Kung Fu Hustle | A Love Letter to Hong Kong Action Cinema

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Hong Kong’s cinematic influence in Hollywood has a long and colorful history, and arguably
it’s biggest contribution to film is its action choreography. Even as far back as the 1950’s
you can see martial arts making their way into mainstream American movies, a trend that
would only continue to grow until it’s peak in the 90’s and early 2000’s after the release
of The Matrix. We can still see its influence today, with many of Hollywood’s leading blockbusters
employing similar cinematic techniques to depict styilized, larger-than-life action
sequences. During the height of its popularity, the trend of martial arts action began showing
up in just about every movie from the critically acclaimed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and
Kill Bill movies to the critically panned Bulletproof Monk or The Tuxedo. Obvious and
poor Matrix imitations like Charlie’s Angels to the iconic lightsaber duels of the Star
Wars prequels. But amidst all of this, there was no film that managed to capture the spirit
of the martial arts film better than Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle. Described by Roger
Ebert as “Jackie Chan and Buster Keaton meet Quentin Tarantino and Bugs Bunny”, it’s a
cult classic kung fu comedy film that pays tribute to the great tradition of Hong Kong
action cinema.par Martial arts have a great cultural and historical
significance within China, and the earliest films to utilize martial arts were the popular
wuxia films of the 1920’s and the 1930’s mostly produced out of Shanghai. Wuxia, which translates
to “martial heroes”; often depicted sword wielding vigilantes based on folk heroes like
Wong Fei-hung. Local conflict like the Chinese Civil War and Second Sino-Japanese War shifted
China’s filmmaking capital from Shanghai to Hong Kong, with production companies like
the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest carrying on the tradition of wuxia filmmaking into
the 1960’s. Featuring early hand-drawn special effects, trampoline and wire assisted acrobatics
with stylized fight sequences, the genre began to decline in popularity as a new school of
martial arts film began to take hold in the form of the kung fu film, a grittier and more
grounded form of action cinema that redefined the genre for a new audience.par
Spearheading this new movement, was Kung fu’s biggest star; Bruce Lee, who gained worldwide
notoriety with films that repeatedly broke local box office records, and with his final
posthumously released film “Enter the Dragon” becoming the highest grossing Chinese film
of that time with a total worldwide gross of $500 million when adjusted for inflation.
He helped to shift depictions of Asian men in film from offensive caricature into full
blown action hero; and his leading role as a minority figure combatting nationalism and
racial prejudice resonated with many other groups who felt marginalized. Despite leading
roles in only four feature films before his death in 1973 at the age of 32, his star power
cemented the kung fu genre as a staple of Hong Kong’s action cinema that gained widespread
popularity throughout the world, so much so that in the wake of Lee’s death it kicked
off a wave of poor imitations that came to be known as “Bruceploitation”, wherein filmmakers
hired actors of similar appearance, or with similar stage names to try and cash in on
his notoriety, with titles that echoed Bruce Lee classics like “Enter the Game of Death”
or “Return of the Fists of Fury.” But this trend would soon die off to make way for an
emerging new Kung Fu icon. par Jackie Chan, with the aid of director/choreographer
Yuen Woo-ping reignited public interest in the kung fu genre with films like “Snake in
the Eagle’s Shadow” and “Drunken Master”, they offered a refreshing comedic take on
the genre that catapulted both to stardom. Jackie Chan found success in the states with
his one of a kind blend of action and comedy in films like Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon,
while Yuen Woo-ping became a world reknowned choreographer for his work on The Matrix Trilogy,
Kill Bill and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. par
Which brings us to Stepen Chow. He became one of Hong Kong’s biggest stars throughout
the 90’s, where he was especially noted for his comedic “mo lei tau” style of humor. Pioneered
by the Hui Brothers in the 1970’s, it’s a slapstick style of comedy that uses a lot
of wordplay, non-sequiturs, absurdist and anachronistic humor that Stephen Chow made
famous with films like All For the Winner and King of Comedy. His film Shaolin Soccer
utilized the same comedic style, and became his biggest success to date, laying much of
the groundwork for his next film, Kung Fu Hustle.par
A film written, produced, directed by and starring Stephen Chow as Sing, a wannabe gangster
in 1930’s Shanghai who grows to become a martial arts master. Heavily inspired by the kung
