Tuesday, July 04, 2006
Kung Fu Hustle (Hong Kong, 2001, Stephen Chow)
I love this movie! At one point I called it Bruce Lee meets Mad Magazine. Not bad for an old guy, not up to speed and never into the genre to begin with, but still, Entertainment Weekly on the box wins with "Kill Bill meets Looney Tunes." It's the second half of the equation that makes it work for me, of course. I know there have been many decades of call-and-response between Hollywood action flics and Hong Kong chop socky and I realize that both camps have often incorporated jokes into the goings-on. I don't know Stephen Chow's pedigree but in this film the humour comes first and full-throttle from what I assume is WITHIN, unlike Tarrantino who cracks wise on the side and provides campiness from WITHOUT. (I never even bothered to watch part two of Kill Bill; I know, I know, you said I should.) Chow is poking fun at himself and his, whereas Tarrantino is the outsider, all affectation and adoration. I could develop this but where's the fun in that? The point is KFH is an over-the-top parody, a total spoof and it works for me because I am not a fan of Kung Fu movies.
On the other hand, it could be argued that fans are even more likely to dig KFH because they are so familiar with the conventions being skewered. On this ticket, it was Jacob who noticed that such and such a bit was taking off on The Matrix and so on. (Hey, even I noticed the blood tidal wave from The Shining.) I was pleased to read that the choreographer involved was the same expert behind said film as well as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Talk about humour from within! Related to this technically, and what especially tickled my fancy, the CGI (Monica named the abbreviation for me) effects on amphetamines. I touched on this pet peeve of mine just recently in my A Very Long Engagement review but it was the film Hero that instigated my critique and KFH is received by me as validation. Look at how silly it is to take this combat seriously, the film says, "this combat" in Crouching Tiger, Hero and all the rest of it. Anti-materialist, superhero stupidity. I laughed out loud.
The good news is that nobody's priorities are spared. So stock characters and typically authentic settings and whatever else are lambasted to the hilt. I have to admit that this tred on my own cherished toes insofar as Kurosawa - particularly in his cowboy guise - seemed to be taking a tweak or two. Ditto for The Lower Depths with respect to the courtyard community ruled by the Dragon Lady landlord. But hey, I remember this stuff from the operas of the Mao period too and even then I was thinking that it all needed to be sat down on a whoopi cushion. No doubt, I am just bringing my limited associations to the culture. Easy to do from the Western angle too as Tong-like gangsters do their nice little MGM dance routine. Speaking of which, one of my favourite moments is when some guy has a knife to the neck of some girl in a tableau with a poster of Astire and Rogers behind them. The message is loud and clear.
It's funny! The look of the would-be Hannibal Lecter super-killer alone. It's not often that a supposedly zany, wacky, etc. action comedy achieves such consistency and pacing. They ususally get bogged down in plot details and character business plus just plain unfunny dialogue and stunts. KFH never drops the ball of schtick it kicks around so fast. It's hardly coming out of the Word-y Allen school but there are a bunch of hilarious lines. Most of all, though, it is often brilliantly shot. Not just the choreography and the CGI story-boards and the fast cuts. The slow panning, the boom angles and the tracking through the sets, it's all very well filmed by guys who can do a fight scene like Fred and Ginger dancing.
It's a wonderful film, isn't it? The comp to Kill Bill and Looney Tunes is pretty accurate. I think Roger Ebert also drew on comparisons to Buster Keaton. All of which is to say, a film drawing from a deep well of FUN.
As for Chow himself, he's not just the writer and director of the film, he's also the star, and one of the score's composers, which makes him some sorta Asian Orson Welles, i guess. I've only seen one other Chow film, Shaolin Soccer, which is just as irreverent and wacky as KFH, though perhaps not quite as polished. Grade-wise, a B plus to KFH's A. But he's certainly onto something, as he jumps into the genre of choice with clear affection for those he is about to skewer, and a complete understanding of the conventions he is going to be toying with.
Still, unlike you, I don't see that much difference between the QT and Chow. Both clearly LOVE the genres they are mocking, and both have obvious skills as filmatists. I do believe that QT is capable of stepping aside and getting "inside" his subject matter, as he embraces enthusiastically all of the conventions of 70s chop-socky films, and the "wink wink" aspect is evident more in the personality of the director than in the film (I'm talking about Kill Bill 1 and 2 specifically) itself. For an even better example of how QT can immerse himself into a genre film, take a look at Jackie Brown, which is a pretty much selfless valentine to the literature of Elmore Leonard and the films of black filmmakers in the 60s and 70s like Melvin van Peebles. It mebbe a question of degree, as Chow's affection is perhaps more "pure of heart" in his approach to the material--he purposefully humbles himself throughout his films (the two I've seen), and chooses for his heroes the most unlikely figures. Chow's films appear to be works of a singular sort of passion. He's satirizing his subject matter, sure, but he's also full of adoration for it. More importantly, Chow really seems to like people; even some of his odious characters are appealing at some level. Take the synchronized dancing sequence of the axe-men early in the film as a prime example of this sorta peculiar affection. On the other hand, while I don't doubt Tarantino's passion for his work--I mean, can there be any doubt that the guy really loves movies?--I'm not sure he has the same passion for people.
Anyways, we clearly agree that Chow is a talented filmmaker, a fellow worth keeping our eyes us, so it may or may not be good news, depending upon whether he's still got something fresh to say about this genre, but I hear that Chow is working on KFH 2 as we speak.