JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Kung Fu Hustle is a film that combines conventions of the Hong Kong martial arts film with other genres including science fiction, gangster, western, slapstick and animation.

Stephen Chow achieved success with his unique brand of Hong Kong nonsensical (i.e. moleitau in Cantonese) comedy during the 1990s. Here The God of Cookery.

Stephen Chow is one of Asia’s most famous comedy film celebrities. who now also is a director.

Digital imagery and special effects create new cinematic spectacles for Hong Kong wuxia film. From The Legend of Zu.

In the 1990s, Hollywood stimulated demand for Hong Kong martial arts talent such as Jackie Chan. From Rush Hour.

Jet Li is another Hong Kong / Chinese action star who makes films in Hollywood. From Romeo Must Die.

Yuen Woo Ping is the martial arts choreographer for the Matrix trilogy.

The first fight in the Pig Sty Alley is a hardcore hand to hand combat.

The above fight sequence pays tribute to the kinesthetic tradition in Hong Kong martial arts films such Lau Kar-Leung’s The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter.

There are references to a wide range of wuxia works such as Six Finger Lyre Demon.

Stephen Chow’s comedies often have engaged in parodies of different film genres including martial arts films. His Fist of Fury 1991 ...

...is a parody of Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury.

Andy Lau and Idy Chan played the “Martial Arts Couple” in The TV Drama series The Return of Condor Heroes.

The Landlord and Landlady characters are mimics of the “Martial Arts Couple” in The Return of Condor Heroes.

The Landlady’s unruly figure and crudity sharply contrast with the xia heroism and idealized femininity of her counterpart played by Idy Chan.

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Chow’s From Beijing With Love mocks the Hollywood James Bond movies.

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The fight sequence pits Pig Sty Alley’s heroes against hundreds of Axe gang members. The scene parodies the Neo/Smiths scene in particular and emphasizes the actuality of human performers choreographed with exquisite creativity grounded in rich cultural traditions.

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Coolie uses his martial arts skills to defend the mother and child. The scene parodies and outperforms the increasingly technology-obsessed Matrix series generally.

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The Beast’s Toad Style.

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The politics of historiography in Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle

by Kin-Yan Szeto

This essay examines how the Hong Kong director Stephen Chow’s recent action comedy Kung Fu Hustle depicts an imaginary China in ways that commingle various historical and political meanings. The film thereby encourages viewers to reflect upon the past and present conditions of the Chinese nation-state and its people and culture, as well as on cinema’s own complex relations with history.[1][open notes in new window] I argue that the film deliberately evokes a 1940s Shanghai to play off its drama against the backdrop of Hollywood’s globalization and Hong Kong's political transformation from a former British colony to a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China in 1997. Kung Fu Hustle embraces the history of martial arts films and other popular genres to evoke an earlier period of Shanghai that is permeated with multiple temporal, spatial, political, and cultural contexts that shape and comment upon each other.

This analysis offers a contribution to historiography, or at least that of film, by following Michel de Certeau’s conception of historiography as a complex set of theories and methods for researching and presenting a history that always is contingent upon relations between knowledge and power as well as past and present. As de Certeau observed, history often assumes or depicts a simple “clean break between the past and the present,” but actually is shaped by more complex

“relations of knowledge and power linking [these] two supposedly distinct domains” (Heterologies 4).

The past always influences the present, and vice versa, while ideologies and politics mediate both. History is shaped by conscious and unconscious judgments about what constitutes legitimate or authentic sources, issues, and modes of presentation. More specific to film, this article also follows Robert Rosenstone’s observation that cinema tends to create a complex representation of history that blends fact and fiction

“through poetic overlays of sounds, images, words and ideas” (213).

Seeing should not simply be believing, as all images are mediated before, during, and after they are created. Following and expanding upon these notions, this essay examines the politics that govern Kung Fu Hustle’s assumptions and agendas in structuring relations between the present and the past. I critically explore the socio-political, economic and cultural discourses determining the historiography of an imaginary 1940s China as presented in this film. And I also note how the film contemplates, if less overtly, the new configuration of the Chinese nation-state after the Hong Kong handover. As part of its complex blending of historical contexts and political concerns, Kung Fu Hustle combines conventions of the Hong Kong martial arts film with other genres or modes of filmmaking including science fiction, gangster, western, slapstick and animation. These genre conventions together lead us to reflect on filmic interactions and translations between different geo-political spaces — Hong Kong, the Mainland and Hollywood. By analyzing Kung Fu Hustle from a transnational perspective, this article examines how the film interconnects and is shaped by the past and the present, the near and the distant, and fact and fiction as well as the political connotations involved in the writing of history. It proposes a new understanding of the politics of historiography in post-1997 Hong Kong, with broader implications for film and for history more generally.

