When Hong Kong’s “King of Comedy”, Stephen Chow Sing-chi, announced on June 7 he would collaborate with Tencent Video to make online films, media in China interpreted it as a consequence of his difficulties in recent years – his movies are no longer box-office hits and he has fought various legal battles.
Chow’s video announcement was broadcast during Tencent Video’s annual conference, held in Shanghai to announce the company’s new programme line-up.
Under the collaboration, Chow will produce some of Tencent Video’s online films. No further details, such as planned release dates or storylines, were provided. Chow said in the video he was looking forward to the collaboration and hoped he could bring more good work to the public.
His venture into making online films – which, in China, have far lower production values than cinematic releases – may come as a small but welcome distraction for Chow, who is reportedly being sued by production company Shanghai New Culture Media for breach of contract.
According to Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily, the movie star had failed to deliver on his pledge, in an agreement with Shanghai New Culture Media in 2017, to make profits of at least 1.04 billion yuan (S$216 million) in the following three years.
Takings at the Chinese box office for both Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back (2017) and The New King of Comedy (2019) were less than expected, with the latter scooping up only 620 million yuan.
Shanghai New Culture Media is suing Chow for 840 million yuan, and the two sides have agreed to arbitration in Hong Kong, according to a Faren Magazine report in June.
Several Hong Kong newspaper reports in 2020 suggested Chow was in great financial difficulties. Hong Kong media went into a frenzy when they obtained information from the Hong Kong Land Registry that Chow had mortgaged his luxury house of 5,700 square feet (530 square metres) on The Peak, an exclusive neighbourhood on Hong Kong Island, to US multinational bank JPMorgan Chase.
In October, Chow issued a statement through his lawyer to say that reports he owed huge debts because of failed investments were not true.
Two months later, and probably to his relief, the Hong Kong High Court sided with him in his eight-year legal feud with an ex-girlfriend who sued him for HK$70 million (S$12 million) in investment commissions.
Alice Yu Man-fung took him to court two years after their break-up in 2010, claiming they had orally agreed some time around Christmas 2002 that Chow would pay her a 10 per cent share of net profits on all successful investments she recommended.
How the 58-year-old’s deal with Tencent Video will impact his career is to be seen. Box office takings for his recent movies have not matched those of films he made earlier in his career. The creator of classic comedies including Shaolin Soccer (2001) and Kung Fu Hustle (2004) had his last box office hit with The Mermaid, released six years ago.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also hindered Chow’s movie-making plans. The highly anticipated sequel to The Mermaid has yet to be released, even though production started in 2018.
Whether Chow can turn his fortunes around may hinge on the reception Chinese film fans give his upcoming movies.
Chow announced in May he was set to executive-produce an animated version of The Monkey King for Netflix. The film, inspired by the classic Chinese tale Journey To The West, is slated for release in 2023.
When he promoted The New King Of Comedy in 2019, Chow said he was planning to make Kung Fu Hustle 2. While he has given no further details of plans for the film, his hardcore fans are waiting to see whether Chow’s upcoming work with Tencent can help him regain his former glory.
The Post has contacted Chow’s law firm for comment.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.