Kung Fu Hustle

*** (A must see)

Directed by Stephen Chow

Written by Chow, Tsang Kan Cheong, Xin Huo, Chan Man Keung

With Chan, Kwok Kuen Chan, Qiu Yuen, Wah Yuen, and Siu Lung Leung

Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Chow Yun-fat are much more familiar to American moviegoers than Stephen Chow, yet for the past decade no Asian actor has loomed larger on the pan-Asian cultural landscape. Chow’s new film, Kung Fu Hustle, broke Asian box-office records–set by his previous film, Shaolin Soccer–and at this year’s Hong Kong film awards it beat out 2046, by art-house darling Wong Kar-wai. It may also finally land Chow on the U.S. cultural map–sweet redemption given Miramax’s bungled 2004 release of Shaolin Soccer. But his delayed ascendancy may have less to do with Harvey Weinstein than with how specific his comic brilliance is to the culture from which it emerged–a specificity that’s metamorphosing as Chow, a veteran of more than 50 films, including 7 as a director, tries to move onto the global stage.

Chow and his distributor, Sony Classics this time, have clearly packaged Kung Fu Hustle for American viewers, with an ad campaign that prominently displays Roger Ebert’s reference points: “Imagine a film in which Jackie Chan and Buster Keaton meet Quentin Tarantino and Bugs Bunny.” Chow’s choice of story, a loving homage to kung fu classics of the 70s, also heightens its crossover potential. The plot–what little there is of it–has Chow playing a two-bit hustler who sets off a showdown between the Axe Gang, a hatchet-toting triad of dark-suited dandies, and the humble peasant residents of a tenement slum known as Pig Sty Alley, led by their shrill landlady. This is classic Chow–colorful underdogs triumphing over thoroughly booable villains–and it’s one reason Chinese audiences have embraced the ultrawealthy celebrity actor-director.

Another is Chow’s singular style–a playful, freewheeling, absurdist comic technique that acquired the popular label mo lei tau. Translated literally as “nonsense style,” mo lei tau refers to his ability to dismantle the logic of a situation using visual and verbal inversions and non sequiturs. In this regard his closest Western corollary may be Bugs Bunny or the Marx Brothers. Chow’s kineticism and range of comic technique invite comparisons with martial arts films and encourage viewers to let go of the conventions of storytelling, and even physics.

In Sixty Million Dollar Man Chow plays a bionic shape-shifter who defeats a Terminator-like killer by turning into the most feared member of Hong Kong society –the grammar-school headmistress–then disposes of the robot by turning into a microwave oven and zapping it into oblivion. Such gags may baffle Americans –much of the humor in Chow’s early hits relies on giddy references to Hong Kong pop culture and untranslatable wordplay in his native Cantonese dialect–but they’re a major reason Chow’s films became a cultural phenomenon in Hong Kong, mainland China, and Taiwan. By using familiar domestic elements of Hong Kong life to defeat a technological threat, he’s giving Chinese audiences the empowering sense that the tools they need to overcome oppression can be found in their own daily lives. Many Chinese who admire his cheerfully subversive mode of contending with imminent disasters have appropriated his attitude to cope with the hardships of living in or near China–Hong Kong’s transition to Communist rule, the SARS epidemic, the endless stream of media reports that mirror government propaganda–and it might even encourage them to challenge political authority. Yet it’s also become part of a detached nihilistic posture prevalent among alienated Chinese youths.

The utilitarian value of mo lei tau is debatable, but Chow has repeatedly used it to challenge Hollywood, whose influence on Chinese popular culture both fascinates and repels him. In Sixty Million Dollar Man we get hilariously affectionate parodies of Pulp Fiction and The Mask–as well as a disturbing image of schoolboys in straitjackets being ushered into an ambulance as they obsessively recite a litany of Hollywood sequels. In this context the showdown between the Terminator and the bionic schoolmarm has symbolic significance: Chow confronts and appropriates the intimidating high-tech appeal of Hollywood and infuses it with a Chinese vernacular–in effect, beating Hollywood at its own game.

As Chow tries to translate his homegrown success into international stardom, he faces the challenge of making his appeal more universal while retaining his base. When the mortally stricken hero of Kung Fu Hustle does a dead-on parody of Sean Connery’s death scene in The Untouchables, he utters Connery’s last line, “What are you prepared to do?” with the over-the-top enthusiasm of an American Idol contestant. His companions reply, “We don’t understand–speak Chinese!”

In Kung Fu Hustle Chow has turned to a much milder, less dizzying form of mo lei tau. He’s moved away from complicated Cantonese wordplay, and most of the humor, still gleefully irreverent, now stems from visual effects that are as sophisticated as anything out of Hollywood. In the climactic showdown his character is clobbered so badly he’s sent into the stratosphere, where a cloud formation in the shape of the Buddha bestows its blessing. Here Chow manages to have it both ways–reveling in the possibilities of CGI while underscoring its fundamental artificiality.

In yet another departure from his previous work, Chow is mainly absent as an actor, playing a marginal role in all but the final fight scene. But the zaniness extends well beyond his character and is fully embedded in the mise-en-scene. Chow gives ample screen time to three middle-aged actors: Qiu Yuen as the landlady, Wah Yuen as the landlord, and Siu Lung Leung as their nemesis, the Beast, a flabby, unkempt man dressed in underwear with plastic sandals dangling from his toes–the kind of person one could find in any working-class Chinese neighborhood. Imbued by Chow with mythical powers, these everyday characters put the cultural realities of Chinese society back into a genre whose elements have degenerated into global cliche.

As with John Ford’s Wagonmaster or Jacques Tati’s Playtime, the absence of a central star reinforces the sense of community that’s integral to the creative vision being presented. Indeed, Chow’s insistence on showcasing a community is ultimately what makes Kung Fu Hustle more than just computer-enhanced chop-socky or decaffeinated mo lei tau. The tenement setting is clearly idealized, but the details recall a way of life that’s cherished by Chinese audiences–and they’re vivid enough to be appreciated across cultures. A tracking shot across the doorways of each tenement apartment reveals men playing Chinese chess, the landlady beating her cheating husband, a bare-bottomed boy taking a dump in a corridor.

Lingering on such details is a new development for Chow, recalling the style of another aspirant to global pop cinema, Sergio Leone. Given all the hyperbolic kung fu, it’s easy to overlook such quietly observant grace notes. But Chow’s newfound patience and attentiveness to stasis, tinged with nostalgia, are promising indications of where he’s taking his art as he attempts to influence the commercial cinema that’s long influenced him.