Historiography of martial arts films

Kung Fu Hustle was a co-production of the Beijing Film Studio and Hong Kong’s Stars Overseas, premiering in late 2004 and distributed by the Asian arm of Columbia Pictures, which has invested significantly in Mainland China's contemporary film industry. The film has been a solid international success, both commercially and critically. With an estimated production budget of $20 million, it has grossed in excess of $100 million worldwide ($17 million in the United States), and its awards include Best Picture and Director at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Festival (2005), Best Picture at the Hong Kong Film Awards (2005) and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Film (2006). Among other things, this success shows how a popular Hong Kong film artist can transition from the local Asian market to a trans-regional one.

Stephen Chow is one of Asia’s most famous comedy film celebrities, who during the 1990s achieved success with his unique brand of Hong Kong nonsensical (i.e., moleitau in Cantonese) comedy that emphasized euphemism and double entendre in Cantonese. The action film Kung Fu Hustle, however, downplays wordplay in favor of visual spectacle. As Chow comments:

"In the 1990s, my nonsensical comedy focused on verbal humor that aimed at the local audience. I needed to establish my place as an actor in Hong Kong. Now I consider myself as a director instead of actor. I balance the verbal jokes with visual elements in Kung Fu Hustle in order to attract a diverse audience. My goal is to target the global market" (Personal Interview).

Directed, starring, co-written, and co-produced by Stephen Chow, the film is set primarily in 1940s Shanghai in pre-communist China, when the city was controlled by the notorious Axe Gang. As part of the film’s theme of relations between past and present, Chow’s character Sing is obsessed with his childhood memory of being duped into buying a faked Buddhist Palm kung-fu manual from an old homeless man. The film shows Sing’s first attempt at martial arts, in defense of a mute girl. He is beaten and so humiliated and disillusioned that he runs off to what becomes a life of crime. By the 1940s, Sing is posing as an Axe Gang member in an effort to extort money from the relatively poor residents of a gritty urban neighborhood called Pig Sty Alley. This "hustle" attracts the attention of the gang, which, in turn, brings out, in defense of Pig Sty Alley, three resident kung-fu masters (a cook, a coolie and a tailor), or xia, who have been living in secret with the poor. The Gang in turn calls for help from two lyre-playing masters, who are later defeated by the Pig Sty Alley characters Landlady and Landlord. Sing saves Landlord and Landlady in their fight with the powerful villain named “the Beast,” and as a result is seriously injured. As Sing recovers, he succeeds in defeating the Beast and becomes a natural-born martial artist xia hero dubbed “The One.” In the end, the narrative recapitulates its beginning, with Sing opening a candy store and reuniting with the mute girl while the old homeless man continues to sell fake martial arts manuals to kids.

In addition to showing how a character in the present is shaped by his youth, an issue I take up later in this article, Kung Fu Hustle engages with the past by paying homage to the history of martial arts cinema, including both the kung-fu and wuxia genres. “Kung-fu” usually refers to combat films in which the fighters bear no weapons, an approach that became popular with the international success of Bruce Lee’s films in the 1970s. The term wuxia refers to wu, meaning martial, and xia meaning hero or knight-errant figures. Wuxia films emphasize armament while kung-fu usually does not, though both genres overlap in significant ways including the common theme of the heroic deed by which the hero(ine) closely follows the code of a righteous xia warrior while at the same time being rebellious and independent in his or her actions.[2]

