Kung Fu Hustle

Gong Fu

dir: Stephen Chow
[img_assist|nid=983|title=Awful lot of people falling over for no real reason|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=448|height=363]
Who? What? What the fuck? Huh?

Easy. Calm down. Breathe. Relax.

So you may not have heard about the so-called follow up to Shaolin Soccer by Stephen Chow. Unless you’re in Melbourne I don’t know if you can even see it yet unless you wander down to the Chinatown cinemas in the middle of the city’s Golden Triangle (Russell, Bourke and Swanston Streets). And since according to my sources it’s the last Chinatown cinema still operating in Australia, until it starts playing in the arthouse cinemas in a few month’s time (since Sony snatched it up), it may seem a bit pointless reviewing it when those few people who might be interested in seeing it don’t really have the option. Unless they get a pirate copy from someone who looks dodgier than the guy behind the counter at a sex shop.

It’s one of the reasons why when I see films at film festivals I mostly don’t review and post about them. It seems both pointless and self-aggrandising, as if to brag about films others can’t see yet just to show how wonderful and nerdy I am. Which I’m not. I swear I’m not, you’ve got to believe me.

Not wonderful, that is. Surely there were a few of you out there (I know of at least one married couple who loved Shaolin Soccer, you scamps know who you are) who might be interested, so I shall discard my usual policy for thine eternal benefit.

In hearing about the movie, and finding out where it was playing, without even wanting to this has lead me on a nostalgic trip into my own mostly mundane and often bizarre past. Going along to the Chinatown cinema reminded me of the fact that I hadn’t graced the theatre with my presence for over a decade. I’d been a regular movie-goer to the Chinatown and the Capitol (now closed down), a happy audience member for the best and worst that Hong Kong cinema has to offer.

I’ve banged on about Hong Kong movies in the past, so I won’t try to bore the panties off of most of you (though the erotic possibilities of that are indeed tantalising) for too long. Suffice to say that whilst the rest of the world equates Hong Kong films solely with the action / martial arts types of films that people like Bruce Lee, the Shaw Brothers, John Woo, Jet Li and Chow Yun Fat rose to prominence with globally, the Hong Kong film industry itself has always been more varied and divergent than that. They’ve been pumping out sub-standard (and most often sub-sub-sub standard) product in multiple culturally idiosyncratic genres for decades.

Sure there’s the ‘wu xia’ (martial arts) genre and the gun fu action flicks. But did you know about the mawkish, saccharinely torturous melodramas made solely so Canto-pop singers have a career beyond the surreal karaoke they become renowned for? These melodramas are so fucking sweet that apart from being excruciating to watch they also succeed in sealing shut eyes and other holes of the head with the cloying liquid sugar spraying from the screen onto the poor audience. Then there’s the Triad recruitment genre (Love Among the Triad, Once Upon a Time in Triad Society, The Young and Dangerous series, many many more) that went above and beyond the call of duty in illuminating the brilliant idea that the only two choices for poor adult males without decent educations in Hong Kong (and thus access to decent jobs) were either to become noble badass Triads or corrupt policemen. In many cases Hong Kong triads were financing some of these films, as well as biopics that depicted their thinly veiled lives as a saintly struggle against establishment oppression and designer clothing labels. All this with straight faces.

You’ve got the gambling genre, ghost stories, period pieces (with or without swords, with or without magical crap), the contemporary thrillers / dramas ripping stories straight from the media headlines and direct rip-offs of Hollywood films, sci-fi stuff that was thinly veiled paranoia about the imminent Chinese takeover in 1997, action adventures that had, I kid you not geomancy (feng shui) as their premise and then of course the so-called Category III films that mixed soft-core porn with the Hong Kong freaks and groovers trying to outdo Bret Easton Ellis (Dr Lamb, Raped by an Angel, Untold Story).

So those of you still conscious can see that the label ‘Hong Kong’ really doesn’t describe a genre of film, just a film industry. It’s not a catch-all phrase like ‘chick flick’, ‘porno’ or ‘John Travolta turkey’. Compared with the Australian film industry, which currently only has two genres I can think of: pretentious art house flicks that ya mum and her middle class / middle aged, book club / golf team compatriots love watching, and the ‘she’ll be right mate, er, cobber’ True Blue dinky di crap so parochial and stinky that it even embarrasses bogans, and you can see how limited our industry’s genre possibilities are compared with HK’s.

