13. KUNG FU HUSTLE (2004)

AKA Kung Fu, Kung Fu-sion

“It’s good to go over the line.  It’ll be boring if it doesn’t.  Following reality is not refreshing for me.”–Yuen Woo-ping, fight choreographer for Kung Fu Hustle

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Stephen Chow

FEATURING: Stephen Chow, Qui Yuen, Wah Yuen, Siu-Lung Leung

PLOT: The Axe Gang, hatchet-wielding hooligans garbed in black-tie evening wear, terrorizes Shanghai in the 1930s. Only the poorest areas avoid falling under their thumb—neighborhoods like Pig Sty Alley, a tenement building where every other resident seems to have one-in-a-million kung fu powers.  When an incompetent ersatz gangster tries to extort protection money from the residents of Pig Sty Alley, he accidentally sets in motion a series of events that brings the Axe Gang into conflict with the poor fighters, with explosive results.
Still from Kung Fu Hustle (2004)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Stephen Chow worked his way up from the trenches of the Hong Kong film industry, starting in television (including a stint as a children’s TV host). He became one of Hong Kong’s most popular comedians, specializing in a verbal style of comedy called “mo lie tau” (roughly, “nonsense”), which relies heavily on puns, wordplay, incongruities and non sequiturs. He began directing in 1994.
  • Chow’s previous film, Shaolin Soccer (2001), was supposed to be his breakthrough film in the West, but distribution was botched by Miramax and the picture became only a small cult hit on DVD.
  • Chow coaxed many older actors from the kung fu’s heyday out of retirement to star in major roles in Kung Fu Hustle. Qui Yuen (who played the part of “Landlady”) was one of the few female martial arts stars of the 1970s and had a small non-speaking role in the Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun. Wah Yuen (“Landlord”) has over one hundred acting credits, mostly from the late 1970s and early 1980s, and was at one time Bruce Lee’s stunt double. Siu-lung Leung (“The Beast”) was at one time considered third only to Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan as a martial arts star, and had been retired from the film business since 1988.
  • Kung Fu Hustle was the most profitable feature in Hong Kong cinema history. In its US theatrical run it opened as the #5 movie in the country and became the highest grossing foreign language film of 2005.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are so many memorable images in Kung Fu Hustle that it’s impossible to determine a consensus favorite.  The vision of two harpist assassins who strum their instruments to summon swords and warriors is a strong candidate, because their poetic menace draws a strong contrast to the lighter and less serious tone of the rest of the film.  Other contenders include the Axe Gang’s Broadway dance number, the Landlady’s whirling Road Runner legs, and a beatific Buddha in the clouds.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDKung Fu Hustle begins with a brutal and atypically

Foreign distribution trailer for Kung Fu Hustle (under the title Kung-Fusion)

realistic gangland slaughter on the neon-washed streets of Shanghai, and to celebrate gaining control of the city, the Axe Gang breaks into a carefully choreographed Busby Berkeley style fox trot, waving their tomahawks in the air.  From this moment, the viewer realizes that they are in the hands of a maestro for whom reality is almost infinitely malleable, and who’s willing to switch cinematic styles at the drop of a hatchet to produce the effect he needs.  Chow’s direction drives the movie through numerous stylistic incarnations, from absurd visual comedy through a ballet of breathtakingly beautiful and unreal violence, while quoting everything from Wong Kar Wai to The Shining and The Untouchables to Warner Brothers’ “Looney Tunes,” yet never loses its grip on the story or alienates the viewer with its madcap diversions.   

COMMENTS:Kung Fu Hustle is likely to be the most commercially successful, mainstream film to appear on this list of weird movies.  The international success of Kung Fu Hustle suggests two things.  First, that moviegoers outside the English-language film tradition, particularly on the Asian Pacific rim, routinely tolerate a larger dose of weird in their popular entertainment.  And, second, a large segment of the American audience is willing to devour an oily dollop of weirdness, at least if it’s spread over fluffy popcorn movie.

Hong Kong films have been noteworthy for their fantastical elements for decades.  It began with the Shaw Brothers/Golden Harvest kung fu cycle of the seventies.  Bizarre elements like flying guillotines, watermelon monsters and chimpanzee weddings were casually tossed into the mix with flying warriors, and no one seemed to mind.   Hong Kong’s New Wave filmmakers of the nineties pushed the phantasmagorical envelope even farther, with mythical fantasy flicks like Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China (1991) and Ronnie Yu’s The Bride with White Hair (1993) smashing box office records, but added technical acumen and a willingness to explore darker themes.  Ever eager to compete with offerings more spectacular and unusual than the last, other directors tried to top the box-office spectaculars by depicting ever wilder fantasies, including over-the-top comic book grue (The Story of Ricky (1991)) and mixing nudity and philosophy (Sex and Zen (1991)), leading to an extraordinarily extreme cinema of popular entertainment such as the world had never before seen.  The taste for weirdness came naturally to Hong Kong filmgoers in this era; it was “pop”. 

