Kung Fu Hustle
I’ve been told on many an occasion that I do not have a sense of humor. This comment is usually preceded by some sort of tasteless action or mean joke, to which those around me guffaw like crazy while I sit pondering the nature of humor.
Well, okay, so it is true—I don’t have a sense of humor. That said, even I have been known to laugh at the low brow—Old School, for example, killed me, even while I created a feminist response in my head. I like ideas, and I enjoy questioning, but I can appreciate humor.
That’s pretty much where I am with Kung Fu Hustle, or Gong Fu. The film is silly, fun, and violent. As with Sin City, I found myself trying to figure out how I am supposed to feel when violence is juxtaposed with comedy. Is it satire, meaning the violence actually comments upon an issue in some sort of ironic way? Or is the violence just funny—do we really like seeing the bad guy get ripped up? Now, humans have enjoyed a bloody show for ages: consider the awful practice of picnicking during a lynching or buying a ticket to watch a Gladiator die a gruesome death. Can one consider an enjoyment of violence without considering race/class issues? That’s a whole other Pandora’s box.
Taking pleasure in violence is nothing new, and I suspect that it satisfies the same needs to affirm power, direct aggression, and purge a range of emotions from fear to hatred. Laughter also allows a purging of emotion, which is why some people laugh when scared, uncomfortable, or even anguished. Human emotions can be complex: sometimes language simply doesn’t allow needed expression.
Structurally, Kung Fu Hustle fascinates me. I genuinely didn’t know whom to root for because so many supposed masters die or are defeated before the real hero of the film comes to power. In an action movie like this, with a poor town fighting off the wicked horde, one might expect an easy distinction between good and evil. Not so, and this is to the film’s credit.
The film opens with a gleeful leader of the Axe gang dancing in the street as he kills his sister. From that point on, various masters fall to the soulless depravity of the mob or the artistic slaughter of trained killers. In one scene, two musicians play an instrument that shoots blades from the strings. They take out three masters while creating a lyrical sound—no wait, scratch that. To be honest, I can’t remember the music they create—I was too consumed with the visuals: masters performing incredible physical feats as they deflect hundreds of swords flying towards them.
Kung Fu Hustle inundates the audience with sight and sound, so much so that I never noticed if I was reading subtitles (I say “if” because my viewing of the film was so seamless that I honestly can’t remember if the movie had subtitles or dubbing—though I know dubbing was highly unlikely). Somehow I always felt completely connected with the action on the screen—something I was unable to accomplish when watching a Godard film the week before. Perhaps this is merely proof that audiences today are accustomed to over saturation—somehow we manage to disappear into the chaotic din on the screen.
Stephen Chow is the writer, director, and acts as the movie’s hero, Sing. Yet Sing is anything but heroic for much of the film. Several other potential heroes take the stage first, but they fall before Chow’s Sing finally becomes reborn as a master. Until this point, he’s a misfit, hatching schemes with his chubby best friend and even joining the bad guys for a time.
While he’s busy reliving the trauma of his youth (some boys once peed on him when he tried to save a mute girl), three masters, living life as ordinary tradesmen, reveal their power to defend the town. Watching ordinary men become extraordinary is always satisfying—offering those of us in the theatre the hope that we, too, are extraordinary or have the potential to be. Unfortunately, these three men, about whom the entire movie could have been based, risk life and limb (literally, one master later dies by having his head cut off), only to be expelled from town by the Landlady.
Ah, the Landlady. In a word, she’s awesome. Attired in a housedress and wearing curlers, actress Qui Yuen apparently gained weight for the role. She enjoyed some fame as an actress in the 70s in China, so kudos to Chow for pulling a Tarantino and resurrecting a star deserving of another look. Yet despite all the Landlady’s power, I wonder if there are negative implications that her greatest strength is a banshee type yell? The mythological banshee foretold death, but I think any associated misogyny is a modern distortion of an otherwise inoffensive legend.
The Landlady is a nagging wife with a weak husband: physically able to distort his body to avoid the most dangerous of blows. She’s small minded, a control freak, and fails to protect the three masters she tries to banish. Living within her own world, concerned only about her own interests, the Landlady is less an offensive woman-hating creation than a disappointing human character. Despite possessing great power, she uses it only to advance her own ends. Whatever the gender, this sort of selfishness is anything but heroic.
The least satisfying element of this film is the love story (wait, is this a George Lucas movie? No? Sorry, guess I’m anticipating my Star Wars review). The lovely young woman whom represents Chow’s greatest humiliation also suffers his slights. There is little that is believable or developed about this character interaction. Since Chow clearly spent little time creating the love story, I’ll refrain from commenting too deeply on a scenario that is purely perfunctory.
Kung Fu Hustle is a great time. Entertaining, action-packed, and completely generic. Made in China, it epitomizes the Hollywood movie.