The Meaning Of Chow Yun-fat (its In His Mouth) Essay

This essay has a total of 2232 words and 9 pages.

The Meaning Of Chow Yun-fat (its In His Mouth)

The Meaning of Chow Yun-Fat (It's In His Mouth)


Ultimately, it comes down to his mouth.

Chow Yun-Fat is the coolest movie actor in the world today, and the only way I
can explain this is to talk about his mouth. He does cool things with his mouth.
Smoking cigarettes is no longer an emblem of cool in the USA, but Chow does
wonders with cigarette smoke in Prison On Fire. Director Ringo Lam understands
this; like most of the great Hong Kong directors, he loves using slow motion and
freeze frames to pinpoint important moments in his movies, and he saves a few of
the most elegant slow-motion sequences for Chow blowing smoke and looking cool.

In John Woo's over-the-top classic, Hard Boiled (the rough literal translation
of the Chinese title is Spicy-Handed Gun God), Chow plays with a toothpick.
There are few movie moments more violently cool than the shot of Chow, a gun in
each hand, sliding down a stair banister blasting a dozen bad guys while letting
his toothpick hang just so from the side of his mouth. In God of Gamblers, Chow
plays a gambler who gets a bump on his head that turns him into some quasi-
autistic prodigy, like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. Chow retains his intuitive
skill at playing cards, but now he must be pacified by constant pieces of
chocolate that he scarfs greedily, goofy smile on his face. Blowing smoke,
dangling his toothpick, eating chocolate, or just smiling ... ultimately, when
trying to explain why Chow Yun-Fat is cool, it comes down to his mouth.

Everything I have said so far describes a subjective reaction to watching Chow
Yun-Fat on the screen. Fill in the name of your favorite actor or actress,
change the specific references, and this could be your essay. We don't learn
anything new from such subjective meanderings; we only identify taste
preferences. I'm proud to be a Chow fan, but then, I am proud to be a fan in
general. With other favorites of mine, though, I am able to get at least a
little bit beyond subjectivity. Be it Murphy Brown or X-Ray Spex, Bruce
Springsteen or NYPD Blue, at some point I can analyze my relationship to the
cultural artifact in question, place it in some cultural context, and come to
some hopefully useful conclusions about both the particular text and our
interaction with that text. Chow Yun-Fat, however, seems to defy my attempts at
analysis; ultimately, it all comes down to his mouth and nothing more.

Try describing Chow Yun-Fat to someone who has never seen him on the screen.
Comparisons sometimes help, so how about this: Chow Yun-Fat is the Asian Cary
Grant. He makes everything look easy; there are always other actors chewing the
scenery in Chow's movies, but he rarely goes for the obvious and the overdone,
preferring the smile and the toothpick. He looks good in a tuxedo; he looks good
in an expensive silk suit; he looks good with nothing on at all. And it all
seems so effortless.

Cary Grant, but there is more: in one scene from Prison on Fire, Chow is Cary
Grant taking a dump. He's gotta go pretty badly, he's shitting and farting and
talking to a fellow inmate, all at the same time, he's waving away the smell and
sending looks of displeasure to his stomach, finally he's asking his friend to
leave the room, because Chow can't 'do it' if someone is watching. And yes,
through it all, Chow is cool. Cary Grant taking a dump.

Cary Grant taking a dump, but there is more: in film after film, Chow is the
object of desire for men. In Ringo Lam movies, this is often overt; in Full
Contact the main villain is a gay mobster with a hard-on for Chow, and somehow
his gayness is a positive aspect of his character, unlike so many American
action films where gay means psychopathic or neurotic or evil. His gayness is
positive because he obsesses over Chow Yun-Fat; it is hard to find fault with
anyone who merely recognizes what Chow fans know in their own subjective worlds,
that Chow Yun-Fat is the coolest. At the end of Full Contact, with the villain
about to die, he tells Chow that he only hopes that they will meet in the
afterworld where they can finally consummate their repressed affair. Chow kills
the bad guy, telling him in the wonderfully bizarre phrasing so common to HK
English subtitles, 'Masturbate in Hell!,' condemning the villain to death, to
hell, but also to an eternity of fantasizing about Chow Yun-Fat.

And still I haven't gotten beyond my own subjective fantasies. Readers who have
never seen Chow Yun-Fat might have a better picture in their minds of what he is
like, but we still don't really have an inkling of What Chow Means. We're still
at the level of establishing taste preferences. And I am still puzzling over why
I find it so hard to get beyond the surface of Chow Yun-Fat.

Maybe the answer is in the subtitles. English subtitles in HK movies are often
unintentionally hilarious, an odd and charming combination of fractured grammar
and almost-right cliches (in Once a Thief Chow tells Leslie Cheung, 'it takes
turn to tango'). When reading those subtitles, an American viewer realizes that
there are differences between HK and US culture that language can't precisely
express. Similarly, when someone speaks English in an HK film, the English
subtitles are frequently different than the spoken words, never more comically
than in Woo's Heroes Shed No Tears, where an American soldier screams
'Motherfucker!' and the subtitles read 'Son of a bitch.' It is as if the
soldier's English is first translated into Mandarin or Cantonese, then
retranslated into English subtitles; something is indeed lost in the translation.

Even such an excellent reading of these movies as Jillian Sandell's piece
elsewhere in this issue 'loses something in the translation.' (Her clearly-
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