Maccewill Yip finds himself frustrated with Stephen Chow’s highest-profile American release but manages to look optimistically toward the future with his new re-view of Kung Fu Hustle.
II first watched Kung Fu Hustle when I couldn’t watch Sin City. Let me be more specific. I was hanging out with some friends, one of whom had a twin sister who was visiting and was joining us for the day to catch a movie. One other guy and I were considering Sin City. However, the twin sister heard about one plotline involving the character called the Yellow Bastard, enough to not want to see the film. We looked at the other options and, seeing thatKung Fu Hustle was playing, and having viewed the trailer for it earlier, I persuaded them towards the foreign film. The others sat down, not knowing what to expect. I, however, knew exactly what I was in for.
Being Chinese, I have seen my fair share of Stephen Chow films. Some I have seen from the VHS tapes my aunt brought home from her work in helping import Chinese movies to the U.S. Others by watching one of the local Bay Area Chinese network, KTSF 26, where they used to show full Chinese movies on Friday nights. Then there were some that were in the library, which had a handful of Asian films. There are some VCDs (early Chinese version of DVDs) and even a laserdisc in the mix as well. Out of all of them, it was Stephen Chow comedies that I have revisited the most, so yes, I knew what I was expecting that day.
Steven Chow is known to have led a genre of Chinese comedies called mo lei tau, meaning nonsensical. A lot of elements in American comedies are also in the vein of mo lei tau, but this Chinese genre has its own rhythm and sensibilities. The Wiki page describe it as such:
Its humour arises from the complex interplay of cultural subtleties significant in Hong Kong. Typical constituents of this humour include nonsensical parodies, juxtaposition of contrasts, sudden surprises in spoken dialogue and action and improbable and deliberate anachronisms.
In a way, it’s similar to the style of films Mel Brooks or the Zucker Brothers would do, but with a Chinese context. And martial arts. Lots of martial arts. He has been in lots of movies prior, but Stephen Chow’s mo lei tau period started from 1990. Since then, he had released or starred in at least two movies in every year throughout the nineties. I have not seen all of them, but many are the ones I’ve grown up and re-watched many times: Love on Delivery,Royal Tramp, Flirting Scholar, God of Cookery, etc. When it came to the next century, though, there were some changes.
Before I can get into Kung Fu Hustle (which will for now be referred to as KFH), we have to talk about his previous film, Shaolin Soccer (2001). In a way, Shaolin Soccer should have been Stephen Chow’s introduction to the American audience. I had seen it when I was in high school on VCD and loved it. About a year or two later, I heard that Disney, under Miramax, had brought the U.S. distribution rights and was going to release it in theaters. I was excited because I remembered when the same thing happened to Zhang Yimou’s Heroand couldn’t wait to see Stephen Chow get his big U.S. premiere! However, as time went on, I heard news after terrible news. There was the cutting of scenes, the use of English dub voiceover (something that I just abhor in movies), delays in release, until ultimately never reaching the big screen. The only thing it got was a DVD release, mainly of the mangled U.S. cut of the film. All this trouble is most likely why when it came time for KFH to be distributed in the U.S., he had gone with Sony Classics, which did what Miramax should have done: release the film as is, with English subtitles.
Another reason I need to bring up Shaolin Soccer is because it was a turning point of Steven Chow: when he began using CGI. Chow’s movies are usually ridiculous and go to the absurd, and there are times it becomes cartoonish. He achieved most of this in the early days through practical effects, but once he was given the tools of computer generated imagery, he went wild! In Shaolin Soccer, you can see him start playing around with it, but with a little restraint; but once he got to KFH, he created characters that act like they came right out of the world of Looney Tunes. Like most directors, Chow’s turn into the world of CGI had good and bad side effects. It freed him to be more ambitious with some of his projects and his vision, but he is beginning to rely a little too much on it. Examples can be seen in KFH itself. When it is clearly referencing cartoons, like his character’s attempt to run away from the Landlady who is chasing him on the roads outside the village, the rubbery computer effects gets a pass because the scene itself is wonderfully ridiculous. However, when we start to see some of the more serious fights, some of the computer models of the characters, at least to me, looks horrible and take me away from the gravity of the challenges those characters face. I know there are people who put in a lot of work into computer effects, but there’s just something for me about seeing practical effects that always add so much more. Probably because it seems more tangible, more hand-created. Unless done very well, CGI will almost always look a little too rubbery, or a little too plastic, and my personal uncanny valley reaction just have a little harder time accepting it, taking me away from the film.
As a showcase of Stephen Chow’s talents to the American audience, KFH worked wonderfully. The critics raved about its humor and creativity. Comedy god Bill Murray himself said in an interview that it was “the supreme achievement of the modern age in terms of comedy,” going as far as to say, “There should have been a day of mourning for American comedy the day that movie came out.” My own friends came out of the theater that day enjoying themselves and I was able to share some of his other films to them. KFHand Shaolin Soccer both broke box office records in Hong Kong. However, it seems that after 2000, his film output slowed down significantly. As mentioned earlier, Chow used to be in two or more films, and in some prolific years as many as eight or nine. However, he slowed down significantly during the new millennium. Other than KFH and Shaolin Soccer, the only other films he has listed in his filmography is CJ7 and The Founding of a Republic.CJ7 had decent reviews, but nowhere near the appraise he received for his past two films.The Founding of a Republic was pretty much a patriotic propaganda film that had nearly every Chinese actor and actress in it. It is sad to see that the start of his worldwide recognition might very well be at the end of his creative prime.
