A Bum Like That Could Come In Handy: Kung Fu Hustle (2004)

For those readers who have been around since the western film marathon, they might remember that an inclusion of at least a third of the films were to consider how the genre has become a thing of revisionism, or has been severely reconsidered to face a non-classical/non-American audience.  This quest was afforded some legitimacy because I had seen a decent amount of westerns prior to even that marathon and given its influence on American cinema and culture I was aware of the various tropes.  However, when it came to creating this list of kung fu films I was truly at a loss for how many of the alleged classics I had not seen, let alone understanding what truly constituted a work within the seemingly broad genre of martial arts cinema.  Therefore, searching for works that are decidedly against genre seemed a bit of a blind endeavor, because I have self-aware enough to admit that the genre was not a thing of familiarity.  Nonetheless, given my love for all things post-modern it should be no surprise that at least one post-modern revisionist kung fu film would make the list, and from the looks of it, I doubt it will be an exclusive film.  Indeed, I have seen Stephen Chow's Shaolin Soccer in all its zany glory, but admit to coming to that film in my own personal quest to see a ton of works related to what was then my favorite athletic past-time, having since turned of legal drinking age, now thinking bar games legitimate athleticism.  But I digress, Chow's work was of familiarity in the back of my mind and I do recall it having a sense of grandeur and intensity about it, although what I witnessed in Kung Fu Hustle far exceeds anything I could have hoped for and was not only a post-genre kung fu work, but one with a layer of referentialism to cinema history so extensive as to almost be a deconstruction of the action hero proper.  It does not hurt that Kung Fu Hustle is also incredibly watchable and wildly funny, moving about the space of early 20th century China with delight and a zeal, never pushing its message too hard, but always making sure that viewers are aware that one exists, in its decided condemnation of exploitative power and a demand for exclusion of non-normative bodies, even when those bodies are of a superior physique and presence.

Kung Fu Hustle begins with the experiences of tenement building people dealing with the woes of living under the hostile expectations of their creepy Landlord (Wah Yuen) and the cantankerous and vindictive Landlady (Qiu Yeun).  Despite their constant complaints about their inability to live under the terrible conditions such as lacking water and proper shelter, their economic lack results in their remaining in the situation.  Yet, when a duo referring to themselves as members of the Deady Axe Gang, led by Sing (Stephen Chow) attempt to cause trouble it is immediately revealed that at least three martial arts experts live in the area, as well as a handful of children who are freakishly strong.  This engagement, incites the presence of the real Deadly Axe Gang, led by Brother Sum (Kwok-Kwan Chan) whose frustrations at being humiliated lead to his hiring the most infamous of kung fu masters to take on the experts in the tenement.  When a duo of musically inclined martial artists take down the various fighters, only to reveal that both the Landlord and Landlady are themselves well-known, but assumedly retired, fighters themselves, Brother Sum takes it upon himself to exploit Sing for his pickpocketing techniques that he hopes can break out the most dangerous of all living martial artists, aptly named The Beast (Siu-Lung Leung).  The Beast takes no hesitation in finding Landlord and Landlady who he believes to be somewhat worthy opponents, however, he in his combination of brutish strength and beguiling trickery manage to subdue the couple.  In a purely accidental encounter, Sing becomes involved in  the fight, revealing a body so perfected that he manages to prove immune to being beaten through the ground by The Beast.  Landlord and Landlady realize that Sing is far more than a foolish bystander and is indeed a legend of martial arts, escaping with him and allowing for his metamorphosis to occur, thus revealing that he is indeed the greatest living fighter.  In a final showdown in the tenement The Beast and Sing duel it out, wherein Sing reveals himself to be an expert of the Buddhist Palm technique which possesses a divine power that stops The Beast permanently.  Now void of all attackers Landlord and Landlady return to their life, while Sing returns to a simple life himself, working for a friend and finally settling down with a love from his childhood.

The narrative for Kung Fu Hustle is decidedly minimal for its otherworldly cinematic existence, which seems to be the opposite of the films thus far, where it is the figures who exist in a place of non-tangibility, but have been forced to engage with the real world for inexplicable reasons.  This consideration is fascinating since it is indeed a revisionist work.  The metaphor of the normal moving into the transcendental takes on wonderful proportions, both in regards to suggesting the possibility of rebirth for a person seeking genuine life changes, just as it calls attention to the fragility and frivolity of exploitative power figures.  Take for example the figure of Brother Sum, whose violent power is entrenched within his own masculine privilege, one that is undoubtedly doubled by an economic wealth.  Indeed it is in this blind place of exploit, that he is most easily undermined, attacked by the likes of Landlady and Landlord because of a foolish belief in invincibility.  In contrast a figure like Landlady, in a traditional context would not possess such degrees of authority, but in the context of the real tenement and in her more exaggerated martial artist status, she is a figure of power and respect.  In fact, it is no accident that her main feature is to wield her voice in a destructive manner, lifting, even if accidentally, from a ton of feminist theorist who suggest speaking against power to be the key element of undermining hegemony.  While one could argue that both Landlady and Landlord exist in a place of economic privilege, it is worth then considering the role of Sing, whose movement from lower class to a vessel for the gods affords a reconsideration of how power through economic mobility occurs.  Indeed, it is through his learning of a skill and allowing it to evolve that he is capable of overcoming even the most lecherous of exploitative figures, i.e. The Beast and his lying.  Sure he begins the film as a con artist, but he evolves considerably and is even shown working in a candy store at the closing of the film.  It all has a degree of escapism, but considering that it is China's second highest grossing film of all time, that is far from an issue, especially for such a mainstream work.

Key Scene:  The fight between Landlady and Landlord and the Chinese zither wielding twins is not the first battle of the film, but it is certainly the one that lets the viewer know that it is going to shift directions in a wonderful and wild manner.

The bluray is a steal and worth having in any martial arts/action film collection.

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