a transitional work given it was the last time he co-directed with regular collaborator Lee Lik Chi, before going solo with his international hits: Shaolin Soccer (2001) and Kung Fu Hustle (2004).
Crucially, Wan is less interested in stardom than finding the chance to hone his acting skills and introduce the average man on the street to the life-changing possibilities of art. It is this earnest quality that earns the undying loyalty of Piu-Piu, a woman who was betrayed and forced into prostitution by her first love (Steven Fung Min-Hang), and melts the frosty heart of actress Sister Cuckoo.
Co-written by Chow this features his best constructed, most multilayered screenplay exploring the nature of broken dreams and drawing parallels between acting and prostitution, two professions that are often demeaning and involve people pretending to be what they are not. It also includes some of his funniest gags: Wan’s tireless attempts to demonstrate his range of facial expressions before a demanding director (“You’re wife’s dead! You’re baby’s a genius! He was born with his dick on his head!”); a spot-on John Woo parody complete with fluttering doves as Karen Mok guns down hundreds of extras in church; Wan’s lengthy speech detailing his motivation shortly before his character is shot; and the hapless young man who misinterprets Wan’s coaching and grabs a triad boss’ penis. Don’t ask…
At the time audiences were taken aback by how dark the drama gets during the latter half, wherein Piu-Piu is beaten half to death by an angry client and an out-of-leftfield twist puts Wan smack in the midst of a real drugs bust/police shootout. However, these shifts in tone are capably handled by Chow as director (in fact the undercover sting is very well handled and genuinely suspenseful) and given extra depth by an amazing performance from Cecilia Cheung, who went onto become the biggest star in Hong Kong cinema over the Noughties. Cheung makes a heart-melting entrance (in school uniform!) then trashes her dainty rom-com image with a stream of expletives. She is vulgar, vulnerable, hilarious and heartbreaking. Regular Stephen Chow co-stars Karen Mok and Ng Man Tat contribute memorable supporting turns and kudos to costume designer Choy Yim Man for allowing Karen to ditch her screen image as a gawky tomboy and show everyone how gorgeous she is.
Among the in-jokes are Wan’s stage version of Fist of Fury (1972) (a parody of which was one of Chow’s earliest hits), the inclusion of a foul-mouthed American film producer that might be a dig at a certain Hollywood mogul who quashed Chow’s dream to direct the American remake of The God of Cookery (1996), and a much-touted cameo from Jackie Chan, part of an agreement the two megastars had to appear in each other’s movies that year; Chow’s cameo being in Gorgeous (1999). Though hard to find on DVD outside of Hong Kong, King of Comedy should be sought out by Steven Chow fans as it is definitely one of his finest films.