Shaolin Soccer's Stephen Chow:
Master of Big Screen Mayhem
by Philip Ng
Without a doubt Stephen Chow is Hong Kong's king of comedy. You cannot find a person in Hong Kong who does not know him for his nonchalant wit and expert comedic timing. Whether delivering a blazing dialogue or performing a routine of physical comedy, he is a unique presence guaranteed to take over the screen and captivate the audience. However, his movies are not merely brainless comedies thrown together to draw a laugh. His productions, while absolutely hilarious, always manage to tell an insightful story, exploring such poignant themes as honesty, friendship or true love. Ever the martial arts enthusiast and Bruce Lee fanatic, he never fails to pay tribute to the martial arts and to his idol Bruce Lee in his productions. Anticipating the upcoming US release of his comedic masterpiece, Shaolin Soccer, I grabbed a chance to sit down with one of my most famous si-hings (senior kung fu brother) for a conversation about Shaolin kung fu, soccer, his fascination with Bruce Lee, and even a bit about his own martial arts background and philosophies.
PN: I know you must have been asked this many times, but how did you get the idea of placing Shaolin kung fu and soccer together for a film?
SC: Honestly, I don't really remember (laughs). Since it's already been two years (since the conception of this film). I've always been interested in making martial arts films, but I wanted to incorporate something unique, to add something fresh to the genre. Then during a casual discussion about soccer with a friend, I decided that the concept of placing kung fu and soccer together in a film had not been explored yet. Then I decided to go ahead and develop the idea.
PN: I've seen the movie (Shaolin Soccer) numerous times, and think the idea worked great. Though your Hong Kong audience knows well of your interest in Bruce Lee and the Chinese martial arts, I don't think many people in the west know of your personal interest and background in kung fu. And I believe only a handful of people know of your training with the legendary Wing Chun sifu (instructor), Wong Shun Leung. Can you please share with us a bit of your personal martial arts history and your relationship with Sifu Wong?
SC: Actually, my formal training in Wing Chun only lasted about three months. I was still in school at the time. Since I was not working full-time yet, I didn't have much extra spending money. I put together the extra money that I had earned from my part-time and summer jobs to cover the cost of three months' tuition. After three months, I ran out of money so I had to stop.
Due to my interest in Bruce Lee, I had known for a time that Sifu Wong was Bruce Lee's kung fu brother, and that Wing Chun was a method that Bruce Lee had formally trained in. I was also quite fond of Wing Chun's concepts and principles, which are quite logical and efficient. So I sought out to learn Wing Chun. Though it has been many years ago, I still remember those three months very clearly. I can still remember Sifu Wong teaching me the first form, and learning from my own si-hing-dai (kung fu brothers). I was very happy there, those three months was an extremely happy period for me. From learning Siu Lim Tao (Wing Chun's first form) to learning chi-sao. I progressed to chi-sao rather quickly. There was a si-hing (senior kung fu brother) whom I had worked with consistently. His lop-sau was incredibly fast. It was something that I could never counter. "Bam bam" then I would be struck! <
I also remember Sifu Wong, while no longer a young man at the time, still kept up his skills. Sifu had a ball suspended between two elastic ropes that he would strike every time he walked passed. Since the ball was suspended between two elastic ropes, it would swing wildly when it was struck, but he was able to repeatedly strike the ball with punches and kicks despite the wild and unpredictable motion of the ball after the initial strike. Sifu would walk back and forth in his school, and every time he passed the ball, he would strike it!
PN: Were you able to keep in touch with Sifu Wong Shun Leung after your training with him?
SC: I was not able to keep in contact with Sifu Wong. I was young at the time, and had many other concerns. I did not do too well in school and I had to worry about my future upon graduation. At the time, deciding upon a career took precedence and I really didn't have too much time to continue my kung fu training. Then it was some time after I had entered the filmmaking business that I had a chance to meet with Sifu Wong again. Both Sifu Wong and myself were invited to the unveiling of the life-size Bruce Lee statue in Hong Kong a few years ago.
PN: I was there with Sifu Wong at the time, and I remember you two speaking for quite a while.
SC: During our conversation at the event, I was very happy to hear that he had remembered me.
PN: Besides Wing Chun, I have noticed your display of other martial arts methods in your films. For example, in Shaolin Soccer you skillfully display your kicking skills. You seem to have obvious training in many other aspects of the martial arts, what other methods have you studied?
SC: Most of the exercises that I currently engage in is mainly done to keep my body fit. To be quite honest, my current martial art skill is really not at my desired level. Of course, flexibility is a must. Overall limberness is important to someone who engages in this business. It is my belief that overall flexibility is really one of the most importantly attributes in my line of work. Because of my work, I have the need to maintain my flexibility through stretching, and my overall cardiovascular endurance through running and bicycling. My overall focus has been placed more so on my flexibility and cardiovascular endurance rather than on the martial arts and weight training alone.
