Sunday, May 08, 2005

Kung Fu Hustle

Kung Fu Hustle (Dir. Stephen Chow, 2004) is an exuberant joyride that you wouldn't want to miss.

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.
Chiu Chi Ling
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).
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.

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.
  • [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)
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.

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.


tak said...

Your sharp reading of these protagonists as proletarian heroes in a meritocratic society was thought provoking and much welcomed.

I instead saw these kung-fu masters as characters trying to deal with their fallen status in a world increasingly hostile to tradition.

Chow, in this and other films, rely on the old common kung-fu motif of traditional skills versus new modern technology -- the bullet-defying moves of the ancient arts.

This film, perhaps inadvertently, points to the classic Marxist image of the traditional artisan losing ground to unskilled workers -- a transition that Walter Benjamin noted for the art of storytelling in "The Storyteller."

Like Benjamin's storytellers, these kung-fu masters might turn out to be proletarian heroes. But they too are susceptible to being bought by gangster capitalism, fascism or otherwise.

Thanks for your sharp reading of the film!

michael hoover said...

ah come on, all good fan girlz and boyz know that hk cinema is just sheer fun escapism & fantasy, that entertainment & social commentary or political relevance are counter-posed to, and mutually exclusive of one another, that 'political readings' revealed by subtexts, issues, conflicts, and allegories are just intellectual masturbation...

more seriously, _kfh_ would appear to accomplish for Chow/Chiaiu what _shaolin soccer_ was supposed to accomplish before Miramax screwed up distribution of what was largest grossing pic in hk history: global reach...

_kfh_ goes beyond chow’s experimentation with combining computer graphics and live action in previous flick, present film is dramatic departure for filmmaker who built career on use of obscure puns and nonsense language known as ‘mo-lay-tau’ (literally nine follows eight, but nine doesn’t have anything to do with eight, its definitions ranging from ‘without a shred of evidence’ to ‘at evens and odds’) *and* local geographic markers…

chow’s intense use of cantonese slang and hk settings was empowering for local audiences, because only native practicing cantonese speakers (or those living in hk and especially fluent) got the jokes, moreover, he would reinvest common cantonese expressions with new meanings, not always translatable into mandarin speakers reading subtitles or english…

in contrast, chow’s new internationalism both downplays comedic dialogue (mo-lay-tau is pretty much absent) *and* the film is set in pre-1949 shanghai – btw: several critics have suggested that axe gang is chow’s wry comment on ccp leadership (chow himself says that chinese gov't censors did not remove any jokes...

in any event, conglomerates have entered the scene, _kfh_ is columbia pictures (subsidiary of sony which has released film in u.s. through its sony classics division) -bejing film studio co-production, columbia pictures’ asian operation has invested pretty heavily in mainland china’s film industry infrastructure in recent years, chow's new film reflects loss of localism in hk cinema and raises questions about whether it will it be able to retain its distinctiveness in global marketplace… michael hoover

Yoshie said...

According to Roger Ebert, "Miramax bought it [Shaolin Soccer], and shelved it for two years, apparently so Harvey Weinstein could cut it by 30 minutes, get rid of the English dubbing, restore the subtitles, and open it one week after his own 'Kill Bill Vol. 2'" (23 Apr. 2004). Too bad -- Shaolin Soccer is a lot of fun!

Shaolin Soccer, however, is ambivalent about homosexuality: on one hand, it has homophobic/homoerotic humor involving eggs and Stephen Chow's crotch; on the other hand, an outtake that comes before the final credits casually reveals that the person to whom the goalie proclaimed love on the cell phone before he fell victim to the Evil Team and was replaced by Mui (the Chow character's love interest) was male rather than female.

Hong Kong action cinema has translated far better in the international market than Bollywood (Bride and Prejudice, for instance, sucked). Production of some HK films for the international market probably won't destroy HK cinema, though, as long as there continues to be a strong local market for it in Hong Kong itself. Threats to national cinemas, I think, mainly come from imports, rather than products made for export or transnational investment (as a matter of fact, there probably would be few African movies without French money), especially if imports are backed by powerful distributors who can hog available screens.

Michael Hoover said...

>>> 05/12/05 7:18 PM >>>
According to Roger Ebert, "Miramax bought it, and shelved it for two
years, apparently so Harvey Weinstein could cut it by 30 minutes, get
rid of the English dubbing, restore the subtitles, and open it one
week after his own 'Kill Bill Vol. 2'"

HK action cinema has translated far better in the international
market than Bollywood (Bride and Prejudice, for instance, sucked).
Global production probably won't destroy HM cinema, as long as there
continues to be a strong local market for it in HK. Threats to
national cinemas, I think, are mainly imports, rather than exports or
transnational investments (e.g., there would be little to no African
cinema without French money), especially if imports are backed by
powerful distributors who can hog available screens.

at one point, miramax was going to release shaolin soccer in u.s. as _kung fu soccer_, aarrgghh...

miramax essentially did same thing with _infernal affairs_, stylish hitman flick directed by andrew lau (in contrast to actor and canto popper andy lau) who made name with _young and dangerous_ 'triad boyz' films in mid-90s, then shifted direction dramatically in helming _storm riders_, state-of-the-art special effects, martial arts fantasy that pushed post-production work in hk cinema to new standard...

_if_ became second highest box office film in hk behind shaolin soccer, miramax kept it on shelf in u.s. for almost 2 years, then allowed it to open in 5 theatres nationwide (well, actually, only in nyc), couldn't have anything to do with fact that martin scorcese is making hollywood version of film to be released next year (scorcese's film is unofficially and somewhat jokingly being called 'gangs of hong kong' )...

hollywood films have already come to dominate hk screens that used to show mostly hk films, whereas box office top ten was once comprised of 8 hk films and 2 hollywood, circumtance is now other way around most of the time, with some south korean films thrown in from time to time (btw: guy named anthony leong has written book entitled _korean cinema: the new hong kong_)

transnationals, mostly - if not exclusively - u.s., are changing face of hk cinematic political economy, new relations (deepening relations is, perhaps, more accurate) portend transformation from 'national' cinema - to extent that hk had a national cinema - to 'post-national' one, a 'global/ world' cinema under hollywood hegemony (btw 2: koreans are selling film rights to hollywood at rapid pace)... michael hoover

tak said...

Hi, great discusion!

Michael, tell me you're not joking about Scorcese remaking a HK film!

I saw Shaolin Soccer in Tokyo in 2002, and it was well received in Japan, I believe. But as you noted it didn't come out until last year hear in New York, and I raved about it among my friends but only a few went to see it.

I saw "Kung Fu Hustle" with a bunch of people less versed in HK films, and for the most part, they enjoyed it but didn't really get it. I am sure I missed many of the inside jokes too, but some of scenes were familiar enough and I was laugh out loud most of the time (contrary to what my last comments might have suggested).

So is do you think Chow made a big enough splash here with Kung FU?

Final thought: you forecast that perhaps Hong Kong will be subsumed under a global Hollywood hegemony in the near future, as will the Korean tradition.

But wasn't there always a Hollywood hegemony? Weren't Bollywood directors of yore copying South Pacific? Weren't Ozu and Kurosawa copying silent cops and robbers films?

Yes more intellectual massaging...