I have been a fan of Kung Fu films since I was a child in the late 70s and early 80s. For Baby Boomers and early Gen-Xers this time period brings to mind Disco and bad baseball uniforms, but for me (a middle Gen-Xer) and others like me it means Kung Fu Action Theater on USA network and GI Joe. I remember basking in the glow of cathode ray tube illumination and watching fantastic and bizarre tales filled with martial artists who live tragic, yet wonderfully exciting, lives.
The one drawback to films like Five Deadly Venoms, Five Fingers of Death, Fists of the White Lotus, and The Master Killer was that the production quality of the films never lived up to how they inspired my imagination. I loved these movies as a child, but as I grew older I wanted more. I wanted Kung Fu movies that were not merely inspirational, but also visceral. In the late 80s and early 90s, almost as if in answer to a prayer, came the films of Jet Li and Jackie Chan. The martial arts in Li and Chan films was fast, furious, and exciting. Gone were the New Zealand accents and in were subtitles. There still was little, if any, production sound and some of their films were cheaply made or just plain bad (like Jet Li’s Last Hero in China, but many were magnificent. Jackie Chan’s high production value films like Drunken Master 2 set a new standard for these films, and Jet Li introduced me to a wonderful new genre that combined fantasy and martial arts. After watching Swordsman II it is hard to go back to regular martial arts films. Jet Li had taken me from the world of Kung Fu into the magical realm represented in the genre known as wuxia (woo-shah) meaning “martial chivalry.” These Chinese Fantasy films combined the complex narratives of good fantasy stories (think Lord of the Rings complexity) with amazing martial arts. In wuxia the first lesson or real Kung Fu is flying. Flying is what separates the common warrior from the virtous hero or vicious villain. For the true masters of the martial arts gravity is but an illusion, “sword energy” can extend hundreds of yards beyond the arc of a weapon with lethal precision, and no one can hide from their destiny.
Recent years have seen the release of some amazing wuxia films. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers have all transfixed American audiences with the power and beauty of their narratives. The lives of the people who often want nothing more than to leave the world of jiang hu (literally rivers and lakes), or the “world of martial arts,” only to have their lives end tragically because they fail to understand that you can never leave jiang hu. As Zhang Yimou stated in an LA Weekly interview with David Chute, “There is nothing I can do, I live in jiang hu.” The implication being that life in jiang hu is hopeless and eventually the life will catch up with you.
So what does all this discussion of jiang hu and wuxia have to do with Stephen Chow’s recent release Kung Fu Hustle? Isn’t Kung Fu Hustle a martial arts comedy like Jackie Chan’s films? Doesn’t the hero win and save the day? Good questions and the answers are: everything, yes/no, and yes. Kung Fu Hustle is indeed a martial arts comedy, but it incorporates many of the conventions of the wuxia genre and in particular urbanizes jiang hu. The film is a combination of Half a Loaf of Kung Fu, Johnny Dangerously, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. At the beginning of the film the villainous Axe Gang is taking over the entire Shanghai underworld. The only place safe from their nefarious activities is a dilapidated and collapsing apartment house called “The Pig Sty.” But the Pig Sty is only safe until our wandering and reluctant hero Sing (Stephen Chow), who has long abandoned attempts at heroics, arrives pretending to be a member of the Axe Gang in order to take advantage of the local merchants. Needless to say, heroes avoiding their destiny make for poor imitation villains and Sings attempts at easy money lead to an escalated conflict between the forces of Good and Evil.
It soon becomes clear that Pig Sty is the home to a number of martial arts masters who have sought to leave jiang hu behind them. Pig Sty is home to no fewer than five martial arts masters who wanted nothing more than to live simple lives. When Sing’s impersonation draws the attention of the real Axe Gang, three of the masters must reveal themselves to save the local populace. These men choose duty over self-preservation and quickly dispatch the Axe Gang who flee the prowess of these great heroes. But this is just the beginning of the conflict. No member of the Axe Gang lives in the world of jiang hu and thus their leader must hire expert assassins who do. The story continues from there with “fated couples,” “musical instrument energy,” “lion roars,” “toad styles,” and “palms of Buddha” in abundance. There is almost no martial arts convention left behind in this masterfully sculpted combination. In most wuxia stories the heroes must choose between duty and passion. In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero they choose duty and are destroyed because of it. In House of Flying Daggers the heroes choose passion and are destroyed. Stephen Chow’s new film is something I thought I would never see. Kung Fu Hustle is a happy tale about jiang hu, where some heroes perish and the greatest hero can succeed so long as he embraces his destiny. In this case a destiny where duty and passion are in balance.