With Kung Fu Hustle the myth of Stephen Chow achieves critical mass—not just for the enduring cult he has created, the phenomenal box office his work generates, or even the collective pleasure his local audience experiences whenever he releases a film. Such marvels are by now routine. Opening at a time when Hong Kong was mired in an economic and political funk ominously symbolized by the continuing decline of its film industry, Hustle has given the people a reason to believe again.
Chow does it by simply reaching back and looking forward. True to its title, the film draws generously from wuxia (martial arts) films, the genre that put Hong Kong on the map of brand-name cinemas. Chow is a genius in generating extraordinary drama from the familiar. Here, he not only pays tribute to wuxia but also uses its history—not just conventions—as narrative shorthand and fodder for comedy. He dips into the lo-tech Cantonese films of the Fifties and Sixties, striking a balance between necessary cynicism and sentimental nostalgia by at once milking them for laughter and essaying them to create a world of rich human complexity beneath its deceptive surface. The key source is the five-part 1964 series Buddha’s Palm, which attained cult status in the Seventies when discovered by late-night television viewers who reveled in its melodramatic excesses, kitschy special effects, and slapdash spirituality.
The appeal of Buddha’s Palm to Chow is easy to understand. Its hero is a no-talent martial artist picked on by everyone from his own sifu to the girl he loves to the guy she marries, until he fortuitously masters the titular fighting technique and becomes the martial world’s Supreme Number One. Chow built his stellar career on playing the underdog, a Chaplin-esque figure who rises above his wretched station by overcoming impossible odds. Undaunted by the constant humiliations heaped upon him by people of higher social standing, Chow’s character never fails to have the last laugh, more often than not by a few clever twists of his nimble tongue. Such verbal humor involves the exercise of an attitude known as mo lay tau, an irreverence expressed in mischievous, nonsensical comic remarks, often adopted by the defeated as a face-saving stance to claim moral victory. Popular since the late Eighties, when Hong Kong was cloaked in gloom and doom over the impending reunification with China, this attitude has endured through the recent years of economic slump and political frustration. Chow’s comedy so successfully embodies mo lay tau that he has become synonymous with it.
It’s a mode marked by superb timing, idiosyncratic line reading, and an iconoclastic deadpan delivery. Unlike Jackie Chan, whose expressive face is rigged to a hyperactive nerve center, Chow sports a visage deliberately excised of emotions. He fires off his jokes with measured phrasings and exaggerated pauses, calling attention to the blankness of his expression, written all over with fake seriousness. He is also a highly physical comedian, so flexible and agile that he frequently performs his own stunts. Such abilities further endear him to Hong Kong audiences, who, after years of exposure to high-caliber action, are very good at sniffing out impostors.
Chow also gets a lot of mileage out of blending genres. In Kung Fu Hustle, he marries his wuxia references to the tenement film, specifically the 1963 Guangdong classic 72 Tenants (and Chor Yuen’s popular 1973 remake), a Capra-esque tale about poor people living in the crowded lower depths. Chow sets the film in a Shanghai shantytown, tracing the story back to its actual city-stage origin. Doing so, he not only takes Hong Kong viewers back to their days of hardship but also extends an invitation to his new audience in China, where a cult was spawned by the star’s two-part masterpiece A Chinese Odyssey. In fact, Chow appropriates Hong Kong’s past to address China’s current anxieties over rapid modernization and secures the former colony’s bond with its semi-reunited motherland-in both emotional and film business terms. It’s not surprising that Hustle was a runaway hit in both markets.
But merely conquering China isn’t enough for Chow. This time, with obvious designs on a wider global impact, he’s teamed up with Columbia Pictures. Aiming for more universal appeal, he tones down his patented verbal humor and plays up the underdog persona. And, with the studio’s deep pockets, he updates the wuxia myth by staging fight scenes with the kind of CG effects used in The Matrix and other American sci-fi films that had appropriated kung-fu choreography in the first place. In other words, with his new film Chow positions himself for West consumption by turning the tables on Hollywood with reverse sampling.