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Kung Fu Hustle
A true classic
I can’t believe it’s been a year since the debut post of Movie Night. To celebrate the one-year anniversary of this humble little letter, I’m recommending you get together with a group of friends and watch my personal favorite. If you ask someone what their favorite movie is, odds are good that you’ll encounter an incredible amount of indecision, and rightly so! For anyone that even mildly likes films, choosing a favorite can be an impossible task. If you ask me, however, what movie I would take to a desert island if I could only take one, I’ve gradually come to realize that I have an answer.
Kung Fu Hustle (2004) is one of the greatest films ever made. I could end this week’s letter here, but I’ll ramble on a bit. It is a quintessential movie, at the intersection of everything that makes watching movies one of life’s greatest joys: culture, drama, comedy, action, and visual language, all in the service of story-telling and humanity.
For the unfamiliar, Kung Fu Hustle takes place in Shanghai in the 1940s. We learn that gangs essentially control the streets. Not even the police are willing to intervene with wrongdoing and risk retribution. One of the most fearsome gangs is the Axe Gang. We’re introduced to Sing and Bone, two low-level thugs whose dream is to join the Axe Gang so they’ll be feared and respected.
Jeff. Jefferson Beauregard-Bedford Montague III. We should never reveal our favorite movie. Never. It’s a little gauche, no? Kind of like exposing yourself to trick-or-treaters you had assumed were fellow undergrads--a bit short maybe, but definitely and legally adults--on a drunken dare, and now, having to notify your neighbors every time you move of certain unpleasant things pursuant to Megan’s law. Or so they say, right?
But besides revealing a little too much (like that entire summer you tried to make boy shorts your thing), it makes us vulnerable. A favorite movie is the cryptographic key that transforms the noise of the seemingly arbitrary decisions you’ve made your whole life, reducing it to pithy, expository writing you see on signs like “Caution wet floor and unresolved mommy issues.” It’s the Rosetta Stone that unlocks the meaning behind quirky inconsistencies and half-buried triggers. It reveals the form of the secret self we hide behind our public-facing facades. You give your enemies power over yourself when you identify your favorite movie. But that being said, yeah, let’s talk about Kung Fu Hustle.
Wow, you’re not wrong. If we weren’t already ~500 words deep I’d scrap this whole thing and find some other movie to write about, but who am I to rob people of your surprisingly on-point albeit defensive stance on stating preferences: Who hurt you? Did someone find out how much you love Barbra Streisand and use that information to manipulate you into buying Higher Ground? Unfortunately for anyone hoping to gain any sort of upper hand, Kung Fu Hustle is too broad to elucidate anything of true depth, but this isn’t an insult! It’s a movie lover’s movie. It’s almost a movie about movies, in a sense, because the message is so basic, yet so well done. It’s a movie that says life is full of pain, regret, hope, sadness, assholes, heroes, and villains, but the choices you make along the way decide whether or not you get a lollipop.
There are so many things I like about KFH. Let’s start with the Pig Sty, the setting for a big chunk of the movie. It’s a poor neighborhood that avoids attention from the top-hat-and-dinner-jacket-clad Axe Gang until Sing and Bone call them for backup after failing to extort the town barber as fake gang members.
I like that even a neighborhood as lowly as the Pig Sty adheres to the “rules” of the movie universe and isn’t some kind of utopia built by and for the working poor. The rule I’m referring to is that the strong must dominate the weak. Some examples: the larger and sartorially superior Axe Gang swallows up the weaker Crocodile Gang (inspired by Crocodile Dundee?); bullies try to take a lollipop from a girl who can’t speak; said bullies then jump the boy who failed to save the girl. Thus, Landlady (Yuen Qiu), who embodies what I imagine to be Marxist critiques of petty landowners, shafts her tenants while the pervy Landlord (Yuen Wah) harasses them.
This thematic imperative pushes our anti-heroes, Sing and Bone, to find someone they can crush to establish a place for themselves in the hierarchy of the movie world. They fail to extort the barber, assassinate the landlady, and intimidate the random clerk on the trolley. They succeed in stealing from the beautiful, ice-cream-vending dream girl, and their only success reveals in a spectacular and moving fashion how far Sing has fallen.
Jeff, did the beautiful scenes with the ice cream woman make you cry a little bit? And would you say that lady represents your mother?
I definitely tear up during the climactic scenes of the movie, still! Who hasn’t felt like they’ve hurt someone dear out of selfishness at some point in their lives? This idea on its own might not be effective, but when it’s captured as succinctly as this, it’s hard not to recognize the firing-on-all-cylinders stage Chow was in of his career. As long as I’m laying it all out there, if you watch the afore-linked clip, you’ll recognize the central symbol of lost innocence. For me, it’s also a symbol of the richness of life and its splendor. Also tooth decay.
The clip above also illustrates one of the most powerful components of the film: the soundtrack. The theme of the Axe Gang (Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained) sits alongside the all-time great villainous themes. It’s as good as The Imperial March. Fisherman’s Song of the East China Sea is what I imagine living in a caring community feels like. Midnight Assassin is what I imagine death will be like.
Kung Fu Hustle may have been the first movie I ever watched that expanded my idea of what a movie could be. For anyone (Oscar voters!) that recently had their gourd blown by Everything, Everywhere, All at Once (2022), that is how I felt the first time I watched Kung Fu Hustle. The double-digit runtime! The chase sequence! The character arcs! And not just the main characters! And to your point, Dae, the hierarchy of the movie is neatly spelled out: as viewers, we easily understand the internal logic of the universe and why the characters behave as they do. The movie gives us the shortest possible path to walk to find a connection with their stories if we choose to open our hearts. Maybe one day you’ll feel all of the intense emotions of a true Kung Fu Hustle fan such as myself. Open your heart, Dae!
Last thoughts on the movie and/or one full year of Movie Night? Personally, I’d like to watch more movies together and get into public arguments about them. What’s a movie we really disagree on?
Music is the fearsome weapon used by the assassin harpists and, well, Chow. Man, that plucking melody two minutes into the first clip you linked, the one that starts as Sing threatens the ice cream woman at knifepoint, where you realize she’s crying not from fear but sadness. As the song draws us into their past, a mournful, muted trumpet joins, and then a full orchestra builds a soaring anthem that returns us to the present. From a storytelling standpoint, the visuals are enough to connect past and present events, but that scene devastates us because of the music. The music is a revenant, seamlessly transporting the pain and drama of the past into the present.
I don’t know if this format works for anyone—not even Gail Collins and that guy who isn’t Gail Collins. We should use it sparingly unless you hear people like it. Who knows, maybe they want us to get to the bottom of your mommy issues via movie discussions, and if that’s the case, naturally, we would discuss Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother.
Wow, what an upsetting confirmation of doubts on this format: specifically that I was having dinner tonight with friends and I compared what we’re doing here specifically to Gail Collins and that other guy, and very acutely described how insufferable I find BOTH of them! Ah well. Happy one-year to movie night. Thanks, Dae, for joining me on the ride. Excited to talk about Almodovar someday.
Kung Fu Hustle
Written by Stephen Chow, Kan-Cheung Tsang, Xin Huo, and Man-Keung Chan; Directed by Stephen Chow
Focused Thoughts from the Editor
One year of Movie Night has absolutely flown by, and it wouldn’t have been nearly as fun (or good) without the contributions of Amani Gasore, Oli Wilkie, and Dae Woo Son.
We’ll be back next week with more regularly scheduled Women’s History Month programming.
If you’re still reading, not just this week, but this year (!), thank you. Onward!