JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Sing's first attempt at martial arts was unsuccessfully defending a mute girl, after which, in humiliation, he turned to a life of crime.

Sing has finally become a master of the Buddhist Palm martial arts.

The Buddhist Palm leads finally to a transformation taking Sing and us back to the mute girl, now adult.

Sing re-encounters the grown girl...

...under a poster for Top Hat.

Little Cheung uses the child as motif to pose identity questions for a new generation regarding kinship, nationalism and belonging during Hong Kong’s transition from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

At the end of Kung Fu Hustle, rather than enter into an adult relation with this woman...

...Sing retreats to an imaginary world where both the mute girl and he become children again.

The mute girl/child remains an undeveloped idealization in the film.

 

Fantasy of childhood

In the end of the film, the razor-sharp lotus that the Beast uses to stab Sing is transformed into a flower that leads us to the mute girl. Violence transforms into beauty and peace as Sing meets with the girl again. However, instead of a romantic reunion with the grown-up mute girl in reality, Sing retreats to an imaginary world of childhood as the two of them both become once again children and thus postpone adulthood. In discussing the correlation of child and post-1997 cultural politics, Kwai Cheung Lo notes:

"Post-1997 Hong Kong is more and more ‘freely assuming’ its imposed historic destination. Trying to be young to childishness is a target the city chooses to hit and a selected means for avoiding becoming too Chinese and becoming too dangerously politicized. [To] retrieve a juvenile image and features implies not only a recovery of a bygone childhood but also a return to the state of subordination" (216). [open notes and bibliography in new window]

In this way, to be Chinese in Hong Kong after 1997 cannot be perceived without its symbolic unification with the Mainland, particularly its minority position, subordinate and potentially monitored. As a nascent Special Administrative Region, post-1997 Hong Kong can easily be understood as in a childlike state in relation to the Mainland. Figuring the child in terms of the Oedipal or otherwise predestined symbolic order, the child’s perceived nonsensical urge to escape from dominating socio-political framework can be seen as a fruitless attempt.

One of the most significant underdog figures in this post-1997 film Kung Fu Hustle is the child. In Kung Fu Hustle, Sing is an orphan/ nomad as the film never shows him having a home, family or parents. He drifts around in the street as a child as well as an adult. The xia hero is an extension of this kind of nomadic character, who prefers a wandering life in jianghu instead of stability in the mainstream society. Childhood/ youth is often doubly inscribed with nostalgia, standing for a lost time and for innocence. However, children represented in the socio-political reality created in Hong Kong cinema before and after 1997 are no longer bearers of innocence. Fruit Chan’s Little Cheung (1999), for example, is a story about a Hong-Kong-born, street-smart nine-year-old boy who bonds with a girl his age, an illegal immigrant from the mainland in the Kowloon streets. The film uses child as motif to pose identity questions for a new generation regarding kinship, nationalism and belonging during Hong Kong’s historical and political transition of sovereignty in 1997.

In Kung Fu Hustle, Sing as a child faces the harsh reality of having his dream of becoming a xia shattered, as he was deceived by the homeless man who sells him a useless kung fu manual. Xia is a mythical and fictional figure that recuperates popular imagination as an antidote to the oppressive reality. The heroic and individualistic image of the knight-errant may pose a real threat to the official and nationalist ideology, but it can also be manipulated by patriarchal myths of loyalty and brotherhood. Despite a xia's seemingly unlimited freedom, Sing as an adult does not consider that as the register for his final fantasy. In the end Sing chooses to retreat from jianghu and entertains the political neutrality of a childhood fantasyland rather than becoming a xia who possesses the unbeatable Buddhist’s Palm martial skills. Through playfulness and childish humor, Kung Fu Hustle registers the utopian vision and ongoing discovery of becoming a child, not in reality but fantasy. When being asked if he thinks there were a limit to his art of filmmaking, Chow replies:

"There is no limit to cinema. […] In essence, it [the art of filmmaking] is ‘Tian Ma Xing Kong’ [‘the heavenly horse galloping across the sky’ or unbound imagination]" (Personal Interview).

