By Chi Tung and Brian Hu
What's it all about? (A brief synopsis of Kung Fu Hustle)
1940s China is run amok by the "Axe Gang," whose members are ruthless, deplorable, cabaret-dancing thugs. A common thief named Sing (Stephen Chow) is an aspiring "Axe"; by impersonating them, he thinks he can gain the respect of the actual Axe Gang, thus allowing him to lead a life of glutton and greed. His first conquest: "Pig Sty Alley" and its seemingly innocent inhabitants. If only he knew the surprises in store -- his ignorance sets off a chain reaction that begins by revealing some unlikely kung-fu masters and ends by incurring the wrath of the Axe gang, who enlist the help of a few world-class assassins in order to exact revenge.
Let me kick off our two-man symposium by saying this: I loved Kung Fu Hustle because of -- not in spite of -- its manic excesses, of which there are many. Mainstream cinema is in dire need of a scrappy, moderation-be-damned showman like Stephen Chow, who demonstrates that pulling triple-duty (writing, acting, directing) doesn't necessitate sloppy aesthetics or thriftstore sentimentalism. (Are you listening, David Duchovny?) Perhaps it would encourage the Clint Eastwoods and Lars Von Triers of the world to lighten up on the euthanasia and expend more energy on actually engaging the audience, rather than sucker-punching us with bloated, plodding ruminations on mortality. Ok, so that may be asking for too much. But KFH is that rare film that celebrates pop culture instead of criticizing it -- how soon we forget that the Roadrunner and Wile E Coyote kept our eight-year-old minds on a swivel during those unforgettable Saturday mornings -- but Stephen Chow is there to jog our memory. I get the distinct impression that the majority of our grown-up critics are latching onto the idea of KFH as a sort of pop culture hustle; that is, it takes glee in lampooning our precious American icons -- Neo from The Matrix, Toby Maguire's Spiderman, even Buster Keaton -- and expects us to do the same. In other words, the joke's on us -- the clueless, self-aggrandizing American who thinks that every frame, every joke, every reference affirms how the rest of the world thinks: that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
There are however, in my estimation, two problems with this (and you may feel free to elaborate or refute): One, I don't think Mr. Chow is too concerned about using the dregs of American pop-culture lore for social commentary purposes. I do think that like the rest of us, he too grew up enamored with Warner Bros cartoons, Bruce Lee and Buster Keaton and that like any well-respected American auteur, feels he's just as entitled to riff -- but not slavishly mimic -- on his influences.
Secondly, some of the film's biggest laughs, I think resulted from unintentional humor -- as in, overzealous subtitling. For example, when Stephen Chow's character makes the drastic (but of course, completely logical) transformation from two-bit crook to Mr. Invincible, there's a line which essentially reads "he's the one" -- immediately recalling The Matrix, until you realize that the concept of "The One" did not originate with the Wachowski Brothers; it's a long-running heroic archetype that Chow no doubt wished to call upon for matters of theme and narrative. (Of which I'll expand upon in our next tete a tete.) There's also that whole bit about "with great power comes great responsibility," seemingly pilfered from Spiderman, when in all likelihood, it was probably a fairly painless way of converting a folksy idiom into an everyday punchline that all non-Chinese speakers could identify with -- and then proceed to guffaw about.
I apologize if I've lost the plot here -- I guess my overarching point is that there seems to be an awful lot of back-patting going on in response to this film. Which begs the question: is Chow too eager to please? After all, while it's true that he's an entertainer first and foremost, would KFH attract the same cult-following or critical accolades if it contained less of these a-ha! moments? I'm gonna now pass the baton on to you because you're in a much better position to answer this question, especially since you've got a better handle on old-school Chinese and Hong Kong cinema than I. On your mark, get set, go...
First of all, I completely agree with you that Kung Fu Hustle packs the kind of energy you wish were in every sleepy genre film. What Stephen Chow brings is a sense that every joke, no matter how funny or tasteful, is delivered with all of the artist's energy. You get the feeling watching this and some of Chow's other films that he put a lot of thought into squeezing every possible laugh out of you, and that's a rare thing in Hong Kong, let alone Hollywood. While I think there's still a place for the Eastwoods and the Von Triers (my beef with them lies elsewhere), I get your point that we should be celebrating mania as well as melancholy.
