I have decided to create a film genre. It's called 'The Redemption Flick'. Imdb have never heard of it. It exists nowhere except in my head. It's just me searching for films that qualify and claiming them. Hollywood of course hates the concept of redemption and produces very few examples of it, and then mostly in a twisted self-serving fashion. Really one has to turn to Asia and directors like Stephen Chow and his immaculate Kung Fu Hustle.
I rave deliriously about this movie. Not only is its heart in the right place but it's a dazzling technical achievement. I declare Chow a cinematic genius. Every single aspect of this flick is carefully considered to maximise the comedy, the action, the pathos, the heartbreak, the joy. Every shot delivers emotion. Every scene is a twofer that seamlessly slides us into the next. The casting is extraordinary. Never have we seen a character like the landlady whom Chow happily let's steal the movie. But really it's a true ensemble piece and scene-stealers abound. Not forgetting the soundtrack. It broadly lends the film a Quincy Jones-esque feeling of menace and mystery, and mostly in an Asian scale. Believe it or not, this tone of menace enhances the comedy (nope, I don't get it either). The love theme breaks my heart. On top of this is a perfectly paced progressive structure that is a contemplation of the philosophies that underlie Asian martial arts and the inverse relationship between skill and the use of violence. It also tips its hat to filial piety, powerlessness, thwarted bravery, and forgiveness. Wonderful though all these things are, they're just bits and pieces. The director's genius is the ability to tie it all together and make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. Welcome to Kung Fu Hustle. But first, me, Stephen Chow and that git Tarantino
I've been watching Hong Kong cinema for twenty years odd. I lived in Sydney's Chinatown and frequented a video rental store there and immersed myself in Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh and the mighty Amy Yip, ha ha. And then there was the Chinatown Cinema. It was a trip into another world that's tragically gone now. Amongst other things, I learnt that the movies I'd already seen on video, and found mildly amusing, would reduce the Chinese cinema audience to puddles of laughter. The subtitles completely failed to convey the double-entendre humour. I later learnt that this goes for all subtitles in all languages (and dubbing is worse - me, I'd rather eat my own earwax than watch a dubbed movie). And Stephen Chow is an acknowledged master of Cantonese wordplay. In fact he's considered the genius behind a particular style called 'mo lei tau', the nature of which (in spite of much patient explanation) I have failed to grasp. As funny as this movie is for round-eyes, fellow subtitle readers should know that Cantonese speakers watching it (like my nutty mate Lulu with whom I first saw it) can barely sit upright for laughter.
Never mind the Cantonese, Stephen Chow is the king of Asia. Kung Fu Hustle when it was released was the monster hit from Beijing to Kuala Lumpur. I haven't met an Asian who hasn't seen it. In the West it did well enough, but really, almost no one got it. Reviewers seemed barely able to get past a single scene's resemblance to a Road Runner cartoon. Big deal. Of course they'd obsess over the least meaningful scene in the movie. But this is no mindless cartoon. It's laden with intent and is a showcase for everything that's right with Chinese culture. Westerners were, as ever, too busy looking for their own reflection, ha ha.
In this vein, if I was to find any fault with this film it's in Chow's two episodes of 'homage' to Western cinema. One is Kubrick's 'blood elevator' from The Shining and the other is an unintelligible quote from De Palma's The Untouchables. The blood elevator serves a purpose and is the build-up for a gag. But The Untouchables? Why? Chinese people laugh at it, but only because they think he's speaking gibberish. Of all people, Chow really doesn't need it. Nobody says - fuck post-modernist pastiche. It's witless and best left to unoriginal gits like Tarantino. But really these are minor quibbles and comprise no more than a few seconds of screen time.
I previously haven't bothered warning of spoilers. Half the flicks here don't deserve it, ha ha. But this one does. The trajectory of the plot is carefully hidden and is a series of surprises. Funnily enough, a lot of it is hidden in plain sight. Planting clues to explain what's coming is the nuts and bolts of cinema narrative. Chow hides these mechanics by turning them into show-stoppers. Each step is a delight that is never greater than with the initial viewing. Believe it or not, whole swathes of the film go undiscussed here - I've attempted to stick solely to thematic apects (as I see them, natch). But next para I more or less give the game away. Says I - If you haven't seen Kung Fu Hustle and you're up for the total effect, stop reading.
The Plot Trajectory
At first glance, it's a simple progression. Each hero and villain we encounter is impossibly succeeded by a more powerful one. But this rising arc of power is mirrored by a declining one that we might label 'desire to fight' or even 'self-opinion'. Those with the least ability are the most likely to bring violence. And the most powerful subject themselves to the greatest indignities to avoid it.
I did a martial art for a couple of years. The Sifu of my school, which is to say master, looked like someone's nice uncle and wore a cardigan. The Si Goong, which is to say grandmaster, looked like someone's nice grampa and he wore an even crummier cardigan, ha ha. Either one of them could eat me alive, if they chose to. (Not that I was much good, you understand) Those at the top levels of my school possessed ability in inverse proportion to their appearance, self-opinion, and desire to impress. And so it is here. As we climb from lowly farmer to Number One Killer, Chow asserts the wrongness of violence for the self and the reluctant rightness of it in defence of the innocent. Here, those who use violence for self-serving cop a lesson from those with least self-regard.
