A Case For Greatness: KUNG FU HUSTLE

It's been 15 years since Stephen Chow delivered this masterpiece.

Classics never die, but they seldom get replaced. Cinema is populated with enduring, venerated works of art that deservedly adorn list after list, but those lists are rarely updated, and less often expanded to include new, equally worthy entries. Organizations that give out annual awards are constrained not only by the limitations of formatting, but perspective - they can’t anticipate which film will survive the buzz of its initial acclaim or success and become part of the cultural firmament. And then there are just certain films or even genres that too infrequently receive the critical attention they deserve, are too obscure to break through to bigger audiences, or just aren’t taken seriously enough to merit consideration alongside the ones we “all” already know we love or respect. A Case For Greatness, this series, tries to argue for, and to champion, forgotten or underappreciated films in a variety of genres that may be worthy of being called “classics.”

I hadn’t seen Shaolin Soccer in 2005 when Kung Fu Hustle arrived in theaters, but even if I had, I find it tough to imagine I would have been prepared to expect a film that I still believe ranks among the best of the decade - and indeed, the best of the new millennium. Sporting an effusive if baffling quote from Roger Ebert on its advertising (“like Jackie Chan and Buster Keaton meet Quentin Tarantino and Bugs Bunny”), Stephen Chow’s film felt alternately familiar and welcoming and also like nothing else I’d ever seen - this wild combination of slapstick, heartfelt sentiment, brilliant fight choreography and sometimes spectacularly bad CGI. Some 15 years after its release, Kung Fu Hustle has aged, well, less poorly than strangely in a much different cultural climate, but revisiting it only underscores what a singular talent Chow is and how desperately audiences need much, much more of his weird, wild creativity.

Of course, the film’s surface-level choices seem, well, superficial, and seldom like virtues. Chow is a fan of bad teeth and butt cracks. The fight scenes frequently combine CGI and wire work in clumsy, cartoonish ways. His portrait of a gay character is a mincing stereotype. But the film isn’t working around those qualities; it’s using them to create a specific tone and to build a very carefully-defined world. Sing, played by Chow, is a petty thief trying to level up as a member of the notorious Axe Gang, a group of ruthless criminals he inadvertently attracts by recruiting his associate Bone (Lam Chi-chung) to pretend to be one of their fearsome lieutenants. Brother Sum (Danny Chan Kwok-kwan), the Axe leader, starts the film by murdering one of his competitors literally on the doorstep of the local police station - and this is a group that Sing claims to want to join, would that he were possessed of the true ambition, and disposition, to callously disregard human life.

But Sing, like most of the Axe Gang’s victims, is merely feckless and desperate, tired from struggling to accomplish very little and exasperated to watch others who are cruel and brutal prevail and flourish. This is immediately apparent, but his efforts to fleece the residents of Pigsty Alley, a slum that hardly seems like a smart place to try and hustle up any real cash, underscore just how awful he is at being ruthless. After an attempt to kill Pigsty’s grumpy Landlady (Yuen Qiu), Sing becomes a human pincushion when Bone sticks not one but three knives into his body that were intended for her; his only moment of invention comes when he uses one sticking out of his arm as a rearview mirror while running away from her wrath. We later learn that he was once a righteous and good child, but after being humiliated while trying to protect a mute girl named Fong (Eva Huang), he abandoned chivalry for the surer rewards of thievery.

After the Axe Gang mistakes his petty offenses for those of the Pigsty residents, and Brother Sum decides to make an object lesson out of the whole community. But what Sum soon learns - and what drives Sing towards not just an important epiphany, but his destiny - is that hidden behind the run-down doors of Pigsty’s apartments and businesses reside a number of good, virtuous people who cannot stand idly by while injustice - especially violent injustice - occurs. Three martial arts masters, previously disguised as a baker, a tailor and a day laborer, intervene on behalf of a tenant, revealing their true skills; it provides a temporary solution against the Axe Gang, but eventually only escalates the situation. Nevertheless, with that revelation the film introduces this sad and beautiful notion not just that the good will always stand up to the bad, but that there are in communities everywhere, rich and especially poor, talented or skilled individuals whose gifts are marginalized, ignored or hidden by the more pressing concerns of daily survival, and the desire not to stand out.

