Stephen Chow is the Daffy Duck of Hong Kong marital arts superstars. Far more subversive than Jackie Chan ever was, and endearingly idiosyncratic compared to other cookie cutter action stars (especially the muscled voids of today), the 45 year old maverick stands as the genre's biggest undiscovered superstar. Sure, Western audiences were wowed by the cartoonish chaos of 2001's Shaolin Soccer and 2004's Kung Fu Hustle, but Chow had been part of the Asian entertainment industry for more than two decades before making it big across the Atlantic. Of course, through our narrow, near xenophobic view of the modern motion picture, he seemed like an overnight sensation.
Yet Chow has been long regarded by film fans who've ventured beyond their local video stores standard selection. With such well received efforts as King of Comedy, God of Cookery, Forbidden City Cop, and From Beijing with Love, he's accumulated quite a reputation in his native land. In fact, when 1992's Royal Tramp won the box office that year, Chow had the distinction of starring in the other four films making up the top five as well. Considered by many to be an excellent example of the mo lei tau - or "makes no sense" - genre of Chinese comedy, this wacky historical epic spawned an equally outrageous sequel - Royal Tramp II and solidified Chow's status as a top foreign funnyman.
The first film, Royal Tramp, sets up Chow's character perfectly. When a young emperor is declared too inexperienced to run his dynasty, he brings on four advisors to guide and counsel. One member of the group, a despotic old man named Obai, turns traitor, and begins a singular revolution against the throne. But this is not the only threat to the crown. Seems another group, called the Heaven and Earth Society, want to bring down the Quing dynasty and reestablish the Ming name. While working at his sister's brothel, a young con artist/storyteller named Bo winds up helping the leader of Heaven and Earth escape harm. He agrees to work for the organization as a spy.
Once in the castle, he is taken in by head of the Eunuchs, Ha Da-Fu, and trained in the ways of kung fu. He befriends the emperor and his horny sister. He also runs into trouble with the Queen Mother, who may not be who she seems. As Obai gathers his army for attack, and the Dragon Sect's operative plans her internal coup, Bo tries to balance his loyalties. Most importantly, everyone wants a book known as the 42 Chapters. In it is a secret so amazing that it could change the course of history. Of course, they look to their royal jester as a means of obtaining the tome. It's just too bad Bo is busy wheeling and double dealing. After all, once a huckster, always a huckster.
Combining classic stunt choreography with Chow's by then patented patter, Royal Tramp is an eye popping, rib tickling romp. It serves as notice for what a sprawling martial arts spectacle can be while simultaneously establishing a heretofore unknown level of verbal wit. Most fans of this type of film associate comedy with kung fu, stylized slapstick where the physical proffers the funny business. But typical to the mo lei tau genre, where dialogue is as important as daring-do, Royal Tramp delivers a high level of multifaceted farce. Chow is particularly good at this. His character is constantly conniving, making up stories to subvert potential danger (or death). He is outrageous and outsized, lowbrow and quick witted.
While many will assume that the R rating comes from the typical body blows traded by the characters, there is a great deal of blue humor present. Bo is introduced to the "penis" room by Ha Da-Fu, and one of the classic kung fu moves used requires the characters to literally feel each other up (no matter the region). Sex is suggested and never shied away from, and various Western swears (the F-bomb, the S-word) make regular appearances. There are online scholars who question the English translation of Chow's lines. They insist that much of the nuance and copious wordplay used in mo lei tau is lost here. In addition, historians hate this film. While it's based on traditional Chinese legend and literature (Tramp is indeed loosely taken from the wuxia novel The Deer and the Cauldron by Jin Yong), it does denigrate much of the heroic heritage.
Still, for pure cinematic enjoyment, for watching exceptional actors bring life to exaggerated actions, Royal Tramp is terrific. It never ceases to amaze while it continuously calls upon established Hong Kong elements to sell its scope. The opening attack on Obai is spellbinding, and the last act forest fracas offers nonstop thrills. Oddly enough, Chow doesn't do a lot of martial arts here. He usually stands in the background, quipping away, while other genre icons - Ng Man Tat, Damian Lau, Elvis Tsui - take all the round house kicks and body blows. Visually stunning, thanks in no small part to directors Wong Jing and Ching Siu-tung (you can see the latter's work in Chinese Ghost Story here) and overflowing with memorable moments, Royal Tramp is a regal treat.
