Shanghai is represented as an urban landscape nurtured in a capitalist economy and ideology.
A city of crime and unrest.
Kung Fu Hustle’s imaginary construction of Shanghai is partially based on the 1983 Hong Kong TV drama series Shanghai Beach (or The Bund).
The film implies multiple overlapping geopolitical forces: colonialism, urbanization, nationalism, cosmopolitanism, and globalization.
The Hong Kong film, The House of 72 Tenants, finds an echo in...
...Pig Sty Alley and its residents.
In its depiction of the Axe Gang, Kung Fu Hustle works as a crossover between The Matrix and Gangs of New York.
Gangs of New York
The Mainland Chinese director Feng Xiaogang plays Crocodile Gang Boss.
The Axe Gang exploits the poor...
...residents of Pig Sty Alley.
Hong Kong martial arts cinema is comparable to the U.S. western, and this film pays homage to that genre.
When they approach Pig Sty Alley for the first time...
...both Sing and his friend pose as cowboys.
Stephen Chow’s film recovers a submerged history of Hong Kong cinema that is inseparable from the popular cultures of different geo-political spaces. On a national level this involves the metropolitan cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong, and on a trans-regional level it involves China and the West (especially Hollywood). The film’s mimicry of popular films from all these places reveals an amalgamation of geopolitical discourses of national and trans-regional cinemas, politics and cultures.
In the decade prior to the handover of Hong Kong to the PRC in 1997, increasing discourse, mostly in the Hong Kong media, drew parallels between Hong Kong and Shanghai, the two most prominent Chinese metropolitan cities in recent history. Kung Fu Hustle constructs an imaginary city of pre-communist Shanghai through a fictional world of images and collages in order to recount notions of Chinese-ness. The film's imaginary city is situated in the temporal and spatial combination of past and future, fantastic xia and urban gangster, nostalgia and capitalism. Identity formations are reshaped and reconstructed in the film via connotations of multiple overlapping geopolitical forces including semi-colonialism, neo-colonialism, urbanization, cosmopolitanism, nationalism, modernization and globalization. The film cues viewers to rethink the major aspects of martial arts cinema, xia, in relation to the film’s setting in a 1940s China that features tuxedo-suited gangsters using axes and guns, and ordinary people who rise to the occasion as kung-fu masters. Nostalgia in the film constructs an illegitimate Chinese city such as Shanghai in the 1940s. Historically, it was believed that
Chow uses a 1960s/1970s Hong Kong cinema version of Shanghai (and its illegitimate history of extraterritoriality) to stand in for the pre- and post-1997 Hong Kong that defines the city. Hong Kong history was shaped by the forcing of unequal treaties upon China, including extraterritorial rights and privileges for British subjects on Chinese soil, and by the colonial occupation of Hong Kong and adjacent territory. The film’s imaginary construction of Shanghai is partially based on the 1983 Hong Kong television drama series Shanghai Beach, a classic Shanghai godfather series. The world of jianghu in martial arts films is extended into the metropolis of the imaginary Shanghai first in Shanghai Beach, and later to the setting of Hong Kong in John Woo’s films.
Pig Sty Alley and its residents are reminiscent of the Hong Kong film The House of 72 Tenants (1972). Chow mentioned that he created Pig Sty from his childhood experience, with the design of the Alley being similar to the crowded Hong Kong complexes of his youth (City 34). In the film Pig Sty Alley is set against huge commercial billboards of local Hong Kong businesses or products such as traditional Chinese bakeries and herbal syrup. Despite its local connections, “Pig Sty Alley” literally has translocal association with one of the earliest gangster films by D.W. Griffith, The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912). These crosscultural references are further complicated by the fact that the Chinese translation of Pig Sty Alley is “Chu Lung Shing Chai,” which is a Cantonese pun on the Kowloon Walled City (“Gau Lung Shing Chai”). In commenting on Chow’s recoding and play on Cantonese slang, Linda Lai Chiu-Han notes that Chow’s early nonsensical films are executed with a “rhetoric of subversion” (as distinguished from actual “subversion”) that opposes official discourse. The films indicate a politics of “internal commemoration” that creates a sense of solidarity among the local viewers that is impenetrable to those “outside” viewers who are not part of this communal membership (246).
In Kung Fu Hustle, this Cantonese reference to the Kowloon Walled City marks out a distinct territory of word play that is impenetrable to audiences who are outside of the Hong Kong community. The Kowloon Walled City has a unique role in Hong Kong's colonial history. It was China's tiny enclave in the middle of British Hong Kong for decades, an extra-territory within the British colonial Hong Kong that became a place of no-man’s land since even the British colonialist did not have sovereignty over it. It was said that as late as the 1970s the local triads were the only real administration within the Walled City until it was finally torn down in 1993 (Leung 34). Chow expands his early nonsensical wordplay of Cantonese vocabulary and slang, and in Kung Fu Hustle creates a new source of communal solidarity for Hong Kong people who are familiar with the history of the Walled City.