With the transfer of Hong Kong from British to Chinese control in 1997, many of the luminaries of this golden age of Hong Kong cinema (John Woo, Jackie Chan) fled to the west, fearful that the Chinese would bring both political and content-based censorship to the free-wheeling city.  The popular emphasis shifted to relatively sedate, classical spectacles set in China’s distant past, in the mode of Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002, starring Hong Kong martial artist Jet Li and stalwart HK actress Maggie Cheung) and House of Flying Daggers (2004).

Stephen Chow, then a comedian, was one of the major Hong Kong talents who stayed behind in Hong Kong, and the only one who seems able to recapture the wild, experimental days of the New Wave.  Kung Fu Hustle is a throwback to the I’m-not-sure-what-to-expect-but-I-know-it’s-going-to-knock-me-off-my-seat days of the 1990s New Wave, updated with modern CGI technology which makes the impossible happen before your eyes.  Chow re-taps the Cantonese popular taste for the weird and supra-real, and miraculously translates it for western audiences, as well.  

As a comedian, Chow specialized in the “mo lie tau” or “nonsense” style of humor (a genre he is sometimes said to have founded).  Since this tradition depends heavily on Cantonese wordplay that doesn’t translate to English, Chow transmutes his humor from verbal to visual in his films intended for an international audience. 

It works like a charm.  Take the sequence where Chow’s character, Sing, is searching for someone to fight head-to-head to intimidate the assembled residents of Pig Sty Alley.  He deliberately picks the shortest guy he sees out of the crowd, only to discover that the man had been seated on a stool all along and is actually eight feet tall!  He waves this pick off and chooses another meek looking resident, only to find that each of his selections is (thanks to computer generated effects) an absurdly magnificent specimen whose physical gifts were hidden in the crowd.  The scene is silly and unexpected, the visual equivalent of a pun that makes you smile against your will. 

Chow is just as unselfconsciously absurd in other comic scenes.  When Sing is bitten on the lips by a cobra, the venom swells his lips to grotesque proportions.  In the funniest sequence of the film (and one of the funniest set pieces in any film in the past decade), Chow and his partner try to assassinate the Landlady with throwing knives–an attempt that quickly turns into a farcical catastrophe, one that keeps piling it on after you’re sure the gag has run its course.  The painful comedy that ensues makes the audience laugh uproariously, at the same time they wince in pain. 

Throughout the movie characters will have their heads bashed in and recover in minutes; the Landlady will zip from place to place in a cloud of dust like the Flash; and none of the characters in the film find this drastic flouting of the laws of biology of physics worth more than a offhand comment.  It’s as if these blatant violations of scientific laws were no more remarkable than the eccentric fashion sense of the alley’s barber, whose slacks are cut so low that they show off the top of his buttocks.  This is simply the world these characters inhabit, a world that is ruled by whatever natural laws Chow thinks best serves his story at the time.  Chow’s weird world is natural to its denizens, and so it becomes acceptable to us, as well.

Chow’s spite for gray reality extends to the famous fight sequences, which of course are the reason the film exists in the first place.  The fights are madly frenetic, but go exponentially beyond generic kung fu exaggerations: they’re chopsocky squared.  The setup is that each legendary fighter is topped by the next one, until the final combatants exhibit truly mystical powers.  Characters absorb impossible blows while barely flinching.  They summon chi-spirits from harps, scream loud enough to shatter bricks, and fly into the stratosphere, plummeting back to earth to deal a deadly blow.  They sail through the air and twist and stop on a dime.  With computer enhancements, the fighters are able to escape the constraints of their wires.  One kick sends a victim sailing through the air and crashing through a stone balustrade.  The brawls are brilliantly choreographed, supremely athletic, and even balletic, designed to please the most over-the-top action enthusiast.  The movie’s sense of action, like its sense of humor, refuses to submit to any rules, logical, cinematic, or otherwise, beyond the will of its creators to enthrall. 

With all of this going on, it’s no surprise that the plot is relatively thin, a string along which the viewer is pulled from one amazement to the next.  There’s some heroic character development for Sing, and a de rigueur romantic subplot.  These concessions to narrative convention are the only ones the film makes, and only because they are necessary to ground us in an intelligible emotional world, when all around us is chaos. 

