Unlike the forays of auteurs Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Zhang Yimou (Hero and The House of Flying Daggers) into the martial arts genre, which centered on the aristocratic warrior class, Kung Fu Hustle celebrates denizens of a slum, Pig Sty Alley, who defend themselves and their neighborhood from the Axe Gang, who, clad in shiny suits and top hats, rule the casino capitalism of Shanghai.
Kung Fu Hustle, moreover, is perhaps the only action movie that portrays a stereotypically swishy queen -- played by Chiu Chi Ling -- as a proletarian hero, a humble tailor who surprisingly turns out to be a kung fu master and, together with a coolie and a baker, puts up a good fight against the evil gangster capitalists.
While the Chiu Chi Ling character is unusual in an action film (characters who depart from the mythical norm of heterosexuality, if they make an appearance in an action film at all, are usually associated with the sinister rich), he is in the spirit of the best of kung fu comedy, which Kung Fu Hustle embodies.
Chiu Chi Ling plays a tailor who finds himself under siege in "Kung Fu Hustle," Stephen Chow's comedic take on the martial arts genre (Tang Chak Sun/Sony Pictures Classics).
Kung fu comedy, like sports, offers a populist dream of true meritocracy. Regardless of your class, gender, or sexuality, it is merit and merit alone -- mastery of kung fu -- that makes you a master fighter. Isn't meritocracy a capitalist dream, rather than a populist one, though? Yes and no. The myth of free enterprise would indeed have us believe that the world we live in is a level playing field, where a person rises according to her talent and hard work. But we all know that ain't so. The rule of capitalism is to pay to play. Social mobility under capitalism is strictly limited.
In the real world, hidden talents of poor men and women in slums will go undiscovered and undeveloped, wasted by the drudgery of wage labor or worse, unlike the natural gift of lumpen Sing, Kung Fu Hustle's protagonist, who gets liberated from his perpetual loserdom by death blows of the Axe Gang's hired assassin. Hence the enduring popularity of kung fu comedy, which offers a utopian vision of merit, in service of common people, vanquishing the power of money.
- [David J.] Zimmerman found that long-term average income status was mostly determined by parental earnings. Of children born into the bottom quartile, 40 per cent stayed there; 29 per cent moved up just one level. At the top, the picture was similar. Among children born into the highest quartile, 41 per cent remained in that segment; 17 per cent moved down just one level. Because these numbers measured earnings alone, rather than inherited wealth, they probably understate the stability of socio-economic class. (Victoria Griffith, "The Myth of Upward Mobility," Financial Times, 24 Mar. 2001)
- New studies ["Earnings Mobility in the US: A New Look at Intergenerational Inequality," December 2001] by Bhashkar Mazumder of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago suggest that the similarity in income [between fathers' and sons' earnings] is even greater [than Gary Solon's and David J. Zimmerman's studies showed]. Using Social Security records, he averaged fathers' earnings over 16 years (1970 through 1985) and sons' earnings over four years (1995 through 1998), and found that around 65 percent of the earnings advantage of fathers was transmitted to sons. The wider window provides a better reflection of lifetime earnings.
The relationship between fathers' and daughters' earnings was just as strong.
So that grandson (or granddaughter) mentioned previously could expect to earn 42 percent more than average. After five generations, the earnings advantage would still be 12 percent.
Furthermore, the degree of persistence across generations is strong for both rich and poor. Thomas Hertz of American University finds that a child born in the bottom 10 percent of families ranked by income has a 31 percent chance of ending up there as an adult and a 51 percent chance of ending up in the bottom 20 percent, while one born in the top 10 percent has a 30 percent chance of staying there and a 43 percent chance of being in the top 20 percent.
In another study ["Choosing the Right Parents: Changes in the Intergenerational Transmission of Inequality -- Between 1980 and the Early 1990s," June 2002], David I. Levine of Berkeley and Dr. Mazumder found that the impact of parental income on adult sons' income increased from 1980 to the early 1990's. (Alan B. Krueger, "The Apple Falls Close to the Tree, Even in the Land of Opportunity," New York Times, 14 Nov. 2002)
Whether or not a utopia of meritocracy is worth dreaming is a good question, but, for that, we would have to wait for a film that would make all denizens of Pig Sty Alley, not just proletarian kung fu masters, its collective protagonist.