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The Six Degrees of Stephen Chow and Kung Fu Hustle

Written by Ross Chen Tell a Friend

Kung Fu Hustle is a big deal for the Hong Kong Cinema fan. Putting aside its enormous financial success ($50 million US worldwide and counting) and its home video marketing blitz, Kung Fu Hustle achieves ultra-HK Cinema coolness thanks to its self-referential, intertwined web of Hong Kong Cinema references and Stephen Chow connections. Ng Man-Tat, Stephen Chow's most ubiquitous screen buddy, is nowhere to be seen, and Chow's famed "mo lei tau" verbal nonsense is all but nonexistent, but Kung Fu Hustle has Hong Kong Cinema goodness in spades. Even the most initiated fans probably can't parse all the movie references, old-school kung-fu faces, and interconnected film production ties - and we're not claiming that we can either. But we'll try.

Shanghai, the Axe Gang, Ma Wing-Jing, Yuen Wah

Kung Fu Hustle takes place in Shanghai during the 1940s. But this isn't just any Shanghai, it's a lawless, crime-ridden Shanghai that's owned by the Axe Gang, who previously terrorized Shanghai in the 1972 Shaw Brothers film Boxer From Shantung. Boxer From Shantung starred Chan Koon Tai as local hero Ma Wing-Jing, and was directed by Chang Cheh, the famed Hong Kong director whose last screen credit was as a producer for the 1987 John Woo/Wu Ma film Just Heroes. Co-starring in Just Heroes: Stephen Chow.

In 1997, Boxer From Shantung was remade by the Shaw Brothers as Hero, with Takeshi Kaneshiro taking over as Ma Wing-Jing. Playing Ma Wing-Jing's brother is Yuen Wah, a Stephen Chow co-star in The Magnificent Scoundrels and Fist of Fury 1991 II, and co-starring as "the Landlord" in Kung Fu Hustle. The Landlord helps run Pig Sty Alley, a rundown slum that recalls the temporary housing of Stephen Chow's youth, and the community flavor of the eponymous dwelling in the 1973 Shaw Brothers classic The House of 72 Tenants. The Landlord uses Tai Chi, seen in exaggerated form in the Jet Li film Tai Chi Master, directed by Yuen Woo Ping, who's credited with the action choreography on Kung Fu Hustle. Yuen Woo Ping's brother, Yuen Cheung Yan, is also a successful action choreographer and actor, having worked on the Stephen Chow productions King of Beggars, God of Gamblers III: Return to Shanghai, and Forbidden City Cop. More recently, Yuen Cheung Yan made a cameo in - what else - Kung Fu Hustle.

Shaw Brothers, Southern Fists, Northern Kicks

Shaw Brothers studios was once synonymous with martial arts cinema, and legendary director Chang Cheh produced many kung-fu classics while working beneath their infamous logo. Considered the father of Heroic Bloodshed, Chang was responsible for many kung-fu classics, including The Shaolin Temple, a popular retelling of the famed destruction of the Shaolin Temple during Qing-era China. Branded as threats by the government, the Shaolin Monks were forced into hiding, but they continued to spread their martial arts techniques to the people of China. Martial artist Xing Yu, a student of the Shaolin Temple since the age of 10, demonstrates the Northern Shaolin Style in Kung Fu Hustle. Northern Shaolin Kung Fu style is known for its flowing leg techniques, such as Xing's "Twelve Kicking Techniques of Tan House", which he uses to defend Pig Sty Alley from the invading Axe Gang.

In opposition to the Northern Shaolin Style is the Southern Style, which is renowned for its hand techniques. Veteran stuntman Chiu Chi Ling demonstrates the Southern Style in Kung Fu Hustle, specifically the Hung Gar style Iron Chain Fist. As the resident tailor of Pig Sty Alley, Chiu wears a set of iron bracelets on his forearms for a powerful defense, and an even stronger offense. Chiu Chi Ling currently teaches Hung Gar Kung Fu style at his school in California.