Hong Kong martial arts films can be traced back at least to The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple, a long wuxia film released serially from 1928 to 1931 (Zhang 203). During this time, cinema prospered in Shanghai with the rapid and widespread popular success of genres including martial arts films, but with the Japanese invasion in 1937 this came to a halt in the Mainland. However, the wuxia genre continued to flourish in Hong Kong, supporting the local film industry and enabling it to establish and maintain both regional and international success. During the 1990s, the wuxia films of Tsui Hark as well as Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time (1994) used rapid nonlinear editing and new modes of digital image processing to transform the cinematic spectacle of wuxia films, heightening both their kinetic power and global popularity. As for the kung-fu films, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Jet Li and other kung-fu stars created another wave of kung-fu craze (after Bruce Lee) from the 1980s onwards. Beginning in the 1990s, Hollywood stimulated the demand of Hong Kong martial arts talents, choreographers and directors as the U.S. film industry made a series of martial arts-related movies including Rush Hour and its sequel (1998 and 2001), Romeo Must Die (2000), the Matrix series (1999 and 2003) and the Kill Bill films (2003 and 2004).

Kung Fu Hustle contains several elements that pay homage to Hong Kong martial arts films and culture. The first fight in Pig Sty Alley is a hardcore hand-to-hand combat that pays tribute to the kinesthetic tradition in Hong Kong martial arts films such as Zhang Che’s The Heroic Ones (a.k.a. Shaolin Masters, 1970), Disciples of Shaolin (1975) and Lau Kar-Leung’s The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1983). The film has references to a wide range of wuxia works from The Buddhist Palm and Six Finger Lyre Demon films to Ni Kuang’s novels. Kung Fu Hustle’s cast includes veterans of 1960s and 70s kung-fu and wuxia movies such as Dong Zhi Hua, Leung Siu Lung, Chiu Chi Ling, Yuen Wah and Yuen Qiu. These allusions are not mere coincidence or empty pastiche, but instead have an agenda — to call attention to how the implementation of global power, capital and transnational visibility have worked to marginalize local cultures and history, in this case that of Hong Kong martial arts cinema. With old film conventions and actors providing intertextual references to the history of Hong Kong martial arts culture, Kung Fu Hustle revives and makes visible this marginalized history, including the vicissitudes of popular culture, while addressing contemporary concerns in an entertaining manner.

Kung Fu Hustle does not simply revere previous Hong Kong martial arts films; it also parodies them. Chow’s comedies often have engaged in parodies of such films and their associated stories and characters, as with King of Beggars (1992), in which Chow plays a character who excels in a “sleeping” style of kung-fu that parodies Jackie Chan’s character in the popular Drunken Master films (1978, 1994). Chow’s Fist of Fury 1991 is a parody of Bruce Lee’s Fists of Fury (1972). In that instance, Chow’s character does not know martial arts but is able to defeat his opponents because of his inborn deadly right arm.

Kung Fu Hustle’s parodic treatment of martial arts films includes mocking the association of xia heroism with hegemonic masculinity in the form of heroes who often are physically fit and attractive, like Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. Pig Sty Alley is full of unlikely martial arts warriors, including a barber, a middle-age woman and a muscular child. Though outsiders in relation to conventional society, the cook, the effeminate tailor and the coolie are xia heroes who demonstrate respectable qualities such as yi (uprightness and selflessness) and xin (trust) as they defend the helpless from the oppressive Axe Gang. For example, when the Gang pours fuel oil onto a mother and child, Coolie uses his martial arts skills to defend them. Inspired by him, Coolie’s allies (the effeminate tailor and Cook) soon join him to defend the Alley against the Gang’s attack.

Among the film’s other characters that mock conventional Chinese martial arts heroes are Landlady and Landlord, who parody the martial arts couple, Yang Guo and Xiao Long Nu, in Jin Yong’s martial arts novel The Return of the Condor Heroes, which in 1983 became a popular television drama starring Andy Lau and Idy Chan as the couple. In Kung Fu Hustle, the middle-aged Landlord, overshadowed by his dominant wife, is hardly Andy Lau’s model of ideal masculinity. And while the strong woman warrior is not unusual in martial arts films, Landlady is a particularly unruly figure, whose excessive weight and crudity sharply contrast with the xia heroism and idealized femininity of her counterpart played by Idy Chan. Landlady's female warrior also mocks such contemporary wuxia films as The House of Flying Daggers (2004). In that film, Ziyi Zhang's character Mei is a xia heroine and government rebel as well as an idealized object of sexual desire for the two major male characters played by Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau. Landlady’s image also contrasts with Uma Thurman’s Bride in the Kill Bill films as another idealized female, in this case a beautiful blonde who uses martial arts to achieve revenge and eventually become the ultimate champion. Kung Fu Hustle’s various parodic characterizations may be entertaining in themselves. But for viewers who can spot the allusions, they also comment upon and reformulate martial arts films by problematizing heteronormative narrative conventions, including myths of gender and sexuality in patriarchal culture.