PN: As the many people who follow your films already know, you often place direct Bruce Lee references and tributes in your films. Can you discuss your fascination with Bruce Lee and how you approach the incorporation of Bruce Lee's philosophies into your films?
SC: Bruce Lee's philosophy is often represented by the simple phrase, "using no way as way, using no limitation as limitation." With my limited knowledge of the subject matter -- and I am not sure if I am interpreting his philosophy correctly -- but it has given me a sort of inspiration. It reveals to me that many things can change and become adaptable, thus one cannot be bound by limitation.
Also, the biggest inspiration I get from Bruce Lee is his foresight and his creativity. In fact, it is his amazing ability to foresee that really inspires me. In researching the life of Bruce Lee, it is obvious that he had always foreseen that the Chinese martial arts would develop into a huge phenomenon. However, during Lee's own rigorous training and development, the Chinese martial arts had not yet developed the worldwide marketability that it has today. Nevertheless, he had already foreseen that it was something that he would achieve. He was steadfast and focused upon the martial arts and never wavered in his chosen path. He never gave up his goal and treaded forward in spite of many difficulties, until one day, "bam" he succeeds. As we all hope to attain some type of achievement, his personal pursuit and success becomes quite an inspiration to us. His talent, energy, and determination must have been incredible. It's easy to look back now and trace Lee's development and rise to success, but during his struggle, his future and eventual stardom was unbeknownst to him. To tread the path that he has, one must have a great deal of confidence and extreme determination. Bruce Lee's determination and his foresight is the greatest inspiration that he has given to me.
PN: I think many people will agree with you. Bruce Lee was an inspiration to many people. Let's bring our discussion back to your film, Shaolin Soccer. I've noticed that in this film (as opposed to your previous films) you have made use of computer graphics to aid in the many spectacular special effects in the film. Can you discuss a bit about your decision to use CG and how it is used in the film?
SC: Computer graphics was definitely an important tool in the production. I think without CG, the film could not have been made. Many of the effects need to utilize this science; I think we should further develop its use in films. However, in film making, this science should always serve as a backup. It should never take the foreground; CG should be something that is used to enhance your film, not something that takes precedence over the more important aspects of drama and character.
PN: In Shaolin Soccer, your character's soccer team is comprised of fellow Shaolin disciples who each maintain their own unique martial arts abilities that become quite useful during a match. For instance, your character is a super kicker, while the goalkeeper is a chin-na (joint locking) expert. How did you decide on the specific kung fu method (specialties) for each of the Shaolin brothers in the film?
SC: The martial arts ability of each character was determined by the position that they played on the team. For instance, the goalkeeper is someone who needs to catch and grab the ball, so it was natural to choose a type of kung fu skill that required the use of the hands, so he was given the skill of chin-na (joint locking). Soccer is a good sport in that it requires the use of the whole body to play efficiently. For instance, the head can be used to strike the ball, the chest can be used to stop and control the ball, the legs can be used to kick the ball, and as the goalkeeper, the hands are used to catch and deflect the ball. In essence, soccer is really well suited as a counterpart part to kung fu. You really use your whole body in soccer, so one could choose a martial arts skill that specified the use of either the feet, the hands, hand, body, etc. and fit them easily to players in particular positions on the soccer field.
PN: I can see now why this concept was so successful. Do you also have a strong interest in soccer?
SC: I really enjoy the sport as a spectator, but I can't really claim to be an expert. My interest rests mainly with the martial arts.
PN: Before we bring this interview to a close, I would like to talk a bit about the actor playing the goalkeeper in your film. He really looks like Bruce Lee! How were you able to find this actor?
SC: Actually he was my dance instructor. I noticed his extraordinary resemblance to Bruce Lee and asked him to help me out a bit and try his hand as an actor. He was very interested and decided to work with me. Coincidentally, he himself was also a big fan of Bruce Lee, so he would often do some quite convincing impressions of him. Then I thought about what character he would be best suited to play. We finally decided upon the character of the goalkeeper. As the goalkeeper, he would be able to wear the yellow jumpsuit (that Bruce Lee made famous in "The Game of Death"). If he were to wear shorts (like a regular field player), it would not have the same effect, but since he was able to wear the jumpsuit, the image was perfect.
PN: I know that you are a loyal fan of Bruce Lee, so you must have been strict in your direction to the actor playing the goalkeeper. Can you tell us a little about the direction that you had given him?
SC: Actually, he was already very talented. I really didn't have to give him much direction since he already resembled Bruce Lee so much (laughs).
PN: Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions.
SC: Thank you.
About Philip Ng:
A 6th generation instructor of Choy Lay Fut gung fu under his father and teacher Sifu Sam Ng, Philip Ng is also an instructor of Ving Tsun (Wing Chun) gung fu under the late Sifu Wong Shun Leung. Philip Ng currently resides in Hong Kong where he works in the film and entertainment industry. He can be contacted through the Ng Family Chinese Martial Arts Association website: www.ngfamilymartialarts.com