The Redemption Trajectory
The redemption is of Chow, whom - since it's his movie - we know is the hero. But clearly he has fallen. But in 'deed' he hasn't fallen far. No Macbeth stepped in blood he. It's merely his dreams that are corrupt. He enters the movie's world, Pig Sty Alley, as a villain, but of the would-be variety. He and his offsider pretend to be members of the dreaded Axe Gang so they might extort a few pennies from the barber (who perversely seems unable to pull his trousers up, ha ha). But Chow's pretence at villainy is quickly laid bare by him copping a thrashing at the hands of women. One of the women is Yuen Qiu, the aforementioned landlady. So fabulous is she, that was she to beat me with one of her flip-flops, I would never wash the footprint from my face. God bless every hair-roller on her head.
In a flashback, Chow explains to his pal his desire to be bad. In his childhood he encountered a sage who precisely (says I) saw the boy's heroic potential. Fired by the sage, his head full of dreams of greatness, he would rescue a damsel - which is to say, a deaf girl from whom bullies are stealing a lollipop. But perhaps his attempt to rescue the girl was less about her than it was about him? Perhaps he's grasped the wrong end of he stick - selfishness dressed up in a selfless raiment? The lead bully fetches the young Chow a corker and the gang soaks him in urine. The would-be hero runs off, spurning the girl. But is his shame alloyed with a lack of concern for her? Certainly they never exchange a glance and at no time does he ever acknowledge her except in his 'let-go-of-the-girl' challenge to the bullies. Either way, his thrashing taught him a lesson and sadly it's the wrong one. Respect, riches and women go not to the virtuous but to the wicked.
The hero's following attempts to turn theoretical villainy into actuality are unfailingly comedic. His sidekick is perfect as the least likely villain ever. Humiliation follows humiliation for our pair until the hero's desperation brings him, and us, to the film's pivotal moment. He holds a knife to the throat of the ice-cream-cart girl and demands her money. And who might she be? Sure enough, her tears give pause to our hero's good heart, but it's her sign language that stops him dead. The transfixed Chow is perfect here, as is the girl. As she tearfully holds out the lollipop - kept for twenty years in memory of his heroism - the music swells and Chow (baulking at this challenge to the nature of his memory and self-image) smashes the cherished token of affection. He runs off with a handful of coins, his first crime complete, but his heart shattered. His turning on his sidekick completes his desolation, but is consolidated-confused-tempered by his friend's act of charity in the form of a proffered lemonade. A really wonderful moment made from nothing.
And at this precise moment, Chow is offered a gig by the Axe Gang. Post breakdown, will he succumb to villainy or come good at the last moment? Ha! An adventurous distraction or two later, he makes the right choice but doesn't get off lightly. The Number One Killer smashes every bone in his body. But fear not, it's merely the final event in a series of kung fu genre clues that leads to the 'unblocking of his chi' and his rebirth as beatific kung fu bodhisattva. The landlady and her equally fabulous husband Yuen Wah (Bruce Lee's original stunt-double and never better than here) play midwife and become the rightful objects of his Confucian filial piety. And bodhisattva or no, the Yuen Wo Ping flying chop-socky climax must take place. The fans cannot be denied. But chow's hero is no longer selfish, he now fights for others, his face without attitude. Crucially he is the opposite of the Number One Killer who battles in a spirit of self-obsession.
With the villain's final treachery having come to nought, and the hero triumphant, Chow delivers his final impossible act of forgiveness. 'What kind of move was that?', asks the hitherto incorrigible Killer. 'If you want to learn, I shall teach you', says the hero. Huh!? The Killer, tears in his eyes, falls to his knees crying, 'Si Goong!' If Western audiences had been paying attention their jaws would have hit the floor. They just witnessed an American cinematic impossibility. Not only did Chow not kill the villain (never mind Hollywood's requisite 'twice'), he now offers to admit him to further knowledge. The implicit crux is that the only thing that counts is the spirit of selflessness. This is what Chow's hero has learnt and will now teach to his student. The offering of redemption, even for the worst of the worst, is not only possible but the inevitable ultimate step on the path to letting go of the self.
Chow explicitly acknowledges the slings and arrows of the world. The gangs and corrupt police rule all. The community of Pig Sty Alley only enjoyed immunity from them because they were too poor to be of interest. Is it a coincidence that the place harboured so many kung fu masters? Arguably not. Chow asserts that with mastery comes diminution of one's self. Desire for things and for regard fall away. Pig Sty Alley is the right, and possibly only, place for them. Those who've chosen simplicity and obscurity are the heroes, says Chow. Even his own final lollipop shop 'reward' is modest and less about himself than the girl whose heart he broke. It is Chow's gift to her. The shop, like everything else in this film, exists because it contributes to the overall message of redemption. This perhaps is Chow's genius - a dozen stars of yore allowed to shine, a silent ingenue in the role of her life, a tapestry of comedy, action and heartbreak and all to a single focused purpose. That Chow can pull all this off and look good without a shirt, is in defiance of the laws of nature. There's only one option, apart from killing this impossible, chiselled, arse-kicking renaissance-man, and that's to put him in the Redemption Flick Hall of Fame. Si Goong!