I think the film's use of pop culture is worth discussing. You're right that the American response to the references is perhaps nothing more than self-congratulatory, as if Americans can pat themselves on the back that we've properly colonized the imaginations and unconsciouses of the East. You're suggesting though that Chow does this to play a joke on the Western audience, and regardless of whether this is Chow's intent -- I hope it is -- I don't think that's how Americans are perceiving the references. I really believe the references are points of contact that Americans can latch on to. It's no surprise that the film's two major references (House of 72 Tenants and Buddha's Palm) are ignored by most critics (it would be interesting to take a look at what's mentioned in the press kit Columbia is sending to journalists). I think my point is best summed up with a statement Roger Ebert made in his Sundance wrap-up and which was later tacked quite prominently to the film's American poster: "Imagine a film in which Jackie Chan and Buster Keaton meet Quentin Tarantino and Bugs Bunny." In the original context, Ebert was at a loss of words in describing a film he didn't quite "get" either, and thus his parade of references was meant largely to express his struggle to come to terms with what he just saw, based on what he knows from American pop culture. That's a completely legitimate, honest response and I have no problem with that. However, when this becomes the film's tagline, these references are passed to the American viewer as points of departure, and that really limits the film as an oddity and something of a freakshow.
It amuses me though that with Kung Fu Hustle, the Kill Bill films, and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, critics (or at least those that really care about film history) are making a valiant effort to see classic Hong Kong action films. And while these American critics like to pretend that they've known about King Hu, Chang Cheh, and Lau Kar Leung all along (I feign intelligence of European cinema all the time), I'm happy that Film Comment let a Hong Kong expert like Sam Ho to write their mini review, and that fans like Ross Chen (of lovehkfilm.com fame) can provide a Cliff Notes version of Kung Fu Hustle for yesasia.com (http://us.yesasia.com/en/mc/-/Y38642mmf5/featureArticle.aspx/articleId-21/section-index/code-c/version-all/) although of course, since YesAsia is interested in selling DVDs, Chen's guide is probably a tad too cluttered with references than necessary. Then again, if Shaw Brothers sees their DVD sales go up as a result of Chow's films, I'll be more than pleased.
I'll start with your second concern: subtitles. This is a problem that will never go away, and compared with the subtitling (or heavens, the dubbing) of the past, the subtitles here should be commended. The problem with Chow is that his humor is largely untranslatable anyway -- at least in his earlier films --that what we should inspire viewers to do is to draw attention to the translation process, and make clear that there could be something lost, or even gained, in translation. Then if American audiences want to laugh at the questionable points, I think they should. That way they're not laughing at the incomprehensible "other," they're laughing at the mechanism instituted to cover up our own cultural inadequacies.
Your question about the celebrating-pop-culture-versus-critiquing-it is an important one, and one that I think many American Chow fans are ignoring because they're just too thrilled that one of his films is playing in mall megaplexes. You're right that Chow isn't doing much with his references, which is in direct contrast to his brilliance in God of Cookery, King of Comedy, and Shaolin Soccer, the three masterpieces of his recent period. In those films, the references propel something else. For example, in King of Comedy, references to John Woo, McDull, and more turn into a self-reflexive parody on his own image as a comedy actor. Shaolin Soccer imagined what it would be like if wuxia tactics could be applied to everyday life, a compelling and radical conceit, as well as a hilarious one. In Kung Fu Hustle, Chow seems to wade in the shallow end of the pop culture pool, with hilarious results, but I definitely feel that his admiration for Chiu Chi-ing, Leung Siu-lung, Yuen Qiu, and other martial arts veterans kept him from truly transforming the film into something more than a modern reimagining of the films from his youth.
Thank you for clarifying some of my earlier points and wrapping them into a larger, more comprehensive framework. I don't mean to sit on my high horse and chastise U.S. critics for not "getting" some of the more obscure, culturally indigenous references; after all, Asian cinema has only recently become the flavor du jour, and there are a host of European films and auteurs that would undoubtedly inspire the same sort of cluelessness from me that I've perhaps unfairly assigned our pundits at home. I'd like to briefly return to Chow's thematic concerns however; I absolutely agree with your assessment of his more polished films and the manner in which they transcend those references, and that Kung Fu Hustle, while valiantly succeeding on other levels, doesn't quite land its blows as squarely when Chow forsakes the shtick for schmaltz. The romantic subplot, with its boy-receives-thrashing-on-account-of-mute-girl, and overwrought symbolism (the jumbo lollipop with swirls on it, the wilting daisy -- we're such suckers for pretty little things) is positively Chaplin-esque and for that reason, somewhat satisfying. But unlike his unforgiving stance toward big-city-bullies and glorification of folk fortitude, Chow's softer, more sanguine side plays strictly to our parlor-size emotions; the cheap, knee-jerk kind that the Farrelly Brothers exploit in all of their films.