With your enforced re-education complete (to the delight of my PRC masters), let me get on with the review. Whilst wandering into the cinema I was thinking back as to the reasons why I’d stopped going to the Chinatown. I went up to the counter and asked the girl behind the glass for a student ticket to this film. I looked down at my wallet as I was putting my student card back into it, and looked up to see the girl still looking at me and pointing at a sign whilst saying something I couldn’t quite make out. The sign she was pointing to had the details for the film I wanted to see, and I nodded my head in an exaggerated fashion to indicate yes, whilst repeating the name of what I thought the film was called again multiple times. Inside my head I was saying to myself ‘What’s the problem, isn’t my Cantonese good enough for you?’ It was only when I was walking into the theatre itself that I realised the movie was called Kung Fu Hustle. I’d been asking the girl for a ticket to some film that existed only in my mind: Hong Kong Shuffle.

Ashamed of myself, I went in and sat in pretty much the same seat that I used to sit in a decade ago. The place itself hadn’t been renovated, changed in any way or even really cleaned since the early 90s, so immediately I felt at home. A trailer started and then I remembered exactly why I’d stopped coming to the Chinatown.

Kung Fu Hustle belongs to another HK genre that I haven’t mentioned yet, with its own wonderfully Cantonese designation, ‘mo lei tau’. ‘Mo lei tau’ I believe means something like ‘nonsense’ comedy. The film’s director and star Stephen Chow is often (incorrectly, in my opinion) credited with creating the genre, so we can probably see his efforts as the pinnacle of the genre, the epitome, the fucking paradigm if you like. And I can tell you, it’s these types of inane movies that made me lose interest in my beloved HK cinema all those years ago. This is the kind of shit that makes Bollywood films look credible in comparison.

Although it’s billed as a follow-up to Shaolin Soccer, it is not a sequel in any sense of the word. Set as it is in 1940s Shanghai, there’s no story or thematic linkages between the two. Except for the fact that soon after the story starts, some poor children in a slum are shown playing with a soccer ball. We see the legs of two adults as they walk up to the children with the ball. The children scream out ‘Teach us to play soccer!’ to which the main character clearly states ‘No soccer!’ and crushes the soccer ball with his foot.

So. No soccer then. Instead you’ll get to enjoy something a thousand times more insane than anything you’ve previously encountered; that is, if you’ve never seen one of these nonsense films before in your life. And if you haven’t, then honestly what the fuck have you been doing with your time, eh?

I lack the requisite and appropriate amount of verbiage and adjectives to describe just how fucking insane these kinds of movies are. I just know I won’t be able to even come close. But it’s in my nature to try, damn it.

Imagine that someone apart from the hated Wachowski brothers had directed the latter two Matrix films. Imagine again that they’d taken out all the sci-fi elements, all the pedantic psychobabble, cod-philosophy and technological crap, and set what little remained in a 1940s Chinese slum.

Imagine that the point of the sequels was to entertain people and make them laugh, with toilet humour, insanely stupid absurdist gags and even more insane (cheaply) computer generated stunts. Now imagine that some of the main sequences were done pretty much the same, except in a completely different setting but with the same costumes (things like the brawl between Kanooie Reeves and thousands of scary Hugo Weavings, the car chase down the freeway, and the climactic battle at the end).

You may think you’ve got a reasonable idea of what’s going on. Now throw in some gay-bashing (literally and figuratively speaking), musicians that kill with sound, people crapping on camera, romantic subplots with mute ice cream vendors, incompetent villains, Warner Brother Road Runner cartoons, a shit load of LSD, some Buddhist mysticism, some Taoist stuff, and you’re still nowhere near close to grasping the sheer madness of it all. Stick it in a grinder, mix it up with some crunchy amphetamines, stick it in a cone, smoke it until it is ash, cover it in sparkles and then force an audience to watch it and you’re still not close.

It is, simply put, fucking insane. Culturally I must be from a background (and I am from multiple) so alien to Hong Kong culture that even I, aficionado of their movies as I am, am still left baffled and perplexed by their most successful flicks. I mean, I have no idea, honestly, as to what’s going on here. And this is one of the biggest hits in recent Asian cinema history.

My point should ultimately be whether I enjoyed the movie or not, I’m aware of that. Not because any of you need to be told what to do or what to see and what to think about it (except for one or two of you submissive bitches that need to be told what to watch and what to think about it; kiss the heel now, I said kiss it!)

But my problem is I can’t tell you outright whether I enjoyed it or not. It’s just too silly in so many parts and in so many ways that to recommend it to anyone who didn’t flat out play with themselves in rapture whilst watching Shaolin Soccer would bring shame upon myself, my family and my ancestors. Legally, contractually I cannot recommend it to anyone. Not even the retards out there that have to type through their own festy drool to be heard / read on Usenet, even they don’t deserve to be so cruelly mistreated.