fu films that Chow had seen growing up, it enlists the help of many of Hong Kong’s cinematic
legends; from Bruce Lee stunt-double turned actor Yuen Wah, or Bruce Leung, a Hong Kong
action star who came out of retirement specifically to appear in the film. Featuring cameos from
a few reknowned Chinese filmmakers, with fight scenes choreographed by the now world famous
Yuen Woo-ping. At every turn the film pays its respects to those who came before, from
the production design of Pig Sty Alley taking notes from the Shaw Brothers classic The House
of 72 Tenants, to the final fight scene depicting Sing in an outfit made famous by Bruce Lee
in Enter the Dragon. It combines elements found in the more grounded kung fu action
of Bruce Lee films, as well as the more fantastical stunt-work of the classic wuxia films of the
60’s, with a comedic overtone that Yuen Woo-ping and Jackie Chan had pioneered decades prior,
all with Stephen Chow’s own unique style added into the mix. par
Action and comedy is a tricky thing to blend properly, and I think Kung Fu Hustle strikes
a perfect balance between the two. Delivering some top notch action choreography that could
belong in any kung fu classic, with a slap-stick style of humor that would make even the Looney
Tunes proud. And while much of Chow’s “mo lei tau” wordplay gets lost in translation,
there’s still plenty of terrific moments for comedy that work regardless of the language
barrier. Often relying on visual sight gags, and a frequent use of mostly outdated CGI
that’s hard to even be mad at considering the satirical nature of the film. When watching
some of the other popular wuxia films of the early 2000’s, like in House of Flying Daggers,
the CGI ends up holding the film back from its full potential, because it just looks
cartoonish and unrealistic, but if anything that cartoonish and unrealistic look feels
like part of Kung Fu Hustle’s charm. There’s also still plenty of good old fashioned wire
effects, and talented stunt performers who sell the fight scenes as well as any of their
more serious counterparts. Take Chow himself, who manages to be simultaneously believable
as the scummy and scheming anti-hero with an excellent sense of comedic timing as well
as the ass-kicking action star that the character will eventually transform into; and performing
most of his own stunt work like the rest of the cast gives him the opportunity to direct
the action with a clarity that’s just not possible when using stunt doubles; something
that’s always helped kung fu stars stand above the rest of the action hero crowd. The ending
result being a film that feels like an empassioned love letter to Hong Kong action cinema. Poking
fun at some of its history, but always with a certain level of respect for its roots.par
All great wuxia stories are essentially superhero stories, and Stephen Chow infuses his film
with a level of wild imagination that I feel most modern superhero movies are lacking,
all on a budget a fraction the size of a big Hollywood blockbuster. And it just knows how
to have a good time, by heightening the reality in certain aspects to add to the fun of it
all, while keeping it grounded enough to still be a story that we care about. While the story
does more or less follows the same template as every other depiction of The Hero’s Journey,
it still manages to feel completely new and refreshing. Which isn’t to say it’s a perfect
film; some characters lack proper development, the final transformation of Sing feels slightly
unearned, but it’s the sort of original film that doesn’t come around very often, and I
wish we got to see more of. par Though I think it was just a unique product
of its time. It was released right in between the dying trend of kung fu cinema that began
to fade in the mid-2000’s, and the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that changed
everything about the modern blockbuster with the release of Iron Man, back when it felt
like more studios were willing to take a risk on a new idea that wasn’t already successful
in another creative medium. But maybe that’s what makes it so special, that there hasn’t
been anything quite like it before or since. par
It’s a one of a kind ride from start to finish, that pays homage to the many martial arts
films that came before, while still managing to carve out its own identity within the genre.
With a memorable cast of characters, some of the best action set pieces that I’ve ever
seen, a terrific original soundtrack, fantastic production design; it’s a film that could
and would not exist without the history leading to it. And while you don’t need to know the
history to appreciate Kung Fu Hustle, I think the experience becomes all the more enjoyable
when you acknowledge the generations of innovators who led the way for filmmakers like Stephen
Chow by pioneering new cinematic techniques, playing with genre blending, and creating
a form of action cinema that made the rest of the world take notice. par
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