Director: Stephen Chow
Lady Crritic and I hoped to catch a Question and Answer session with the director of a new Australian film on a Friday night at the Nova cinema in Carlton recently. We arrived to find it sold out, which I suppose is a very good sign these days when Australian films have generally been in the doghouse.
Instead, we went on a hunch to see a Chinese martial arts movie called ‘Kung Fu Hustle’ and we didn’t regret it.
I almost said ‘new’ movie, but that’s not quite right, as the film (called ‘Gong Fu’) actually came out last year and even played for a while in a Melbourne Chinese language cinema without being noticed by us skips. But boy, has word been getting out about this little beauty.
While this film shares a family resemblance to recent martial arts hits from China like ‘Hero’ or ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’, this thing is rougher round the edges, less glossy, a great deal less expensive, and more fun than either of those films; great though they were.
It’s Pig Sty Alley in Shanghai, 1940, and the populace are being terrorized by a top-hatted, axe-wielding lot of goons; sort of like People Against Lenient Sentencing, but better dressed.
Their reign of terror is challenged and comes undone almost by accident, when a group of ageing kung fu masters who live in squalid retirement under the thumb of a horrible pair of slum landlords, come together with a bumbling incompetant who was desperately trying to justify his worthless life by making a success of himself as a gangster. We realise his heart isn’t in it and this ambition will come to nothing when our hero can’t even pull off a simple theft and only manages to steal an icecream from a street vendor.
Repeatedly, characters reveal secret powers despite all appearances which are unknown even to their closest neighbors. This actually becomes a key theme of the film.
Physical bodies undergo extraordinary stresses and transformations. People are punched, kicked, bitten, drowned, pissed on, stretched; all in the best possible taste, of course. However, they also metamorphose magically into other forms and reveal mysterious powers that contradict gravity and physical forces, as if the whole thing was taking place in cyberspace or some computer game. If this reminds you of ‘The Matrix’, then you’re not the only one. I was reminded repeatedly of the sequels, especially in the final, crazy mass-fight scenes. Unlike those films, however, Stephen Chow never looses his grip on the dramatic logic of the narrative and we continue to care what happens to his hapless central character. ‘The Matrix’ sequels on the other hand, lost all connection with the integrity of the characters until they became as emotionally neutral as the average beat-em-up arcade game.
‘Kung Fu Hustle’ gives the impression of having been built on the foundations of previous pop-culture, both international and Chinese, and having learned lessons from the experience, whether it be ‘The Matrix’, the Three Stooges, Bruce Lee or Loony Tunes. It’s a raucous cacophany of cultural references and voices from the past, which bang up against each other with wild abandon and lack of subtlety, like a roundhouse kick to the head.
But I suspect also that there’s another layer below the smart popism. Several times, I detected echoes of Taoist philosophy and Buddhist imagery in all the chaos, even with my slim grasp of these things; vague impressions that I suspect would be much clearer and easily apprehended by a Chinese audience.
This isn’t the first time I’ve had this thought while watching great Asian cinema. There’s often a surface impression easily followed by a universal audience, hiding a depth of deep specific cultural references that mostly pass a Western audience by. Anyone who’s seen ‘Spirited Away’ might know what I’m talking about.
Stephen Chow has made several films that received very patchy treatment by Hollywood and the distribution chains. Here’s hoping that this one brings his contrary, wildly imaginative talent to the notice of a Western mass audience.