image courtesy of Cinemasie
Year of release: 1996
This DVD is available from Sensasian
Forbidden City Cop
Stephen Chow. Image courtesy of Mei Ah.
In 1994's From Beijing with Love, Stephen Chow's James Bond-wannabe Ling Ling Chi (007) hints at a past ancestor who was a member of the "Forbidden City Cops", who were guards of the emperor. Though not really a true prequel to that film, Forbidden City Cop has Chow playing Ling Ling Fat (008), a guard who knows nothing about kung fu, instead using his time to make inventions like helicopters and mouth cannons. The emperor (Cheung Tat-Ming) is tired of 008's inability to protect him, so he kicks 008 out of the Forbidden City (the emperor's palace). 008 settles into country life as a doctor along with his wife (Carina Lau) where he has his share of off-kilter patients, but returns when he finds out of a plot by the neighboring Gum Kingdom to rid China of all its' doctors.
In reading some other reviews for Forbidden City Cop, I saw the reference to this being Chow's first "modern" or "mature" work. I'm not exactly sure of what that means -- there is bit less toilet humor in here than his previous movies (especially those directed by Wong Jing, who just sticks to producing this one) and there are fewer outright parodies, though there are a couple of really funny ones of Fox television's horrible Alien Autopsy show and the Hong Kong Film Awards. I believe it refers more to the fact that Chow's character himself seems more mature than his past ones.
In Forbidden City Cop, Chow doesn't seem as buffoonish or cocky, and thus more likeable from the start. Also, even though female characters have in Chow's films always been the yin to his yang, the ones featured here (especially Carina Lau) have fully changed into the bedrock, the person that Chow truly depends on -- a trend which continues to this day, with Vicky Zhao in fufilling the role in Chow's latest film, Shaolin Soccer. It is refreshing to see this kind of characterization for women, instead of the whiny, useless or just plain bitchy mode they are portrayed as in many other comedies (a notable example is Maggie Cheung's insufferably annoying May from the Police Story films).
Carina Lau and Stephen Chow. Image courtesy of Mei Ah.
Getting back to the movie itself, Forbidden City Cop's first half is extremely funny. The jokes come at a rapid-fire pace, and the supporting cast is excellent (especially Law Kar-Ying, who plays the one person in the emperor's court who likes 008). It's classic Stephen Chow all the way, with lots of rubber-faced mugging, over-the-top humor, and a good deal of action. However, near the midway point, the film takes a violent turn -- I'm surprised that Forbidden City Cop only got a IIA (about the equivalent of a PG-13 in the US) rating with all the spurting blood -- and stacks on another layer into a already fairly dense film.
As the threat from the Gum Kingdom seems to have been solved, a new story about 008 being sent to check on a new concubine (Carman Lee) for the emperor is introduced. So, at this point, Forbidden City Cop seems to change gears into a totally different plotline. While things do come together at the end, perhaps some foreshadowing of this second story (so to speak) would have made the transition smoother for the viewer.
As 008 begins to fall for Carman, the plot seems to get a bit too convoluted -- the character's actions don't really make much sense -- and the jokes fall a bit flat. Thankfully, things pick up near the end, where the ambiguous plot is wrapped up and there is a really good action sequence, which again shows that Stephen Chow could be a "regular" action star if he chose to. Even though Forbidden City Cop ends nicely, the events in the last half of the movie feel a bit dull, and the movie suffers overall as a result.
Still, even a "lesser" effort from Stephen Chow is much better than many other comedies from both the US and Hong Kong. I think it is because Chow is so good that we expect near-perfection from him. Like Jackie Chan for kung fu or Chow Yun-Fat for gangster movies, Stephen Chow is undeniably the king of comedy in Hong Kong, which is both good and bad. Chow's personailty and style is more than enough to make an average film a good one, but the problem is that we expect all of his movies to be great, and when (like Forbidden City Cop) they don't fully deliver, the viewer feels a bit disappointed. At any rate, even though it has its' share of flaws, Forbidden City Cop is still a very enjoyable comedy that should please fans of Stephen Chow.
Carman Lee. Image courtesy of Mei Ah.