FEATURING: Vincent Price, Peter Jeffrey, Virginia North, Joseph Cotten, Terry-Thomas, photographs of Caroline Munro
PLOT: Dr. Phibes, a mysterious, organ playing supervillain, kills off doctors in bizarre
and ritualistic ways as Scotland Yard races to find the pattern to the crimes and the identity of the killer.
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Dr. Phibes, the supervillain, is pretty damn weird, from his obsession with acting out 1920s torch songs to the audio jack in his neck that he connects to a phonograph when he wants to speak. Dr. Phibes, the movie, is somewhat weird, though less so than its central character. Doubtlessly, the proper but incompetent Brits who are perpetually one step behind the bad doctor would term the goings-on here “decidedly odd.” We’re not sold that Dr. Phibes is weird enough to make the List on a first pass, but we’re not comfortable writing it off, either, so it will sit in the Borderline category.
COMMENTS: The first scene of Dr. Phibes wisely spotlights the film’s keynote set and admirably sets a tone of ghoulish whimsy. Organ music swells as the camera travels up a marble staircase until it reaches an odd atrium. In the center sits an organ with a fan of pipes glowing with subtly garish yellows, pinks and reds. Flanking this centerpiece are trees with stuffed birds of prey perched on their dead limbs. At the organ sits the hunched, hooded figure of a man, who sways as if possessed and theatrically throws up his arms during random passages as he plays. After the opening credits fade a longshot reveals there is more to this room: there’s a clockwork band of automatons in tuxedos. The hooded figure finishes his dirge, steps away, winds a crank and begins conducting the stiff figures as they belt out an impossibly lush big band ballad. On a balcony above a door opens and out steps a beautiful brunette, Continue reading →
“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
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.
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 WEIRD: Kung 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 Continue reading →
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