Not to say that the two (or three, if we're really to believe that both brothers are equal participants in the filmmaking process) are even in the same league; Chow is, in effect, using sentimentalism as a comedown from his titanic thrills, to splash a few stray drops of cold water on the parade, as if to say: "you thought that was impressive -- wait till you see this." Even the character he plays, though by default the protagonist, makes for a pretty shallow Hal; we don't really know why he has a change of heart, just that he does in time for the jaw-dropping, Buddhist-missile-finale -- and that to question the logic behind it would be such a dreadful way to spend those precious last 20 minutes or so.
I wish that we had time to discuss in great, resplendent detail our favorite sequences: the scene in which two pipa-playing assassins engage in a supersonic showdown with the innkeepers, or when Chow and Qui Yuen (random movie trivia tidbit: she also appeared in Man with the Golden Gun) get their Roadrunner and Wile E Coyote on. But I'm afraid that it won't give you enough time to tell our readers what they really oughta know: the secret to Stephen Chow's success, both here in the States and more importantly, in Asia. To quoth the immortal Sean Connery, "you're the man now, dawg."
Out for now,
For me, the record-breaking popularity of Kung Fu Hustle in East Asia late last year was the most telling Asian film event of 2004. Contrary to all the pundits who are already mourning the death of Chinese film spectatorship in Chinese communities, Stephen Chow proves that given the right combination, local audiences will come. Unfortunately, the key ingredient to its success was Chow himself, and we can't expect him to be in every Chinese-language movie, especially since his strategy of taking two or three years to direct, write, and star in each film is yielding one of the most impressive phases in his career. I'm going to suggest some reasons why Chow's currency has persisted among local fans whereas others remain hit and miss. First, the Stephen Chow brand promises something new, which is ironic because in the early '90s Chow would essentially make the same mo lei tou film over and over, with almost as many sequels as original features. But in an age where Hollywood has strengthened its hold -- if not monopolized -- local markets, Chow has smartly adopted Hollywood production values as a vessel for his own breed of very local humor. I understand that there will be critics of this strategy, but to ignore the brain-washing mechanism of Hollywood would be to commit suicide in the popular realm; contrast Korean and Taiwanese popular cinema and you'll see what I mean.
Second, Chow's popularity remains because the primary audiences who are of ticket-buying age -- the 15-25 year olds -- are exactly the audiences which grew up on Chow in the early '90s, and continue to see his films on cable television. It's hard to over-emphasize Chow's enormous effect -- for better or worse -- on the psyche of any Chinese person in this age group, and I've spoken to more than one individual who feels that the only local films worth watching on the Chinese-language channels in Asia are those starring Chow. On the other hand, the boy-action films like Seoul Raiders, the romantic comedies like those starring the Twins or Sammi Cheng, and the horror films by the Pang Brothers, are largely niche market films. So Chow not only lends himself to a Hollywood aesthetic, but also a Hollywood approach to mass-marketing.
And third, Chow somehow can appear un-Hollywood even as he goes Hollywood, a big plus in a society that casts suspicious eyes on cultural "sell outs" -- a term I'd prefer not to use, but is inevitably in the public discourse regardless. This is partly because the appeal of the Asian male star has solidified in the past 10 years (although all the stereotypes such as effemininity persist) with the "experiment" cross-overs of Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-fat, and Jet Li. Whereas those stars had to strip themselves of local specificity to reach a broad, international audience, Columbia Pictures (which co-produced Kung Fu Hustle) now realizes that obscure references to '70s martial arts can sell (is this a Kill Bill effect?) and it's not necessary to "neutralize" a film ethnically (see Miramax's unforgivable handling of Chow's previous film Shaolin Soccer for some horror stories) to satisfy non-Chinese audiences. But I shouldn't give Columbia too much credit; the fact that Kung Fu Hustle had already returned Columbia's entire investment in East Asia alone meant that Columbia could afford to take the risk of leaving the film uncut for its American release. Throwing "Kung Fu Fighting" into the soundtrack as Miramax did isn't necessarily beyond Columbia; I streamed official early Kung Fu Hustle trailers that used the song. As a whole though, I was hugely impressed by Columbia's presentation -- uncut, undubbed --while marketing-wise there are still some kinks to work out. Meanwhile, I'll be grateful that an R-rated, subtitled Stephen Chow film is number five in the U.S. box office; somebody's clearly doing something right.