Stephen Chow had a busy year in 1992. Not only did he make eight feature films, but five of them were the top highest grossing films in Hong Kong that year. 1992 was the year of Stephen Chow, and the Royal Tramp Collection brings together two of his most popular films of that year into one wonderfully fun and entertaining double feature set.
Based upon the popular novel The Deer and the Cauldron by Louis Cha, the two movies tell the story of Wei Siu Bo (Stephen Chow), a quick witted and fast talking entertainer who’s telling tall tales in the brothel where his sister works when a rebel leader comes under attack from a cruel general who’s plotting to take power from the Emperor (Derek Wan). Wei Siu Bo helps the rebel, getting him safely out of the building, and gets accidentally recruited into his faction. The leader agrees to train him in his martial arts, but only once he completes a special mission.
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Thus, Wei Siu Bo is sent undercover in the Imperial Palace in order to steal the 42 Chapter Book. Unfortunately, he doesn’t want to wait in the long line to apply for a servant job, and goes for the recruitment office with no line at all, which he discovers is to apply to be a eunuch. Wei Siu Bo is saved from his castration by the head eunuch (Ng Man-tat), who recruits Wei Siu Bo into his own schemes. Now he’s being sent to spy on the dowager Empress (Sharla Cheung), and steal the 42 Chapter Book from her. Along the way he accidentally makes friends with the Emperor and his sister, Princess Kin-ning (Chingmy Yau), who recruit him to their own cause. And so Wei Siu Bo finds himself acting as an agent for every faction, just trying his best to stay alive using his wits and his lies.
As you may have guessed from the fairly convoluted plot, Royal Tramp isn’t a film that’s taking itself too seriously. Billed by Eureka Entertainment as comedy movie, I wasn’t quite prepared for just how comedic the film was going to be. The movie is clearly something of a love letter to wuxia action movies, and has some superb fights and action sequences scattered throughout. It’s also incredibly slapstick, has some fantastic visual gags and great one liners, and gently pokes a bit of fun at the genre it loves. It feels very much to wuxia what Airplane is to disaster movies; a movie that’s having a lot of fun with the genre.
A lot of the film’s comedy works due to Chow himself, whose comedic timing and reactions in certain scenes elevate a small joke that might get a smile out of you into a moment where you laugh out loud. It’s easy to see why the man did so well, especially in the year of the release of Royal Tramp. He has the level a charm that’s needed to keep the film from becoming grating. The rest of the cast do really well too, and a number of big names and recognisable faces from the Hong Kong film industry make appearances.
Royal Tramp II, which was released within days of the end of the theatrical run of the first film, continues the story of We Siu Bo, who now finds himself working as a powerful official within the royal palace, and an adviser to the Emperor. The Emperor is worried about an outlying lord possibly turning against his rule, so promises the Princess to his son in order to form an alliance. What no one knows, however, is that the Princess is pregnant with Wei Siu Bo’s child after their entanglement in the first film.
Whilst Wei Siu Bo tries to figure out how to deal with this problem, their transport comes under attack from revolutionaries, including a one-armed nun warrior, and an old enemy comes to get revenge on Wei Siu Bo. With the balance of the Empire – and his own life – on the line, Wei Siu Bo will find that he has to finally pick a side, and try to end all of the troubles that seem to have him being everyone’s target.
Royal Tramp II, which was filmed back-to-back with the same cast and crew, does feel like the weaker of the two movies. The comedy is a little different this time around, with Wei Siu Bo being perhaps a bit more serious, and other members of the cast trying their hand at more comedy. The fight scenes and the choreography feel a little better this time too, and whilst these moments in the first film felt like a fun parody of what you’d see in other wuxia movies, this time it feels much more like a standard wuxia film itself. That being said, the film in no way takes itself seriously, and when viewed together the two movies do make for one complete story.
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The two disc set is fairly sparse when it comes to extras; however, both films come with the options to watch in the original audio with subtitles, as well as a fairly decent English dub that actually fits the comedy tone of the film well, and still manages to capture a lot of the timing and inflections needed to sell the gags. Both films also come with a pair of audio commentaries each, one from Asian film expert Frank Djeng and producer F.J. DeSanto, and the second with Mike Leeder and Arne Venema. Both commentaries offer different kinds of insights into the movies, with one being more relaxed and conversational than the other, filled with anecdotes and fun stories, whilst the other is more informative. There are also a couple of interviews and trailers to round things out.
Enjoyment of the films may depend on your comedy tastes, and your knowledge of the conventions of the genre, and those who like some silly humour and dick jokes will find a lot here that will entertain. But even those who might not have much experience with Hong Kong cinema are sure to find a great deal of entertainment here, with Stephen Chow’s charm and comedic ability alone making it worth the time to watch.
The Royal Tramp Collection is out on 13th November from Eureka Entertainment.