The Iron Chain Fist also appears in Drunken Monkey, where it's used by the villainous Chi Kuan-Chun. A recent Shaw Brothers production, Drunken Monkey combines a variety of martial arts styles under the direction of Lau Kar-Leung, creator of some of the most beloved martial arts films of the Shaw Brothers era. With frequent leading actor Gordon Liu, Lau delivered such classics as The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Executioners From Shaolin, and Heroes of the East. One of Lau's most famous films is The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, where Gordon Liu demonstrates the famous cudgel technique known as the "Eight Diagram Pole" (AKA the "Eight Trigram Staff"). Former martial arts actor Dong Zhi Hua (who also appeared in many Chang Cheh films) can be seen demonstrating the Eight Diagram Pole in Kung Fu Hustle.

The Six-Fingered Lord of the Lute, the Toad Stance, and SFX magic

When faced with Pigsty Alley's kung-fu masters, the Axe Gang recruits two assassins, who carry a Chinese stringed instrument called a Guzheng. Played by Jia Kang Xi (also a former martial arts star) and Fung Hak On (an actor and martial arts choreographer who's worked with Chang Cheh, John Woo, and Yuen Woo Ping, among others), the two assassins pluck the strings of the Guzheng, unleashing waves of destructive, lethal force upon whatever unlucky soul happens to be in their path. The instrument recalls the classic film series The Six-Fingered Lord of the Lute, starring legendary actors Shek Kin and Connie Chan Bo Chu. In 1994, The Six-Fingered Lord of the Lute was remade as Deadful Melody, starring Brigitte Lin and Yuen Biao.

Brigitte Lin is probably one of the most beloved figures in Hong Kong Cinema history, having graced numerous 80s and 90s kung-fu spectaculars with her majestic presence and icy, sometimes destructive stare. Still, despite her largely serious screen persona, Lin appeared in the 1992 Stephen Chow comedy Royal Tramp 2. This "mo lei tau" version of the famous Duke of Mr. Deer novels by Jin Yong (AKA: Louis Cha) was a massive hit with audiences, and capitalized on both Stephen Chow's rising star and the popularity of big screen wuxias.

Jin Yong's work enjoys enormous popularity; his The Legend of the Condor Heroes is considered a seminal work of martial arts fiction, and has been adapted numerous times to television and film. One adaptation is The Eagle Shooting Heroes, an all-star costume comedy with Brigitte Lin, Leslie Cheung, Joey Wang, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Jacky Cheung, Carina Lau, Maggie Cheung, and Tony Leung Ka-Fai. Another adaptation is Ashes of Time, an existential art film from director Wong Kar-Wai, which stars nearly the exact same cast as The Eagle Shooting Heroes - with some of them in the same roles! Both films featured action choreography from the great Sammo Hung, who was once a classmate of Jackie Chan and Yuen Wah. Before Yuen Woo Ping signed on, Sammo Hung was an action choreographer on Kung Fu Hustle.

The Legend of the Condor Heroes features the character of Ouyang Feng, played by Leslie Cheung in Ashes of Time, and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai in The Eagle Shooting Heroes. Cheung's portrayal of the character was brooding and sinister, but Leung's Ouyang Feng is a lovable, silly villain who causes more damage to himself than his foes. At one point in Kung Fu Hustle, Stephen Chow is poisoned and his lips swell up to larger than their normal size - a visual gag similar to Tony Leung Chiu-Wai's famous "sausage lips" look from The Eagle Shooting Heroes.

Ouyang Feng knows the "Toad Stance", a martial arts style where the user imitates a toad. Wong Kar Wai's Ashes of Time takes itself too seriously to actually have Leslie Cheung imitate a toad, but Tony Leung Chiu-Wai gamely does so in The Eagle Shooting Heroes. The "Toad Stance" makes a pivotal appearance in Kung Fu Hustle, when it's used by legendary killer "The Beast", played by former martial arts star Bruce Leung Siu Leung. Kung Fu Hustle marks the first screen appearance by Leung in over fifteen years. Along with Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, Leung was regarded as one of the "Three Little Dragons" of martial arts cinema. Leung exudes cool menace as the Beast, and demonstrates the Toad Stance in a way Hong Kong Cinema has never seen. Thanks to state-of-the-art special effects, the Beast can jump, crouch, and even croak like a toad!

