DM Haight

Last month we looked at Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior. It was a film about the stolen goods of one tribe of people, a village in trouble due to the local superstition surrounding a statue head. That is simply one story embedded in the genre of Kung Fu. This month we look at another type of story. For years, the martial arts film has been obsessed with this idea of being the best, or seeking out the best and beating them. Kung Fu films are very much about supremacy. Unlike Ong Bak, where the main character wanted to live in piece with the world and its people, in Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, we see a character who is lost, aimless in his world. He wants to be a part of a prestigious gang: the Axe Gang. They are the toughest of all the gangs, and have the money to throw their weight around as they see fit. If you step in their path, they’ll kill you, and if they can’t do that, they’ll find someone who can. It’s a fight to be the best, the strongest, the toughest, the unstoppable. But as is the story with most cases of supremacy, we know that it can’t last. There is always someone stronger, better. In Kung Fu Hustle, we see the classic trope of the Kung Fu genre–the chosen one. Unlike a lot of martial arts films, where the theme is taken very seriously–taken as a melodramatic element of the film–in KFH it’s used as comedy. Not in the same way as Kung Pow: Enter the Fist, where the film makers parody the cliché; KFH uses the cliché as a means of driving the plot without mocking its predecessors in the genre. Instead of making jest about the idea of the chosen one, KFH explores the comedy of the chosen one himself, as a character, not an idea. It’s not about ridicule, but an exploration into the types of people we might least expect to be greater than they appear. Kung Fu films are great at doing this type of uplifting–taking a down and out character who happens to have comedic flaws, and turning them into the ultimate being, a person who is one with his surroundings and at peace with their own power.

Let’s look at the narrative of Kung Fu Hustle. We know about the Axe Gang and their power and influence in Shanghai. They grip the city in fear. In Pig Sty Alley, two idiots, Sing (Stephen Chow) and Bone (Lam Chi-chung),disguise themselves as members of the Axe Gang to gain respect. It doesn’t go well. The real Axe gang shows up, looking to dish out some trouble, axes in hand, bad teeth in mouth, it’s terrifying. It back fires. Turns out there are three pretty crazy awesome old warriors sitting around in the Sty. They come to the defense of the alley and fight back the entire gang. This causes a certain retaliation, ultimately revealing two Kung Fu masters in Pig Sty. Some awesome stuff goes down with two blind men wielding instruments of death (literally), culminating in an epic battle to end all battles with a deranged man obsessed with Kung Fu . He’s the most dangerous man in the world, and yet he will not fight unless he thinks he could lose. It’s this kind of character who defines supremacy. The Beast, the deranged Kung Fu fiend, played by Bruce Leung, is territorial. He knows his stuff, and Kung Fu is an art he knows intimately. He’s studied everything, and lost his mind doing so. When he discovers the two Kung Fu masters upon his release from the asylum, he looks to kill them both, for the challenge though. This is a theme with many Kung Fu films. The main villain is older, skillful, but does terrible things with the power he has acquired. This is in contrast to the ones who gain their power through experience, and have the wisdom to not use it with malice.

KFH uses this theme to spectacular effect, utilizing Stephen Chow’s brand  of comedy to keep a traditional story vibrant with bad jokes and memorable characters. The Beast is the ultimate bad guy–the one who does it for fun. Sing is the good guy you didn’t see coming. He just wants to make his impression on the world. He doesn’t have definable skills to call upon. It’s only after a great defeat that he even comes out of his shell and experiences life in a new way. He has to be reborn, just like many heroes of Kung Fu films. There has to be that moment of humbling, that task that’s unbreachable. We as audience members have to feel connected to this character, identify with his plight. We fail, just like him. But the true colors of a hero show brightest upon the resurgence of his task, and an awakening within himself. This is what the Kung Fu genre does well, and it’s something other genres have adopted. The hero suffers the greatest defeat, a near death awakening of a spirit, or a force that clears the mind of what once was, making room for what must be. Sing has the life beaten out of him, but his spirit keeps him alive–that warrior spirit that rips through bandages and slings to do battle with an evil entity. And what’s best, is that when the battle is over a respect is one from both sides. The loser concedes, and the victor offers to teach the unenlightened. The offering to teach an enemy as an equal is where the peace of Kung Fu culminates. It makes it the great genre that it is. Unlike traditional action, where the victor is the victor, and the loser the loser, in Kung Fu, the victor and the loser are equal, and find the equality through the art of physical combat.

With super villains and super heroes who don’t need actual super powers to be super, who could hate Kung Fu Hustle? It’s like a fine young wine, with humor, action, drama, a hint of camp, and is that an undertone of redemption I taste? Why yes it is. The greatness of the Kung Fu genre comes from its ability to age well. While the visual effects of film may look cheesy one day soon, the action and narrative will live longer than we can imagine. Stephen Chow, with his excellent direction, has managed to take comedy and action and give it a life worth watching over and over again, with new laughs and new “oos” and “ahhs” after every repeat viewing. That’s why Kung Fu Hustle is a Kung Fu Master!

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