In America, a film this original would never be made.  The comedy sequences would only be allowed in the broadest of parodies, and the fight sequences could only exist in a cinematic fantasy world that otherwise played by realistic rules.  The two genres could never be mixed; given the budget a movie like this demands, the studios could not afford to take a chance on a bomb.  In Hollywood, originality is a liability, at least when we are talking blockbusters. 

But Sony Pictures Classics did something unusually smart with this film.  Realizing that it would be a hit in its homeland, where Chow is a big draw and audience tastes swing more to the bizarre, they invested $20 million in the film.  They easily made a profit on the Asian release, then premiered it in the US, where it made an additional $17 million of pure gravy.  When the worldwide totals came in, the film had made a 500% profit.  If American studios aren’t willing to subsidize big-budget domestic weirdness, they can at least follow Sony Pictures’ example, and outsource it to exotic lands. 

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Chow’s mental-as-anything magnum opus… in which he throws everything into the mix, with very peculiar results indeed. Waving its flying fists and feet in the air in 50 directions at once, this is an all-dancing, all-fighting Chinese western…”–Mark Kermode, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

“Chow’s brilliance is to push generically implausible action into the realm of the stratospherically surreal… [his] special requirements far exceed the usual flouting of Newtonian laws. Characters don’t just fly, but bend space, zigzagging like heat-seeking missiles or gliding elegantly like autumn leaves.”–Jonathan Romney, The Independent (contemporaneous)

“As if warming up for the meta-movie acrobatics to come, ‘Kung Fu Hustle’s’ opening scene flies through a half-dozen modes in as many minutes – Western, musical, gangster, kung fu, homage to Scorsese, parody of Wong Kar-wai… Chow’s cine-spectacular is a berserkazoid genre pastiche, juiced to the gills with digital effects.”–Nathan Lee, The New York Sun (contemporaneous)

IMDB LINKKung Fu (2004)

OFFICIAL SITEKung Fu Hustle: International Movie Portal

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Sony Pictures Media: Multimedia depository featuring the original full-length trailer, three film clips, three excerpts from DVD documentaries, a comparison of the storyboard and a finished scene, and a flash game based on the movie.

Kung Fu Hustle (Spike TV):  Cable channel’s collection of video clips and extras from the movie.  Contains the trailer, four scenes, two clips from the DVD documentaries, and a 3 minute interview with Stephen Chow.

The Six Degrees of Stephen Chow and Kung Fu Hustle:  This enlightening article from the Asian entertainment site YumCha! reveals Kung Fu Hustle‘s relationship to past Hong Kong films, explaining references, connections and influences that link the film with past kung fu movies. 

Setphen Chow on his new film Kung Fu Hustle:  Interview with The Guardian.

Director Stephen Chow talks Kung Fu Hustle:  Interview with movieweb.com.

Synoptique – The Gongfu of Kung Fu Hustle:  A short academic essay that argues that there is more politics in the movie than the casual Western viewer might catch.

DVD INFO:  There are two alternate single disc DVD releases of Kung Fu Hustle, each with benefits and drawbacks.

The initial release (buy) contains a 40 minute “making of” documentary, two deleted scenes, an interview with Asian Cult Cinema‘s Ric Meyers, and an audio commentary with director Chow.  It features a slightly toned-down version of the film, however, in which Sony digitally removed much of the blood that occasionally splatters in the fight scenes.

The second release styles itself the “axe-kickin'” edition (buy).  It includes the Ric Meyer’s interview, and adds three short mini-documentaries covering fight choreography, production design, and costume design. It also includes a comparison of the storyboard and the filmed scene in the knife attack sequence, and a Comedy Central interview with Chow along with some bumpers and outtakes from that cable channel’s presentation of the movie. Happily, the blood has been returned to the print, but sadly, the director’s commentary is gone (in fact, there is no audio commentary track).

Kung Fu Hustle is now also available on a Blu-Ray release (buy) that contains yet another “making of” documentary, this time clocking in a 45 minutes, two deleted scenes, the ubiquitous Ric Meyer interview, and restores the director/cast commentary that was cut from the otherwise excellent “Axe Kickin'” edition.

2 thoughts on “13. KUNG FU HUSTLE (2004)”

  1. If this film is on the list so should be the Star Wars prequels. Both have a story that cannot be cared less about, characters that are unlikable and boring, and a lot of shiny, unmotivated stuff happening. This is not weird, it is just random things that glue the animation together. I expect a weird movie to puzzle me. This is just highly polished, meaningless boredom.

  2. I am going to agree with mo. I was very surprised to this movie on this list. Interesting movie, yes. Weird, no. Makes me question the other entries.

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