King of Comedy ★★★★½

Stephen Chow plays an aspiring actor who keeps getting banned from a film set (an action picture starring Karen Mok, the one sequence we see is a hilarious John Woo parody) for causing slapstick hilarity rather than keeping to his role as an extra. He also manages a local community center and takes on some acting students: a group of local club girls (led by Cecilia Cheung) who need to learn how to act more like innocent college girls for their wealthy clients. He also helps a local wanna-be Triad act more intimidating and then an undercover cop catch some crooks.

So there you have it: actors are goofballs, prostitutes, crooks and, ultimately, heroes.

Like the Hui Brothers' The Contract it's an ode to an older, sillier style of comedy, with weird visual gags and escalating joke construction. It's looser than that 1978 film, Michael Hui had a kind of precision that Chow's free-wheeling style could never match. It's also much more of a one-man show. The Huis' films are collective expressions, with great parts and set-pieces for all three of them, The Contract thus capturing the group endeavor that is show business. But Chow's film is about stardom, and there's no doubt who that star is (though Cheung, Mok and, as always, Ng Man Tat do some great work).

When the film was released in 1999 (New Year's of course), it was noted how much heart the film had. How surprising it was that Chow would veer ever so slightly into drama and romance. That only really makes sense if you know his earlier films first. As most of us in the West first encountered him with Shaolin Soccer or Kung Fu Hustle, the more conventional, less anarchic story isn't so much of a revelation. But compared to Tricky Brains or the God of Gamblers sequels or Royal Tramp films, the romance here is surprisingly moving. Most of the credit for this probably goes to Cheung, she really is terrific here, in her first film role.

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