In the film, Pig Sty Alley is the one neighborhood that is immune to the Axe Gang’s assaults for a very long time because the Alley is so poverty-stricken it holds no interest for the gang. The relaxed and idyllic mood of Pig Sty Alley, shown accompanied by traditional Chinese folk music (“Fisherman’s Song of the East China Sea”), contrasts with the urban setting the Axe Gang occupies (accompanied by Raymond Wong’s western style music “Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained”).
The battle between the Gang and the poor tenement dwellers of Pig Sty Alley results in the disruption of the Alley's peaceful atmosphere. The battle represents a confrontation between grassroots people who work for a living and gangsters who prosper from a form of capitalism based on criminal activity. Landlady and Landlord explain that because the violent life they led in the past resulted in their son’s death, they decided to retreat from jianghu (literally “rivers and lakes”). In jianghu, the true martial arts heroes and heroines show their anti-authoritarian attitudes that make them outsiders in relation to mainstream society. The history of xia is that of a disruptive social force, defiance against oppression. Jianghu generally refers to the liminal social space of the martial arts world inhabited by outcasts and outlaws.
In this case, the Walled City is a nodal point of the anarchic social landscape of jianghu. In 1997, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) enacted a Basic Law providing those regions with a high degree of autonomy, a separate political system and a capitalist economy, under the principle of "one country, two systems" proposed by Deng Xiaoping. Despite Hong Kong's political transformation from a former British colony to part of the PRC, Chow attempts to replace the reality of post-1997 Hong Kong and its reunification with the PRC with his own imaginative projection of the present on to a Kowloon Walled City/ Shanghai in which histories of British colonialism and Chinese revolution/ socialism are to be suspended. He also projects such a present onto a 1940s urban gangland, which has clear crosscultural references to both U.S. and Hong Kong gangster films. Kung Fu Hustle, therefore, redefines China by imagining Shanghai before 1949 and transposing it into an urban landscape nurtured in a capitalist economy and ideology.
Chow constructs the Chinese urban landscape by intersecting it with contemporary Mainland Chinese cinemas. He has Zhang Yibai, the Mainland Chinese director, play Inspector Chan in the beginning of the film. Zhang’s Subway Spring (2002) draws on the romance genre and reflects changes taking place in contemporary Beijing. His short film segment for About Love (2005) is also a love story, here set in Shanghai. Another Mainland director, Feng Xiaogang, plays Kung Fu Hustle's Crocodile Gang Boss. Feng is perhaps one of the most successful Chinese film directors on the Mainland. His Cell Phone (2003), for example, is a dark comedy that focuses on how cell phones dominate the everyday life of urban Chinese people as they manage their affairs and deceive their friends, lovers and co-workers. His urban comedy films satirize capitalist, materialist society and reflect on a post-socialist China, reconstituted in the context of market-oriented reform and the concomitant effects economic changes on ethical, moral and political-ideological structures. Both filmmakers deal with mostly contemporary subject matter, especially urban life. By embracing both Feng and Zhang in his own film, Chow uses references to contemporary Mainland urban cinema as one of the few focal points to comment on the larger cultural-ideological realignment and repositioning. Chow identifies with the urban instead of the national landscape in contemporary Chinese cinema because the history of Hong Kong cinema has never been completely national.
In Kung-Fu Hustle, both Chinese and Hollywood film have a pervasive cultural influence. Chow's narrative, scenery and style both integrate and contest the logic and effects of an implacable capitalism. The opening sequence of the Axe Gang dance pays tribute to a number of U.S. genres from different times. It is a crossover of the Matrix films and Gangs of New York (2002). Kung Fu Hustle combines them with musicals such as Top Hat (1935) and West Side Story (1961). The film is reminiscent of ensemble choreography instead of solo performance, and of West Side Story’s long opening gang dance that is set in the Upper West Side of New York City in the late 1950s and early 1960s. When Sing is in front of the Top Hat poster holding the girl backwards with a knife to her throat, they parody the same posture of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the musical. In Kung Fu Hustle, satirizing genres includes references to U.S. films such as Spiderman, Batman, The Shining, slapstick comedy, musical, western and several references to The Matrix films. Sing’s cowboy/outlaw image parodies U.S. westerns. The high-speed road-runner style chase juxtaposes the bicycle sequence in Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. (1924) and animation since this comedic scene combines the suspension of natural law found in both silent slapstick comedy and film animation.
Chow's genre borrowings result in a collage of several major trends in Hollywood cinema (gangster, western, musical, slapstick, martial arts inspired sci-fi film) to represent the urban Chinese landscape in the 1940s. The imaginary city, modulated by Western influences, is defined by its tension with the rest of the nation and by its closer ties to urbanity and the force field of world capitalism. Kung Fu Hustle creatively transforms Hollywood, Mainland Chinese and Hong Kong films into a visually refreshing and politically critical cinematic narrative. What we see is a historiography of transnational cinemas. But that historiography is comprised of images assembled into a work whose references are neither linear, cyclical nor any other recognizable shape.
To represent 1940s Shanghai, Chow recycles film images and styles translocally in order to devolve intracultural spaces and dissolve geographical boundaries. Chow ranges over the landscape of genres; images of past and present; and Hong Kong/Chinese and Western cultures. Kung Fu Hustle inserts the present into the past, the past into the future. The film becomes the site of a disintegrative moment of translocal enunciation.