The story centres around a slum tenement in Pig Sty Alley. A new gang called the Axe Gang are taking over the town with their natty threads and naughty ways. Surprising no-one, they carry axes around and chop people with them when they don’t do what the Axe Gang want; whether they’re just standing around or when they vote the wrong way in federal elections, presumably.

Concurrently, a street urchin called Sing (star and director Stephen Chow) and his buddy arrive at Pig Sty Alley and try to blackmail the residents into giving them money by pretending to be members of the Axe Gang. Sing threatens the residents, all of whom, including young children, old people and the landlady are all tougher than him and send him packing. When the real Axe Gang shows up it turns into a slightly messier version of present day Iraq. Except without the sensitivity and respect for human life.

Some of the residents of Pig Sty Alley, like the Coolie, the Tailor and the Noodle Maker actually harbour remarkable tough-nut martial arts abilities, which humiliate the scoundrels from the suit-wearing, top-hat clad, axe-wielding Axe Gang. They vow revenge and the story goes on and on and on.

Amidst this is a romantic subplot about how Sing as a child once tried to help out a little mute girl when some bullies were trying to steal her lollipop. Well, fuck me if she doesn’t turn up down the track as well.

As the incompetent Axe Gang keeps trying to get revenge for progressively losing more and more face, they keep hiring nastier and nastier killers to do their worst against the slum residents. Eventually, I think pretty much everyone ends up being some kind of super powered martial artist who comes to the rescue of the people around them, no matter how unlikely it appears.

But wait. Could one of these characters be (gulp) The One? I’m not kidding, this is in the story and they even use a snippet from the Matrix soundtrack to highlight this.

There are so many overt references to Western pop culture, tv and movies (references, not rip-offs or ‘homages’), such as the Spider-Man flicks, the aforementioned Matrix flicks, De Palma’s The Untouchables, The Shining, Gangs of New York, the Batman tv series that I wonder whether Stephen Chow thought this would be his break out hit for Western consumption based on the popularity of Shaolin Soccer, or whether he just wanted to fuck with our heads.

I dunno. This isn’t a case of a film so bad that its kitsch / camp value makes it entertaining, or a cluelessly sloppy film at which you can only marvel at the wrongness that ensues. This is a very carefully made, carefully worked out movie that looks ludicrously tragic and tragically ludicrous, chaotic and haphazard and is probably sweeter than opium and snazzier than coke for Asian audiences, but that could leave the rest of us out in the cold.

I’ve never seen so much CGI in one flick in all my life. Honestly, even the Lord of the Ringpieces trilogy doesn’t have this much CGI in every second scene. All the stuff Hong Kong cinema used to expend ugly stuntmen and nameless Mainland illegal immigrants upon in incredibly dangerous action set pieces now gets done with digital trickery. I’m all for Occupational Health and Safety for our Asian brothers and sisters, but honestly, if they can’t take a punch that caves their heads in for real then why did they get into show business anyway?

There is a certain crappy quality to the CGI that is oddly comforting. It doesn’t even vaguely pretend to be seamless, which strangely makes it both overly noticeable and (sometimes) entertaining in its own right.

Again, I have to go with ‘I dunno’ as my highly well thought out and extremely illuminating final judgement on this flick. It’s inane, it makes no sense, the characters rarely do anything believable or logical and act more like cartoon characters (literally, in some scenes).

But I think it was pretty entertaining. If you were drunk you might think this is one of the funniest fight flicks of all time. Sober, my natural cynicism couldn’t fail to kick in and keep whispering to me ‘this shit is just too idiotic’. And then a scene would come along, (ie. the scene where a character is trying to kill the fearsome woman who rules the slum with an iron fist, a cigarette always burning in her mouth and curlers in her hair, the awesome Landlady) which would have me weeping with laughter.

Look, this film specifically and this inane genre in general lacks the self-control and class of Jim Carrey, eschews the taste and elegance of Benny Hill and makes less sense than David Lynch films at their worst. It’s as bad a mishmash of elements and as ill-advised an idea as having a reality television program where the drug-addled former Mrs Sylvester Stallone, Brigette Nielsen and future Mrs Sylvester Stallone Germaine Greer are locked in a house together (something which tragically has already happened recently in the UK).

But it was (often) fun. Exceedingly stupidly stoner fun, but fun all the same. You have been warned.

6 (for regular Westerner gwailos like myself) or 8 (for deranged fans of Stephen Chow’s maniacal films) out of ten

‘You just need your chi centres to be unblocked, and then you will be a kung fu master’ – a dirty old homeless man, offering to unblock a child’s, um ‘chi’,
Kung Fu Hustle