Stephen Chow is, I am told, a pretty big star over in his native Hong Kong, although I’ve only seen him in “Shaolin Soccer” — and if he was in other movies I’ve seen, then I don’t recall them. Having seen “Soccer”, I can safely say that 1996’s “Forbidden City Cop” is definitely a Stephen Chow movie. Chow not only co-wrote the script, he also stars and directs. The costume martial arts/comedy is about Ling Ling Fat (Chow), a martial arts-challenged Forbidden City Cop (one of those guys in charge of protecting China’s emperor in ancient China) who would rather spend his time inventing gadgets like a primitive helicopter instead of learning kung fu. It’s not that he has anything against martial arts, he just doesn’t have time for it.
Like a lot of Hong Kong movies, “Forbidden City Cop” actually has two main storylines — one runs for most of Acts 1 and 2, while Act 3 introduces an as-yet-unseen storyline (and sometimes an as-yet-unseen villain) to carry the rest of the film. In Acts 1 and 2 we follow Fat as he attempts to get back into the good graces of the bumbling emperor (Tat-Ming Cheung) after proving his ineptness with kung fu. On the road for a conference set up by enemies of the empire, the emperor is captured and put in an alien bodysuit. (Yes, you heard me correctly.) The emperor’s life is saved by Fat in the movie’s biggest action set piece. Later, Carmen Lee (“Lifeline”) shows up for the final 30 minutes as a prostitute who lures Fat away from the adoring arms of his wife, played by Carina Lau (“Ashes of Time”).
Everything about “Cop”, from its James Bond parodying title sequence to Fat’s invention of a gun (using a person’s mouth as the gun barrel), is in the service of farcical humor. The biggest challenge, of course, is to correctly transverse the fragile balance between making your film absurd for the sake of comedy and making your film “Wong Jing Absurd” (or as I like to call it, Absurdist Hong Kong Cinema).
Chow manages the balance by avoiding blood whenever he has the chance. For instance, a massacre scene where about 50 people are killed is devoid of blood or gruesome wounds. The only wounds that appear are inflicted by flying leaves, which achieves the desired comical effect. Which isn’t to say there isn’t blood in the entire movie. It’s just that for the most part Chow keeps the red paint at a minimum, and when it does show up, it’s not gruesome or superfluous.
Besides chuckling at Fat’s many oddball inventions (and some that even makes sense, although not many), the audience gets a very sweet and charming relationship between Fat and his wife Kar-Ling (Lau). The duo makes a great pair, and both Chow and Carina Lau sells their roles with aplomb. The two actors are so effective onscreen that when Carman Lee’s prostitute shows up to seduce Fat away from Kar-Ling it’s easy to know who to root for. How can you not appreciate the talent on display when Kar-Ling, hoping to win her husband back, offers to cook him noodles with that warm smile of hers?
Naturally, all of the lunacy leads to the movie’s final showdown, which comes complete with unexpected turns like multiple Oscar-caliber acceptance speeches and the presence of a flying, er, fairy? I’ll be the first to admit that I find some Hong Kong humor to be perplexing at best and completely tasteless at worst. “Forbidden City Cop” is neither perplexing nor tasteless. It’s very funny from beginning to end, and Chow is clearly having a ball mocking all the period costume movies that’s come before his. The movie knows its roots, that’s for sure.
The opening scene, when four supposed “super kung fu masters” converge on the Forbidden City rooftop to do battle only to be interrupted by a dismissive Fat, sets the mood for the rest of the picture. “Cop” is easy to laugh with because the whole thing is presented as utterly absurd — and yet the movie is never awkward. For instance, I didn’t cringe once.
Stephen Chow (director) / Stephen Chow, Vincent Kok (screenplay)
CAST: Carina Lau …. Kar-Ling
Carman Lee …. Gum Tso
Tat-Ming Cheung …. Emperor
Stephen Chow …. Ling Ling Fat