2007, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 49, spring 2007
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.[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.
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.
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.” 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.
Hong Kong, the Mainland and Hollywood
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
“the enormous narcotics, gambling, and prostitution industries of the city [Shanghai during 1927-1937] all depended upon the protection of the consular system of extraterritoriality set up under the ‘unequal treaties’ of the nineteenth century” (Wakeman 13).
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'sCrocodile 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.
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).
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.
1. The author wishes to thank Stephen Chow for his time and providing information.
2. Lin Nien-Tung notes the characteristics of the martial arts hero in cinema:
"The martial hero in the cinema is a commoner who “keeps his promise, advocates integrity far and wide, and sacrifices his life despite the world.” … He [the martial hero] may be the protagonist in Zhang Che’s films, who annihilates a single opponent, a household, a village, or a county for the sake of settling private hostilities. Or he may be the patriot in King Hu’s films, a Mohist disciple who uses force with a broader vision for humanity. The heroes in films uniformly live up to Sima Qian’s definition of the xia, while heroes with pluralistic natures, as found in huaben literature, have yet to be created." (16)
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