It’s no wonder there was a sequel planned. Thanks in part to Chow's popularity, and the film's suspected financial returns, Royal Tramp II was an inevitability (the movies were filmed back to back). This time around, Bo has been promoted. After defeating Obai and sending the fake dowager Queen back to the Dragon Sect, he feels secure in his position of power. But trouble looms on the horizon. Seems the angry underground wants the son of Ping Shi to marry the Emperor's sister. So Wu Sun-Gwei, under the protection of the Dragons and evil military mastermind Feng Shi -Fan head out to meet with the royal family. Along the way, their efforts are thwarted by a one armed nun who uses her magical kung fu to protect her interests. It is up to Bo to defeat the various factions, woo those who want him dead, and learn the practicality of being the greatest non-fighter fighter in all of ancient China.
Far more action oriented than its predecessor (not that Royal Tramp I is a slouch in the stunt department), the return of fast talking Bo and his adventures in backdoor political intrigue is just as good as the original. Chow, now completely comfortable in the role, expands the character’s qualities by giving him more swagger in the persuasion department. Far less whiny than he was in Tramp I, Bo is now a man of means, and the anarchic arrogance he shows is 'rich' in hilarious rewards. When we first meet him, trying to persuade to young warrior gals to sleep with him as a means of warding off a fictional poison, the exchange is priceless. Similarly, the polygamy angle is used to great effect, especially when the spoiled princess from the first film is reduced to playing supporting concubine. Indeed, aside from the young emperor, who’s reduced to a mere plot device, the returning members of the Royal Tramp company do a terrific job of expanding on what was presented before.
Even more impressive are the fight scenes. Directors Wong Jing and Ching Siu-tung seem bent on making these new confrontations as balletic and broad as possible. It seems like, ever time enemies meet, they begin a surreal dance that offers swordplay, spins, leaps, lacerations, kicks, cracks, and other unbelievable feats of physicality. Filmed in a manner that manages to protect both the fiction and the fighting, it is truly amazing. Sadly some will miss the nonstop verbal volleys of the original film. The tripwire dialogue is present, by delivered in dribs and drabs instead of in a steady stream. Running gags are used (a reference to respect being like water), and the same scatology that was present before is metered out in tiny little particles. The main emphasis of the narrative is on interpersonal intrigue, people playing off each other to formulate alliances, rivalries, and romantic couplets.
In fact, the Royal Tramp films do a fascinating job of combining the traditional with the up to date to create a crazy world where Chow’s mo lei tau can function freely. By following his flim flam man from whorehouse entertainer to court confidant, from leader of the rebellion to creator of reconciliation, the movies make a sincere statement about human nature as ever changing and challenging. The use of a mythical backdrop, with its ability to provide untold levels of magic, makes for a startling subtext. Equally entertaining is the way Chow channels contemporary values through old world routines. It represented something of a novelty for the conventional Hong Kong film industry. It's also why many purists still dislike the Royal Tramp films.
It’s a sentiment seconded by commentator Bey Logan on his alternate DVD tracks provided. Offering both history and context for each film, these discussions provide a unique perspective on Chow’s career, his rise through the Shaw Brothers system, and how his popularity literally rewrote the Asian action film rulebook. Along with an interview with co-writer/director Ling, and the original theatrical trailers, we get a rather thorough look at how a desire to play dumb and lowbrow revitalized a dying genre, and how one man triumphed in the face of much criticism and social consternation.
For Stephen Chow, however, superstar celebrity was just a matter of time. Once he got his way, starting his own projects and infusing them with his special creative input, the sky was literally the limit. Cockier than most of his fellow filmmakers, willing to take chances that time and tradition would never consider critically viable, he made the combination of kung fu and craziness a winning fiscal formula. Now capable of doing virtually anything he wants (his latest effort is the kid friendly ET-like alien epic CJ7), the future looks very bright for Chow’s brand of buffoonery. Anyone interested in seeing where he started could do worse than experiencing the Royal Tramp collection. Both films are fine examples of the man’s amazing talent.
Royal Tramp II