Kung Fu Hustle’s fantasy of becoming a child is based on the belief in the power of imagination, its potentials to press for a new territory, and the freedom to introduce multiple viewpoints into a homogeneous space of historiography. Yet, as Jyotsna Kapur notes,

“Children’s imagination, when not turned into a source for generating profit, becomes a terribly fearful thing that threatens to overturn the economic, sexual, and social status quo” (164).

As implicit and explicit in this commercial film, Kung Fu Hustle’s imagination for new territory is inevitably correlated to and colludes with the economic power of capital. In this case, the coined dream for an alternative “space” of imagination is positioned as non-threatening for the mass audience to whom the film sells or reaches. The final metaphor of the movie is established by the return of the homeless street vendor, whose image reminds one of Chow’s former role as “The King of Beggars.” “The King of Beggars” intends to sell martial arts manuals to another male child and the child is pondering whether to refuse or accept them. Chow leaves the film open-ended and associates the possible future of Hong Kong (commercial cinema) with two fantastic components: childhood and martial arts culture and film.

Kung Fu Hustle destabilizes the correlation between ideal masculinity (femininity) and xia heroism. Yet, Chow is not able to demystify the function of woman as the Other that recurs throughout his male-centered films. The mute girl remains an undeveloped idealization. Her silence is not overcome. The silencing of woman’s voices represents the effects of patriarchy in which a male child’s voice is recovered but not the female’s. While identifying the minority (underdog) and liberating potentials of the child, Chow reiterates the binary opposition between the sexes. His insistence on becoming minority through becoming a (male) child only re-emphasizes this fact. The opposition between active male and silent female is the restoration of the majoritarian.

After all, whose city, whose jianghu, whose nation, whose discourse of globalization? These are questions that permit an analysis of how hegemonic discourse functions. The child is interpreted as historical and cultural, for even here history and culture are regarded as the province of man. Even fictionality and possible worlds are products of ideology. To imagine a China outside the histories of Western (British) imperialism/ colonialism and the 1949 revolution is the result of an ideological construct. Arif Dirlik notes:

"Where history is concerned, the study of China has to address not only questions of a multiplicity of Chinas, even though that is hardly acceptable to the more patriotic Chinese, but also an unprecedented scrambling of temporalities in popular life in the coexistence of conflicting trends, which range from the most contemporary global cultural practices to continued affirmations of Communist revolutionary history to revivals of Republican history, from the repudiation of the entirety of the modern Chinese Revolution, informed by nationalist urgings, to the reconfirmation of ancient myths that a modern historiography once seemed to have laid to rest" (58).

We have to be aware of the fact that Kung Fu Hustle’s imaginary China is also created according to a discursive foundation sustaining a certain version of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’s emergent new subjectivities and transnational identities. As Sheldon H. Lu and Emilie Yeh-Yu Yeh indicate,

“[h]istoriography is necessarily always already revisionist as historians endeavor to look at the past with a fresh eye” (12).

The real challenge for historians is to enable positionalities of writing history without assuming the power of the majoritarian. Post-1997 Hong Kong politics opens up space for further inventions in the historiographies of Chinese nation-state from multifarious, contentious and contradictory positions. Thus, the way to explore new styles of writing history lies in the reflexive awareness of the power and knowledge that makes certain versions of history intelligible or invisible. Michel de Certeau notes:

“Thus historians can write only by combining within their practice the ‘other’ that moves and misleads them and the real that they can represent only through fiction. They are historiographers. Indebted to the experience I have had of the field, I should like to render homage to this writing of history” (The Writing 14).

Thus, the way to explore new styles of perceiving history lies in the imagining, writing and becoming beyond any already given thoughts or affects of being. Homi Bhabha notes,

“ The ‘beyond’ is neither a new horizon, nor a leaving behind of the past. […] For there is a sense of disorientation, a disturbance of direction, in the ‘beyond […]’” (1).

Such a disorientation of history begins with the Other. In this case, it would be the mute child/girl.

To Notes and Works Cited


To topPrint versionJC 49 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.