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In The House of Flying Daggers, Zhang Ziyi plays Mei, a xia heroine, who is the idealized object of sexual desire for the two male characters played by Takeshi Kaneshiro and Any Lau. The Bride and Killer of Kill Bill is another example of idealized femininity.

In addition to its extensive allusions to Hong Kong martial arts films, Kung Fu Hustle references Hollywood action films and heroes, more often as parody or critique than homage. Chow has mentioned that one of his reasons for making Kung Fu Hustle was to respond to how Hollywood has used both the kung-fu and wuxia genres, saying that while Hollywood focuses on the wu aspect, with Kung Fu Hustle he

“wanted to show that the spirit of martial arts film is not just about fighting” (Personal Interview).

In previous films, Chow had mocked Hollywood films and heroes with crosscultural fish-out-of-water stories and conflicts between underdogs and idealized hero figures. For example, he played a Chinese James Bond who does not know how to use guns in From Beijing with Love (1994), a film whose title alludes to the earlier Bond film about Russian spies. In Out of the Dark (1995) Chow mocked the killer Leon in Luc Besson’s The Professional (1994). In Kung Fu Hustle, Sing’s “the One” character is a parody of Neo in the Matrix trilogy. Sammo Hung and Yuen Woo-Ping (the latter had worked on Kill Bill and the Matrix movies) are fight choreographers for Kung Fu Hustle. This is part of what makes Kung Fu Hustle’s discourse on Hollywood film, especially in referencing the Matrix trilogy, so interesting. In its incorporation of both kung-fu and wuxia, Kung-Fu Hustle provides a crosscultural response to Hollywood’s appropriation and hybridization of martial arts traditions, including thematic and technical concerns. The transnational visibility of wirework and stunts as well as the popularity of themes such as revenge in the Kill Bill films and of heroism/ salvation in The Matrix films reflect Hollywood’s appropriations and reformulations of Hong Kong martial arts cinema, to which Chow’s film responds with entertaining spectacle and humor that also has a critical edge.

In the Matrix films, martial arts function partly to constitute the individual unitary subject as an ideal of masculinity. The main protagonist Neo is transformed from an ordinary human to a martial arts superman, a lone computer hacker into the universal messiah. His mission to save and free humankind mainly revolves around his unique ability to engage and destroy his superhuman and machine opponents, albeit with the assistance of his small cohort of sidekicks led by the Laurence Fishburne character Morpheus. In responding to the Hollywood heroism in the Matrix films, Kung Fu Hustle deemphasizes the Stephen Chow character in relation to his motivations, as well as destabilizes the perpetual confrontation between hero and villain. If the Matrix films center upon Neo's becoming a messiah figure who develops and achieves clearcut goals of defeating his enemies and leading his people to freedom, Kung Fu Hustle neither takes seriously nor explains the causes behind Sing’s evolution from a wannabe gangster to “The One.”

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The Matrix and its bullet time sequence raised the technological bar for making martial arts films. Keanu Reeves proves to be “the One” in the Matrix trilogy. Reeves fights and defeats hundreds of agents. Martial arts function partly to constitute the individual unitary subject as an ideal masculinity.
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Stephen Chow mocks “the One” character in the Matrix trilogy. The film intervenes for both comic effect and cross-cultural critique. The film playfully reveals ordinary people — including the poor, plain, skinny, and effeminate — as potential heroes.
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Pig Sty Alley is a place full of ordinary heroes and kung-fu masters. The cook joins in the battle against the Axe gang.

And rather than privileging the unique hero figure and his mostly attractive sidekicks, Chow’s film affirms ordinary people — including the poor, the unattractive, the old, the overweight and the effeminate — as potential heroes. Kung Fu Hustle celebrates the collective over the individual with an emphasis on a larger number and wider range of primary characters than most conventional films have, including Chow's grassroots gangsters and Pig Sty Alley residents like Landlady, Landlord, Cook, Tailor, and Coolie. Through these characters, the film provides diverse ways of looking at the practice and significance of martial arts.

