If it wasn't Taiwan-born New Yorker Ang Lee swooping in to cop the aerial balletics of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it was mainland China's Zhang Yimou refashioning his career in an action mold with Hero and House of Flying Daggers. From our side of the Pacific Rim, we saw Quentin Tarantino and the Wachowski brothers helping themselves to various Hong Kong chopsocky moves and master craftsmen in Kill Bill and the Matrix films respectively. (The only wonder is that we were spared get-in-shape-with-kung-fu exercise videos starring Uma Thurman and Keanu Reeves.)
Considering how financially successful all of the aforementioned movies were in the United States, one might well wonder why the Hong Kong movies they aped never made it into American theaters. Ask a U.S. distributor that question and you'd probably get an answer aswirl with circular logic, such as "audiences don't want to see Hong Kong movies because Hong Kong movies have never proved their appeal to audiences." The plain fact, though, is that current U.S. indie distributors have never given Hong Kong movies a real chance (Miramax famously botched a launch of Chow's Shaolin Soccer a couple of years ago), presumably because they see themselves as serving an art house constituency that's averse to pulp genres like action-comedy and kung fu.
No wonder Tarantino venerates and makes frequent reference to the cinematic context of the early '70s. Back then there was no rigid, Manichean separation between "popular" and "art house." You'd open the cinematic menu and find Superfly alongside The Godfather, spaghetti westerns jostling the latest Antonioni, upscale porn like The Devil in Miss Jones spliced next to Billy Jack or Willard or The Long Goodbye. In this deliciously eclectic setting it made perfect sense that an earlier generation of Hong Kong kung fu movies (including a handful built around American-gone-Asian superstar Bruce Lee) were not only welcomed but, for a brief moment, celebrated.
More recently, when the tastes of art house audiences are presumed to be more prim, homogenous and "serious," it's perhaps understandable that it would take a rather ponderous and self-consciously arty exercise like Crouching Tiger to breach the de facto blockade against anything resembling a classic kung fu film. And maybe Western fans of Hong Kong cinema should be grateful for Lee's mini-breakthrough, as for those of Tarantino, Zhang and the Wachowskis.
Yet these ersatz Hong Kong films also leave something to be desired, because, for all their expensive martial-arts savvy, compared to the real thing they often feel heavy, portentous, armored in mannerism. What they miss is the spiritedness of Hong Kong films, their air of slapdash abandon, giddy jocularity and endless effervescence--a winking, footloose aesthetic that verges toward the metaphysical.
Thankfully, Kung Fu Hustle has enough of those qualities to be considered typical. Yet it is also exceptional--deliberately so. Apparently Chow, a 42-year-old Asian superstar as performer, writer and director, saw Shaolin Soccer tank in the United States after becoming a huge hit in Europe, and decided to up the ante with his next stab at an international crossover hit. So he raised the kind of budget that would allow him access to top-of-the-line computer generated effects (CGI) and the time required to employ them. Kung Fu Hustle thus is the most high-tech of Hong Kong films, a Matrix-era CGI fiesta.
The good news is that the effects don't swallow the story. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that they enhance rather than compete with the fictional universe that Chow creates, which is a doozy. When the tale opens, we're in 1930s Shanghai, a realm that makes Capone-era Chicago look like Brigadoon. An initial blast of cartoonish mayhem between cops and gangsters introduces us to the baddest of the bad: the Axe Gang, a virtual army of lethal thugs and enforcers.
But gang-infested downtown Shanghai seems paradisical compared to the next place Chow takes us. Pig Sty Alley, we're told, is the one area the gangsters won't bother with, and the reasons for that are obvious in one glance: It's the shoddiest of slums, a steaming cesspool of a neighborhood. It's also a locale so redolent of comic possibility and sociological whimsy that it almost becomes the star of Kung Fu Hustle. You have to think back to the fanciful environments created by Terry Gilliam in Brazil, or Juenet and Caro in Delicatessen and City of Lost Children, to recall a film where the setting effectively is the story.
Into this benighted realm wanders Chow, playing a shuffling, big-talking lowlife who's not even a gangster, just a wannabe member of the Axe Gang. He throws his weight at the hapless denizens of Pig Sty Alley, and they, being proud and more than a little bit ornery, shove right back. But the real damage isn't done here; that happens when the real Axe Gang takes umbrage, and descends on Pig Sty Alley looking for trouble.
The trouble they get--far more than they bargained for, of course--entails not only a blazing action set piece but the first of the film's catalytic surprises. Turns out that not all of these slum-dwellers are the scuzzy layabouts and shiftless riff-raff they appear to be. In fact, three of the gnarliest--a sozzled landlord (Yuen Wah), his chain-smoking harridan of a wife (Yuen Qiu) and an obsequious tailor (Chiu Chi Ling)--reveal themselves to be martial arts masters in hiding, and they handily save good old Pig Sty Alley from destruction. But this is one of those rescues with a built-in downside: Once defeated, the Axe Gang doesn't roll over but comes back madder than ever.
The action in Kung Fu Hustle was choreographed by the great Yuen Wo Ping, and it resembles his work for The Matrix in its dizzying geometries and hyperkinetic excess. But here the fighting is anchored in comic aplomb and the wacky social specificity of Pig Sty Alley (reportedly modeled on the Kowloon neighborhood where Chow grew up), and it benefits from the droll energies of veteran performers Yuen Qiu, whose battling hausfrau is a hilarious terror, and Chiu Chi Ling, a martial arts instructor who trained many kung fu stars of decades past.
In films like this, one given is that the mayhem must escalate throughout, from the stunningly spectacular to the almost unimaginable. Chow handles that task deftly, making each fight bigger and faster than the last, and when the possibilities presented by legions of human bodies approach their limit, he piles on layers of CGI wizardry (up to and including a vision of a cloud-Buddha that Chow-the-performer encounters late in the film).
American critics, who tend to be fans of Hong Kong movies, lavish films like Kung Fu Hustle with comparisons to everything from Buster Keaton slapstick to Road Runner cartoons. While such compliments are appropriate and evocative, they miss some of the ways that Hong Kong films are truly, deeply sui generis. More than being unlike any Western movies, these high-flying action spectacles, at once wrenchingly physical and oddly ethereal, often display very unexpected, off-kilter relations even to the genre conventions they are supposed to embody.
In Kung Fu Hustle, the weirdest thing is that there's no main character, no protagonist, no action hero. (If Chow were trying to claim the crown of Luis Bunuel rather than Jackie Chan, this would be more understandable.) The story focuses on one set of characters, a protagonist seems to emerge, but then the narrative twists in another surprising direction, and we're left guessing again.
Anyone advising Chow on maximizing his worldwide profits surely would have argued against such a gambit. Successful movies of the commercial sort demand clear hero-protagonists and conventionally-patterned stories, do they not? No doubt. But one of the great glories of Hong Kong cinema is its sense of imaginative anarchy, a penchant that produces more everyday artistic daring than you will find in any other cinema anywhere in the world.
So let us hope that American audiences will leave their expectations behind and take the imaginative leap that Stephen Chow offers them. He is a major talent, and our cinema could use a dose of the gutsy brilliance that lurks behind the drab facades of Pig Sty Alley.