Okay, hands up. Who doesn’t want to watch dancing gangsters?
(Especially after the stellar success of Cop Rock.) And
who doesn’t want to see violence aesthetisized to the point
where it becomes so beautifully unreal that it turns disturbing
again? Fine, fine, you in the back, go get up against the wall.
The rest of you lucky, daring souls, prepare to be enchanted.
This is a different sort of enchantment: The fairy godmother
hasn’t come when you, as a child, were sleeping in your bassinet,
and blessed your future, nor will you be surrounded by walls
of thorns until your prince(ss) comes to wake you with the smell
of popcorn and the quick smack of a beer bottle opening. This
enchantment is more disorienting, less comforting, and, though
it promises a happy ending, it doesn’t promise people won’t
be irretrievably hurt along the way.
Stephen Chow, director and co-writer, stars as Sing, a man
who just wants to be bad. Well, specifically, he wants to be
bad in terms of being a gang member so he can get the respect,
luxury, and women that come with the association. Luckily for
us, he’s hapless, as is his sidekick (Chi Chung Lam).
Chow is the star even though he doesn’t appear for the first
ten minutes of the movie. After the scene has been set —
the city is controlled by ruthless gangs, all except for the
areas that are too poor — Sing and his sidekick show up
and try to hustle the poor people out of their money, precipitating
the chain of events that drives the movie forward, leading to
romance, coming of age (if such can be said for someone in his
thirties), and lots of lots of lots of violence. Not as much
as Sin City, and not as brutal, but shining in most every
scene just the same. In fact, there’s a scene that echoes exactly
a scene in Sin City — it’s quite possibly a reference
to the comic book.
Kung Fu Hustle shares Quentin Tarantino’s manic conglomeration
of genres and forms, tricks and styles, from cartoon violence
and action to romance to the tropes of gangster films, blended,
of course, with everything you’d expect from a film with kung
fu in the title. Unlike Tarantino, though, the pieces of Stephen
Chow’s movie aren’t smoothly interlaced; they’re more stitched,
the seams obvious, the cartoon-like chase scene suddenly grafting
itself to the up-and-coming gangster flick. Jarring shifts lead
the viewer on; on reflection they really aren’t shifts, but
insertions, splices, overlays, where suddenly a song-and-dance
number slips into a vicious murder.
And this is five minutes into the film. If the sheer absurdity
of the sequence of events onscreen doesn’t make you smile, your
funny bone’s hustled. Or bustled. Or maybe just busted; perhaps
your funny bone isn’t what you think it is and is simply a traditional
serious narrative bone in disguise.
Of course, this is also why I think this movie may not be a
break out hit among American audiences — it’s simply so
strange. Stranger than the obvious absurdity of Shaolin Soccer,
since Hustle isn’t simply a mashing together of two different
genres as Shaolin Soccer is. Watching Hustle is
entering Stephen Chow’s dream: The elements all fit tonally,
but they are connected in ways that are completely unexpected
and ungrounded (until later in the film) by what has come before.
For a moment (take a breath) I want to talk about the fight
scenes. Yes, yes, it’s a kung fu movie, what did you expect?
The fights in this movie are really interesting and fun though,
strangely, they aren’t the focus; the combat is like that in
where the fighting is more a storytelling tool to show character
interaction than martial-arts porn you’ve been suffering (fast-forwarding?)
through a bad movie to see.
There are times when the fighting comes off as Matrixesque,
especially in a scene near the end: Think Mr. Smiths. Scenes
filled with kung fu masters, especially with master against
master, develop good tension, or at least a feeling of rooting
for the underdog. Really, however, the movie plays kung fu as
a kind of magic, so the amazement that comes from watching masters
perform their tricks is beautiful, but in a Neo-avoiding-a-bullet-rain
way instead of a Jackie-Chan-oh-my-god-he’s-actually-doing-this
And that’s not the only nod, um, steal from The Matrix,
or other movies, cartoons, etc. — but that’s secondary
in a movie like Kung Fu Hustle, even as the references/homages
are secondary to Kill Bill. As one of my friends pointed
out, the movie isn’t much for character development or even
complicated plot gymnastics. Although you may not figure out
exactly what’s happening until the (near) end, every action
and every scene fits into place nicely so that while Kung
Fu Hustle may be surprising, it is never unexpected. Even
the fighting scenes have a rock-paper-scissors feel because
we are introduced to people, from the very beginning, who overpower
all who came before them (with one notable exception).
But how can you attack a movie for (lack of) character development
when five of the major characters are referred to only by their
professions, and only five characters are named at all?
The female romantic lead is even mute, relegating her role to
that of movie prop. As you might expect, the evil characters
kill, the good characters die, but the good characters never
kill the evil; that, of course, would make them evil. (Remember
He-Man pulling Skeletor back over the edge of a cliff? Same
logic.) The movie is not an allegory, but it very closely walks
the line of a dream/fantasy/fairy tale, with Sing as the protagonist
that we can all identify with.
The question is, how did Stephen Chow know we all wanted to
run a candy store?