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Hong Kong comedian spreads cheer at Italy festival

By Matthew Scott

UDINE, May 6, 2011 (AFP) - In Asia he is known as the "Bruce Lee of comedy" but it wasn’t until this week that Hong Kong's Michael Hui realised his brand of humour could have universal appeal.

Mixing slapstick with often savage social commentary, the 68-year-old Hui has written, acted in and directed a string of box office hits across the region since the 1970s while his regular stand up shows in Hong Kong sell out within minutes of tickets going on sale.

Such is his popularity that Hui has been commandeered by the Hong Kong government to join the election committee which chooses the city's chief executive while he also sits on China's National People's Congress -- a rare honour for man who makes a living out of poking fun at society.

While the veteran has been happy thus far to ply his trade mostly at home, a trip to the 13th Far East Film Festival in the northern Italian town of Udine this week -- where Hui is being honoured with a lifetime achievement award -- has opened his eyes to the possibilities of spreading the cheer.

And, he says, the timing could not be better.

"This is the first time in my life I have realised that comedy has no boundaries," said Hui on the fringes of the 10-day festival.

"Just as long as the audience is human, if you listen we all make that same sound -- ‘ha, ha, ha’."

Although Hui has not made a film since "Rob-B-Hood" alongside Jackie Chan in 2006 he says he has been inspired now by recent happenings both at home and abroad to start writing again.

"People in Hong Kong are now daring to speak up," he says. "They will demonstrate against anything. This is the mood all over the world.

"For my comedy I look at the people around me and I look at their weaknesses and then I put those weaknesses into my character on screen so people can identify with them.

"I have really thought it is time to do that again, given the mood in the world. It has become less easy to laugh. We have to ask why."

Hui began his career in comedy after first wanting to be a "serious intellectual, a politician or president". But friends in the Hong Kong entertainment industry had other ideas.

"They said to me: ‘You look funny'," says Hui. "That’s how it all started."

After hosting a number of TV specials, Hui was lured into cinema -- often drawing on the talents of his brothers Ricky and Sam -- and formed a successful relationship with the massive Shaw Brothers studio during its golden era of the 1970s.

Films such as "Games Gamblers Play" (1974) and "Chicken and Duck Talk" (1998) found an audience not only in Hong Kong but across Asia, especially in Japan where Hui became known as "Mr Boo", or the character that fans loved to hate.

He also had a brief flirtation with Hollywood, picking up a small part in Burt Reynolds' box office smash "Cannonball Run" in 1981. There were offers for more work overseas but Hui chose to stay close to home.

"I look at my comedy as though I am cooking a dish for my family, for Hong Kong," says Hui. "To find here this week that Italians find my food delicious is very nice.

"With the Chinese film industry rising, Hong Kong’s traditional market is shrinking and what I think Hong Kong film-makers now have to do is not lose the true colour of our own culture but try to find the recipe so that everyone can enjoy it -- China, Italy, everywhere.

"I think if I keep cooking with the right ingredients -- chicken and pork -- and not throw in some scorpions or snake, everything will be all right."

The Hui-produced "The Private Eyes" (1976) is acknowledged as the first film to explore the comic possibilities of kung fu -- a rich vein of humour most famously tapped by the internationally acclaimed Jackie Chan and since followed by film-makers from Hong Kong to Hollywood.

"I just thought kung fu always took itself too seriously," says Hui. "All those people being killed. It’s a little bit silly when you step back from it. So I decided to make it funny so people could see you don’t have to always take things so seriously."

For noted film scholar Roger Garcia, who programmed the Tribute to Michael Hui retrospective in Udine, the film-maker’s influence on Asian cinema is unmistakable.

"I think Michael really helped to put Hong Kong comedy on the map in the modern world," he says. "He also unleashed the comedy potential -- both in kung fu films and in common-man drama -- of modern Hong Kong."

On reflection, Hui says his role in life has always been simple.

"I don’t want to tell people the world is sad -- everybody knows that already," says Hui. "I’d rather look at the world and say, it’s sad -- but not completely. I would like to be remembered as a comedian who found comedy in anything.

"As you laugh, gradually the pain is diffused. Even if you die, you have to die laughing."

MySinchew 2011.05.06

 

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