Poor People Power
The sublime and the ridiculous fight back to back and dance cheek to cheek in Stephen Chow's new film Kung Fu Hustle. The English title can be taken a number of different ways; it's an allusion to the title character's occupation as an inept con artist, but it's also a joke on the audience. You might think you're in for some simple happy-slappy, punchy-kicky type fun -- and indeed you are -- but Mr. Chow has more tricks up his sleeve. He's got pathos, he's got politics, he has Buddha in the sky with diamonds, and a little lesson about the nature of destiny.
The opening credits waft gently onto the screen along the lilting path of a butterfly. But gangsters smashing policemen to a pulp interrupt this sweet interlude. Pulp is in the air, it seems, in 1940-ish China -- the same territory that Director Wong Kar Wai likes to ply -- a stylish era with men in suits and fedoras, women in cheongsams and gangland corruption so complete it would make Al Capone shake like a sissy.
The worst of the worst is the Axe Gang, so named because of its predilection for chopping up its enemies and dancing a mean jig while doing so. The opening sequence in which the head of the Axes (one Brother Sum played by Kwok Kuen Chan) dances a shuffling soft shoe, is pure cinematic exhilaration. Your heart will soar from the breezy insouciant, utter glorious style of the thing. It's a showstopper, but this show will not be stopped. It rolls on like a runaway steamroller and the references fly fast and furious, from Stanley Kubrick to Bruce Lee, Spiderman to the Matrix.
The only place that isn't run by the gangs is the slums, and that's because what they have, no one wants. The slummiest of the slums is Pig Sty Alley, presided over by a chain-smoking landlady (Yuen Qiu) and her gadabout husband (Yuen Wah), who spends most of the time flirting in his silken pjs. This unremarkable looking pair is actually truly remarkable: two kung fu masters, who have hung up their spurs and retired to Pig Sty Alley to live as slumlords.
Even though Pig Sty lives up to its name, it's a remarkably cheerful hellhole, except for the lack of water, and the landlady beating the crap out of her husband. We get the sense that things are going along just as they have forever. The tiny details of daily life are lovingly rendered: like the barber who won't pull up his pants, laughing children playing soccer, people making dinner, and someone swatting a bug flickering in the lamplight. Things are pretty peaceful until the day that Sing (Steven Chow) and his chubby buddy (Lam Tze Chung) show up and try to blackmail the bare-assed barber by impersonating members of the Axe gang. When the real Axe Gang shows up, there is hell to pay and the residents of Pig Sty must foot the bill. They do this quite ably -- beating the gang in one big bang.
The Axe gang is made up of seriously bad dudes, but it turns out they're little match for the folk of Pig Sty: especially the local tailor (Chiu Chi Ling), coolie (Xing Yu), and cook (Dong Zhi Hua). The gang that got banged, of course, wants revenge and things begin to escalate out of control, which is when the real kung fu masters reenter the battleground and fight for their mangy piece of turf.
I scream, you scream, we all scream
Having set the battle in motion, Sing skedaddles, running away so fast his legs are literally a blur of motion -- like the Road Runner on speed. Although he'd like to be a real baddie, the worst he can do is steal ice cream from a mute girl (Huang Sheng Yi). Still, there is something deep inside our hero, waiting to rise, or more correctly waiting to molt. Destiny calls and out of the caterpillar comes the killing butterfly, floating and stinging all at the same time.
Turns out that many years before, a mysterious beggar singled Sing out as the potential saviour of the world. Sing gives up his piggybank, and his future career as a doctor or lawyer to learn the ways of the Kung Fu master. But while trying to save a mute girl (yes, the very same ice cream seller) from a gang of bullies, he gets beaten and peed on for his trouble. "Good guys always lose. That's when I decided to be bad," explains Sing.
As a test of his commitment, the Axes give him the job of freeing the world's worst killer, the Beast (Leung Siu Lung), from the insane asylum. The Beast is as the name implies, pretty much unstoppable. He is the world champion of killing machines, someone so dedicated to Kung Fu that he has literally lost his mind.
The final countdown
The stage is set for the final apocalyptic showdown between the saviour of the world and the Beast. It is a smackdown, palm style, and Sing undergoes a glorious metamorphosis into the One, and comes shooting out of the sky like a fiery thunder bolt from Buddha. The final confrontation between good and evil is very unlike a typical action film. After the last furious sequence, the Beast asks the One "What was that last move?"
"I'll teach you," says the One.
"Master!" exclaims the Beast and falls to his knees.
And there you have it. Friends! The end. The One opens a lollipop shop, gets his one true love back, and the old beggar appears to offer some other sucker a chance at destiny. The cosmic joke is that there isn't only one version of the story but many. It's a great big Karma candy store, and life in the slums is still sort of sweet.
Smacks of home?
It's easy to be blown away by the pure visual style of Stephen Chow's film, but it's the subtler messages that have more impact. The most interesting part of the film is not the road runner antics or the different schools of martial arts beating each other silly, it's the message that even the poorest of the poor can fight back. For some reason, it made me think about Chile, when ordinary average people took to the street with pots and pans to dispose a despot. (Which is something I'd like to see happen in British Columbia before May 17th, since there is already a large number of people living on Vancouver streets according to a recent report from the Social Planning and Resource Council. There is also a local Beast that needs taking down. Where is the One when you really need him?)
Chow's heros are often the poor, the disenfranchised, the old, the fat and the ugly. In his previous film, Shaolin Soccer, it is the acne-ridden sweet bun baker and the raggedy ass Kung Fu Soccer player who meet and redeem each other. She mends his threadbare shoes and love blossoms. They may be poor but they have pride.
It occurred to me the other day that we don't really see poverty on mainstream television or in Hollywood films; there are no more sitcoms about lovable ghetto dwellers or blue collar workers. The only thing that comes close is the Trailer Park Boys. But since the Trailer Park Boys are also set to appear on the big screen in all their ragged glory until the summer of 2006, we'll just have to wait to see if Sunnyvale lives up to the glory that is Pig Sty.
Dorothy Woodend reviews film for The Tyee on Fridays.