The Lion's Roar, Centro Digital, and the Buddha's Palm

Special effects also lend incredible power to the "Lion's Roar", a technique demonstrated by the popular "Landlady" character of Kung Fu Hustle. Another protector of Pig Sty Alley, the Landlady is played by Yuen Qiu, a former stuntwoman/actress who has appeared in, among other films, Disciples of the 36th Chamber (directed by Lau Kar Leung), and the James Bond film The Man With the Golden Gun. Yuen was also a classmate of Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan, and made her return to the screen at the request of Stephen Chow. Her "Lion's Roar" technique gives her the ability to wreak havoc with just the sound of her voice! The technique originated in Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, Jin Yong's sequel novel to The Legend of the Condor Heroes, which has also been adapted numerous times to film and television. One of the more popular - and incredibly loose - adaptations of Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre is the 1993 Wong Jing wuxia The Kung Fu Cult Master, starring Jet Li and Sammo Hung. Jin Yong purists may decry its truncated narrative, low-brow humor, and hyper-speed craziness, but Kung Fu Cult Master still thrills many fans with its unbeatable star power and SFX-enhanced flying kung-fu goodness.

The mixture of special effects and martial arts fantasy has always been of interest to Hong Kong filmmakers. The early eighties saw such spectacles as Tsui Hark's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain and the Shaw Brothers' Holy Flame of the Martial World, both of which used extensive post-production effects to create their visually spectacular worlds. The films depict flying martial arts superheroes who emit beams from their hands, battle SFX-enabled foes, and sometimes even wield laser swords (shades of Star Wars) in their battle for justice. Still, imagination was usual greater than actuality. While dizzying and entertaining in their creativity, most SFX-enhanced martial arts films featured special effects that were more amusing than amazing.

Hollywood-level special effects finally came to Hong Kong Cinema in the late nineties, courtesy of The Storm Riders, and its companion film A Man Called Hero. Based on popular comic books, both films owe their impressive technology to Centro Digital Pictures, who brought unprecedented quality to Hong Kong special effects films. The heroes of both The Storm Riders and A Man Called Hero fly and fight in near-photorealistic environments, battle digitally created creatures, and practice spectacular martial arts techniques that could only be possible via computer effects. Centro Digital has since worked on The Eye, Three: Going Home, and even Kill Bill, for which they were nominated for a British Academy Award.

Centro Digital's latest project: Kung Fu Hustle, which is nearly guaranteed for honors at the next Hong Kong Film Awards. And even if nobody wins, this latest collaboration between Chow and Centro (they previously worked together on Shaolin Soccer) should be recognized for the creative commercial vision that made it to the screen. Stephen Chow and company have managed to take classic martial arts techniques and styles and merge them into a post-modern Hong Kong Cinema confection that mixes the old and new in a familiar, and yet astoundingly original way. Martial arts previously possible only in the realm of imagination come to exciting, enthralling life in Kung Fu Hustle. The Toad Stance takes on unimaginable power and menace, the Lion's Roar literally blows away everything in its path, and even standard punches and kicks become near-legendary displays of power.

Kung Fu Hustle would not have worked in the day of Zu: Warriors, Holy Flame of the Martial World or the 1982 special effects wuxia Buddha's Palm. In that last film, the titular martial arts technique is rendered as nothing more than a series of glowing red palm attacks that look like they could have been painted directly on the film stock with acrylic paint. In the hands of Centro Digital and Stephen Chow, the Buddha's Palm is a comically-exaggerated, but powerfully compelling martial arts technique that fittingly puts the exclamation point on Kung Fu Hustle. The character who wields the Buddha's Palm is a wannabe gangster and hidden kung-fu genius named Sing, played by - who else - Stephen Chow.

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Published February 3, 2005

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