Such is absolutely true of Sing, who is constantly reminded of how far he has strayed from that good-natured kid by Fong, now an ice cream vendor that he hopes robbing from her will destroy those uncomfortable recollections. But Landlady and Landlord (Yuen Wah), later drawn into a conflict when the Axe Gang sends a pair of murderous musicians to kill the three masters, reveal that they lost their son in a street fight, and despite their own skills, retreated into the petty melodramas of Pigsty Alley to distract them from their grief, and hopefully protect them from encountering other scenarios that could end violently. Among its Pigsty residents, the film is populated with characters who are distracted, vulnerable, struggling, or grieving, but they are not “lesser” than their criminal counterparts - and that’s a lesson that Sing is forced to learn.

Eventually, Sing helps the Axe Gang rescue “the most dangerous person alive,” the Beast (Bruce Leung Siu-lung), winning Sum’s favor, but he becomes the killer’s victim when he takes a stand against him during the climactic showdown with Landlord and Landlady. (The Beast literally punches through his chest, and then smashes his head through a floor.) But it’s in making that choice that Sing becomes the man he was meant to be: Landlord and Landlady tend his wounds, but quickly realize that the punishment he suffered at Beast’s hands released and perhaps realigned the chi that was keeping him from simply being a good person, much less a bona fide martial arts master. One small gesture made him vulnerable to unimaginable pain, but his recovery from that made him stronger than ever before.

What’s fascinating about Chow’s direction of the action in the film is that it’s all a little bit magical, but on an evolving spectrum from completely (and literally) Looney Tunes-level cartoonish to as visceral and poetic as in any martial arts movie you’ve ever seen. Landlady runs like Wile E. Coyote after Sing’s Roadrunner and is only stopped when she slams into a billboard. Later, the Harpists’ music unleashes a spiritual sword-wielding army that vivisects a stray cat and dismembers one of the three original masters. And in the final showdown, Sing is thrown so high into the air that he alights on the back of a hawk before diving so quickly back down towards the Beast that he seems poised to burn up on re-entry from the upper atmosphere.

The director’s visual sense encompasses so many different influences - from The Shining to The Matrix to classic Hollywood comedies - that it’s easy to look at his approach as pastiche. But like, say, Tarantino, he makes those references count for something, and most of all he combines them in a way that give them weight and meaning that transcends the immediate value of their familiarity. Because the film was inexpensive by most “blockbuster” standards - $20 million - it’s easy to think that the dodgy visual effects and seemingly shaggy assembly is merely sloppiness, but Chow executes his idea carefully and methodically to give it a sense of fun that you’re not even aware is drawing you into its greater emotional complexities.

Even though it’s largely structured like a video game featuring increasingly tough adversaries, the film constantly amazes me with its many surprises, its slick twists, and the silly little gags that pay off in profound ways. Shaolin Soccer, which I immediately watched afterward, lacks some of this film’s polish, but it evidenced what has now been proven repeatedly in his work, moving forward through CJ7 and Journey to the West: there may be no filmmaker in the world who is better at pairing contrasting tones in a single moment or scene and making them work harmoniously together. He’s beating a character into a bloody pulp in one moment, reshaping his face like it’s silly putty in the next, and finally, supplying a devastating character history, motivation and ambition to cathartically tie it all together. Chow’s work is effective precisely because it disarms you with all of the things that you’re ready to dismiss, and then pummels you with truths that you cannot deny. And like a dance that descends into a brawl, or a fistfight that unfolds with perfect grace, Kung Fu Hustle combines the high and low, the beautiful and the brutal, the silly and the substantial in one delirious, exhilarating, deeply affecting package.