The Matrix and its bullet-time sequence may have raised the technological bar for making martial arts films, but Chow’s film intervenes for both comic effect and crosscultural critique. One of the highlights of The Matrix Reloaded is the fight between Neo and hundreds of Agent Smiths. The scene soon transforms from real-time choreography to an animated sequence in which all the characters are digitally created. In contrast to the technological excesses of The Matrix Reloaded, whose CGI effects included scenes of Neo versus hundreds of digital Agent Smiths, Kung-Fu Hustle uses actual people in a fight sequence that pits Pig Sty Alley’s heroes against hundreds of suit-wearing, ax-wielding gang members. This scene parodies and outperforms the increasingly technology-obsessed Matrix series generally, and the Neo/Smiths scenes in particular, with the “fact” of actual actors contrasting with the “fiction” of special effects as well as calling attention to the absurdities of lone heroes winning in such situations (itself a Hollywood convention). The (re)introduction of choreography also calls attention to Hong Kong’s (neo)colonial condition, cinematic culture, and transnational anxiety in the face of Hollywood’s technical prowess. Kung Fu Hustle suggests by example, if not overtly, that Hollywood’s special-effects-laden movies may stimulate and feed desires for cinematic artifice and spectacle. But they also often pale in comparison to the actuality of human performers choreographed with exquisite creativity around martial movements grounded in rich cultural traditions.

While valorizing the past, Kung Fu Hustle does not simply dismiss the present. Invoking traditional kinesthetic kung-fu styles and actors, it also takes advantage of computer-generated imagery in its creation of the spectacle of the wuxia world. Rather than blindly rejecting new technologies, the film blends special effects and choreography to reimagine various fantasy elements of martial arts that previously had existed only in wuxia novels, or could not be portrayed convincingly in films. Here such fantasy elements include Landlady’s Lion’s Roar, the Beast’s Toad Style, and the fight between the musicians and three kung-fu masters. Kung Fu Hustle uses special effects to depict the climactic moment of Sing’s flight up to the heavens to be blessed by a Buddha figure as “The One.” In this scene, which reworks similar scenes in The Matrix Reloaded, Sing’s transformation is depicted metaphorically through animation as a butterfly being born of a caterpillar.

In terms of destabilizing the perpetual confrontation between hero and villain, the end of Kung Fu Hustle shows Sing “returning” from the heavens with special-effects-enhanced “Buddhist Palm” martial arts skills that let him defeat the Beast. However, rather than being vengeful, Sing offers to teach the Beast martial arts skills. Sing’s magnanimity moves the villain deeply, who now calls Sing master. This scene parodies Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon as Sing’s image is reminiscent of Lee’s character. In Enter the Dragon, Lee’s character defines his style of martial arts as

“the art of fighting without fighting.”

The essence of martial arts is finding ways to get the opponent to stop or to defeat them without having to use force. Bruce Lee uses the film as a vehicle for expressing what he saw as the beauty of martial arts culture rather than just another action film. As Lee himself noted in another occasion, martial arts in its historical development evolved from “a no-holds-barred type of fighting” four thousand years ago to

“a highly scientific and philosophical type of self defense [that is] for health promotion, cultivation of mind, and self-protection” (6).

Thus Kung Fu Hustle calls attention to the spirit of martial arts as a means for self-improvement and defense instead of simply attacking and defeating opponents. The ultimate martial arts hero is the one who is able to win over his opponent’s heart by peace and forgiveness instead of violence and revenge. In contrast to the Matrix films, Kung Fu Hustle combines choreography and special effects to finally poke fun at perpetual confrontation as the ultimate way of conflict resolution, if not life itself. By blending choreography with CGI, Chow’s film not only appeals to contemporary audiences enamored with new technologies, but it also integrates an imaginative spirit and revitalizes the story elements of wuxia culture. Kung Fu Hustle’s concern is not with returning to a utopian past and condemning the present, but instead with constructing a virtual world blending old and new images that inform and function in dialogue with each other, showing how past and present can mutually shape each other.

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