Oscar-winning movie Parasite is often described as genre-bending, and introduced Western audiences to contemporary Korean movies. In comparison, Chinese movies that are popular in English-speaking countries are either Kung Fu epics (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), crime movies (Infernal Affairs) or arthouse romance noir (anything by Wong Kar-Wai).
But there are also so many underrated genre-bending Chinese movies, most notably by Stephen Chow who made CJ7 and The Mermaid as well as Kung Fu Hustle. With Kung Fu Hustle 2 in the works, it’s a good time to revisit the first one, as it deserves to go from cult classic to mainstream.
The 2004 movie is a mix of comedy, slapstick humour and cartoon-like action sequences unlike anything else in a Hong Kong or Chinese movie. Chow wrote and directed and is also its central character, Sing. He is a good-guy-gone-bad petty crook in 1930s Shanghai, aspiring to become part of the feared Axe Gang who are terrorising the residents of a slum. Unfortunately, he and his sidekick, Bone (Tze-Chung Lam) struggle to meet the Gang’s many kill requirements. To make matters worse, the slum that Sing and Bone are supposed to terrorise has residents with very impressive Kung Fu skills, despite looking malnourished.
Sing and Bone are now wedged between the Gang who are losing patience with them and a ragtag gang of residents and a landlady who keep kicking their asses with fantastical martial art sequences. How their story ends is not as important as the absurdist journey they embark on.
Chow has repeatedly said that his inspiration for Kung Fu Hustle is the Kung Fu movies he grew up with, but also American cartoons and old-school Hollywood musicals. One zany sequence shows a chase between Sing and the landlady where both characters suddenly develop motor legs and zip down a road like one that Wile E Coyote would use. The only thing missing is the Road Runner’s signature ‘beep, beep’ sound.
An underrated scene is one featuring the Axe Gang dressed in suits and top hats performing a stylised dance sequence intercut with scenes of murder and mayhem. This is a good example of why it is difficult to classify Kung Fu Hustle as it deftly moves from gore to henchmen with fancy footwork. Are we supposed to groan, cower or clap? In comparison, when the movie A Clockwork Orange featured a violent gang dancing to ‘Singing in the Rain’ while assaulting their victims, it was intended to show unambiguous horror.
One of the movie’s most notable characters is the landlady, who always wears rollers in her hair and has a cigarette dangling from her mouth. An internet search reveals that her image is popular enough to be the subject of cosplay and Halloween dress-up. In a movie about male gang leaders, she remains the standout villain, with her iron-fisted rule of the slum, kick-ass martial arts talents and most of all, her Lion’s Roar that can defeat enemies with its vibrations.
The roaring technique itself has roots in martial arts, as the noise distracts opponents and signifies dominance. Chow ran with it and incorporated another cartoon-like sequence when the landlady’s body balloons and she releases a soundwave that shatters things around her. There are glimpses of Jim Carrey’s character in The Mask here. In both movies, the word ‘cartoonish’ is a compliment. It is a shame though, that she is portrayed as an over-the-top, stereotypical mean wife who lords over her hapless husband.
There are also other parts that are cringeworthy, such as a leering landlord, an effeminate gay character who is played for laughs, and a hairdresser whose arse crack is always showing. Still, the movie is memorable partly because Chow’s version of martial arts is different from any other director’s. It is not the traditional, tough-guy version popularised by Jet Li or Bruce Lee. It’s also not the Jackie Chan version of action comedy where he punches an opponent and then winces in pain. Chow does not focus on being a martial arts expert but rather, uses digital special effects to blend martial arts with humour and surrealism, thus creating a whole new genre.
Another of Chow’s directing trademarks is that his characters cannot easily be classified as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Chow himself tends to play silly, witty underdog characters whose Cantonese insults are meme-worthy by 2020’s standards. In Kung Fu Hustle, Sing is at best a loveable slacker who thinks being ‘bad’ will give him the upper hand in society. This is different from many Hong Kong or Chinese movies that focus on ‘the hero’s journey’ where the central character is supposed to be well liked and will eventually save people from the Mafia, corrupt cops or a loveless relationship. Think about any Jackie Chan movie – is there any doubt that we’re supposed to cheer for him?
Kung Fu Hustle is a good reminder of how directors and storytellers use inspirations from different cultures while adding their own signature. For example, Kung Fu Hustle’s fight sequence featuring a hero and over fifty bad guys defying gravity and the laws of physics is reminiscent of The Matrix, which in turn borrowed from Hong Kong action cinema.
In movies, as in fashion, everything comes back full circle.
Fun fact: Hong Kong martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo Ping did the action choreography for both The Matrix and Kung Fu Hustle.
Watch 'Kung Fu Hustle'
Thursday 5 November, 7:35pm on SBS World Movies
Friday 6 November, 11:50pm on SBS World Movies
NOTE: No catch-up at SBS On Demand
Genre: Comedy, Action
Director: Stephen Chow
Starring: Stephen Chow, Feng Xiaogang, Wah Yuen, Zhi Hua Dong, Kwok-Kwan Chan