Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Hustle Your Way to Adulthood

In my opinion, Kung Fu Hustle is among the greater Chinese movies of the past ten or so years. "Greater," in that the two prior films that I've written about here are, in some ways, better, but it all depends on perspective. Kung Fu Hustle is clever. It's genuinely funny. And unlike a lot of other movies of its genre, a lot of the actors are over forty and are all the better for it. A lot of wuxia films will have the protagonist be in his early twenties, perhaps, trying to find his or her place in the world. (See: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.)

But while the focus of the film is on a protagonist in his twenties, the heavy lifting of the film is done by two middle-aged characters who just want to retire and live their life in Pig Sty Alley, to perhaps try and forget who they used to be. The husband, the Landlord, is played by Yuen Wah, who was a stunt double of Bruce Lee's, and went to opera school with Jackie Chan. Yuen Qiu plays his wife, the Landlady, and apprenticed under the same master. In the film she is a chain smoker, is loud, and doesn't pull any punches, verbal or otherwise. Her special skill is the Lion's Roar, where she unleashes a shout that can bust through buildings. The Landlord is such a master of T'ai chi ch'uan (or Taijiquan) that his bones might as well be rubber.

I love both of them so much.

The other protagonists are Sing and Bone, two low-level criminals who initially impersonate members of the Axe Gang in order to get respect. Sing is the brains, while Bone is the brawn-- the two actors play off of each other marvelously in one botched assassination scene, and it's clear that Stephen Chow, the director and Sing's actor, knows what he's doing. At the beginning of the film the audience is, I think, supposed to hate Sing a little-- he's a punk jerk-off who would rather con someone and be a dick than actually do anything worthwhile with his life or time. And he suckers Bone into doing what he wants because the poor guy is too amicable and dense to maybe say otherwise.

The side three protagonists are the baker, the effeminate tailor (it grated on me that he had to be a limp-wrist flamboyant guy until had to beat someone up, but then he was awesome), and a Coolie. What I liked about them was the fact that it fed into the trope of anyone, literally, being an amazing martial artist. It's a little done to death, but in Kung Fu Hustle, it's at least done with panache. They show up for a while before dying at the hands of two of the Axe Gang's hired assassins. It's a bummer, but I think they would have stolen the show otherwise, and they did give the Landlady and her husband a good reason to get into the fray.

The big bad, by the way, is played by a Bruce Lee clone from the Bruce Lee era of martial arts films, and he's as great as he should be. He spends the majority of the film in a gross army shirt and boxers, with plastic sandals. He's employed and broken out of an asylum by the Axe Gang, who seem to more want the people of Pig Sty Alley to know their place in the hierarchy than anything else. The antagonist just wants to fight with the Landlord and Landlady, because he always heard that they were the best fighters out there. He's a pretty deplorable and frightening guy, all things considered.

Like many wuxia films, the focus of the story is also on the young protagonist realizing that martial arts is not about being an amazing fighter, as much as it's knowing your own limits and capabilities. It's only after you've figured out your own issues and seen your limitations that you can actually become a truly great martial artist. Sing gets his ass handed to him a few times before he pulls a Neo, and after that he's just incredible.

So much of the film is also about the importance of home. Without Pig Sty Alley, there isn't anything the Landlady or Landlord would really fight for. Compassion is a big deal, too: the Landlady and her husband are fighting for their renters, for each other, and for the good of Pig Sty Alley as an entity. They have the abilities to repel the bad guys, and they're going to do it: otherwise, they and their renters are going to be driven out of their homes and potentially killed. A lot of this ties into being a mature adult, as well. Sing himself learns, eventually, when to pick his battles and what makes it worthwhile.

Kung Fu Hustle is definitely a film worth seeing. 

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