It\'s in his mouth


The Meaning of Chow (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