Rewatching the film, I remembered the great parts that got the film acclaim during its U.S. release, but it also brought some other memories: of how I was slightly disappointed in it. Yes, I wrote a whole lot about wonderful reviews it received and all, and I do think it’s still a fun film, but my own personal feelings about the movie is that it fell short a little compared to his past films. In some part, it is the energy, the rhythm of the film. Ironically, many reviews talk about how much energy the film has, but I’ve seen that mentioned in reviews of lots of Chinese action films, like Infernal Affairs, or any collaboration between John Woo and Chow Yun Fat. An intensity that directors like Quentin Tarantino would try to copy. I feel like I see it a lot when I would revisit his past films, but it feels like it’s lacking a little in KFH.
Another drawback I see is that almost none of the relationships in the film had time to develop throughout the film. One reason is that there are just too many characters in the film. There are the gangsters, the villagers, the landlords, the secret martial artist tenants, the musician assassins, the Beast, the lollipop girl, and of course, Stephen Chow’s character and his partner. Yes, a lot of them had their moment, and they all seem like fully fleshed characters, but many of them leaves, get killed, or simply get forgotten before they can develop further. Theoretically, Chow is our protagonist, but there is so much that happens outside of his character that the focus gets muddled. Also, since he is not in the film as much, the relationships he develop seems rushed and forced, especially between his character and the mute lollipop girl he eventually falls in love with.
The last reason I feel KFH doesn’t hold up seems to be another contradiction against the critics: It’s a little less creative. Again, the U.S. critics were praising Chow over his creativity, but most had not seen his earlier movies. There are many great things in this movie, but it feels like it’s been done before, as well as it not being as wild and idiosyncratic as stuff he has done already. It could be that he’s simply running out of original ideas, which would probably explain both his slowed output after 2000 as well as the more subdued reviews to his following film, CJ7.
II don’t want it to seem like I completely hated KFH. There are many things I still like about the film. The cartoon homages were wonderful and was some of the few places I appreciated the rubbery CGI effects. I liked some of the added little extra details, like his character’s reaction to his own firecracker to call the gang backup, or the little strings of fiber stuck under the musician assassin’s sharp, pointed nails when he clawed through the tailor’s fabric. The perfect scene that encompasses both those elements is the one I mentioned earlier where he attempts to kill the Landlady by throwing knives at her, failing after several attempts, and ending with a Looney Tunes style chase. Here, since most of the action is deliberately cartoonish, I’m more accepting of the CGI, and it has some of the little details that I love, such as one of the stuck blade on his shoulder used as a rearview mirror. It’s one of those scenes that I can’t help but laugh myself silly and is something that is a wonder to behold:
KFH, for what it is, still holds up. It still works as a great introduction to the films of Stephen Chow. What ultimately disappoints me is the feeling that there could have been something different or something more developed. Or it could simply be that I’m just spoiled by his past films. I personally think Shaolin Soccer is the better film in creativity, story, character development, etc., and if Miramax hadn’t fucked it up royally, then that would have been Stephen Chow’s proper introduction to American audiences, and KFH would be the follow-up film that would make people look back at his past works, or anticipate any future projects. He does have one coming called Tai Chi. Here’s hoping that all my criticism of his current creative descent is proven wrong.
-There were a couple of times when the line “Everybody has his reason” was used. Both times made me think about the French film Rules of the Game when the director/actor, Jean Renoir, uses the same line.
-The swirling clouds over the mental asylum reminds me of the one over Sigourney Weaver’s apartment building in Ghostbusters.
-As a movie memorabilia collector, I want that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Top Hatposter that Chow and the lollipop girl matched poses with.
-The better martial artist is always one who seems like he is using no effort to fight his or her opponent, who in turn is giving everything they’ve got.
-My Chinese is decent, so when I watch certain parts and read the subtitle, I don’t know if there was original intent by Chow to make a reference or if it’s just the subtitle translator having a little bit of fun. For instance, the “Great power comes great responsibility” line.
-There’s another part I didn’t know if intentional or not. When the Landlady reads the fortune to determine the fate of the secret martial artist tenants, a large bell is struck, which makes everybody around them cover their ears, except for the martial artists and the Landlady. Could that have been a little foreshadowing of her own talents?
-There’s a scene where Chow stomps and flattens a ball some kids were playing with, shouting, “No more soccer!” Many say that this is his response to everybody asking if there would be a sequel to Shaolin Soccer.
-At the very beginning, we see a gang leader leaving the police station after causing trouble. On the street, he is approached by a rival gang on both sides. The first gang leader, a Northerner who speaks Mandarin, pulls out a firework signal to call for backup. The subtitle translation of the rival gang leader, a Southerner who speaks Cantonese, reads as, “While you were in the police station, all your men have joined my gang.” However, what he actually tells them is, “While you were in the police station, all your men have learned to speak Cantonese.”
-There’s a short story by R.A. Lafferty titled “Frog on the Mountain” about a man on a hunting trip on another planet. The hunt consists of besting four animals, the last one called the Bater-Jeno, which, depending on the translation of the alien language, is either crag-ape or frog-man. I had recently read the story, so it was on my mind when I watched the scene when the Beast used his Toad-style technique. I also brought this up because I secretly wanted to share my newfound love of the works by R.A. Lafferty.
-I finally did see Sin City.