Watching Kung Fu Hustle (2004) reminded me how many amazing movies are out there that we won’t get to see – unless we seek them out.
After the release of Batman vs. Superman (2016), articles and videos appeared about Hollywood’s obsession with *moments* at the expense of *scenes*. Ironically, when I write about movie moments, mostly they are meaty dramatic scenes.
This time, I am going to show you something special. Some scene/moment hybrid.
If you are familiar with the best of Asian cinema, you will know how much it has influenced our screen culture over the years. Hollywood westerns, as well as Star Wars are indebted to Kurosawa, The Matrix borrows heavily from manga (like Ghost In The Shell); and TV shows like True Detective have a distinct Korean feel to it.
Only once in a blue moon do Asian films themselves make it to the Western box office, and break out big, as did for instance Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
A Kung Fu Hustle Spectacular
When Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle (2004) was released in the US, it opened in more theatres than any other foreign language before. Its global box office takings exceeded a hundred million dollars, and so doubled the director’s previous success Shaolin Soccer.
The movie’s credits are almost all Chinese, as the film was produced entirely in Hong Kong. Among the rare Western credits is an Australian sound post-production house (Soundfirm).
A supreme achievement of the modern age in terms of comedy.
Kung Fu Hustle tells the story of the inhabitants of Pig Sty Alley, fighting the notorious Axe Gang, in spectacular kung fu action fashion.
Much like most hero’s journeys, the movie stays light-hearted throughout its first half. Fight scenes are entertaining and funny, and only the baddies die. The comedy is world class, and Bill Murray has declared to be a fan. He called it a “supreme achievement of the modern age in terms of comedy.” And: “There should have been a day of mourning for American comedy the day that movie came out.”
Beware Of The Harpists
Halfway the story, the cast of characters is joined by a sinister duo of Sitar players, ‘the Harpists’.
In a wonderfully cinematic scene of a mere sixty seconds, we are warned that the stakes have just gone up – exponentially. In order to survive, the heroes of Pig Sty Alley will now have to fight harder. A lot harder.
The scene is not representative of the kinetic kung fu action set pieces that define this film, but it does show Stephen Chow’s knack for pure visual storytelling.
In contrast to the movie’s high-budget tentpole moments, it is simple and even subdued. We’re just watching Cookie’s last moments until he falls prey to the power of the Harpists’ evil trickery.
[SPOILERS] – As Cookie turns and walks away from the Harpist, we follow him first from the back. If you look carefully, you will see shrub leaves to his right be cut off, and fall away, silently.
Then, we follow Cookie from the side, and in the background we see a terracotta jar sliced in two, with water spilling out. Not a sound is heard.
Next – still in the background – a cat on the roof stalks closer, towards the roof edge, jumps …
What follows, you will need to watch for yourself. Indirectly, it is foreshadowed that things may not end well for Cookie.
This short scene not only shows supreme visual cinema; it offers a great example of dramatic irony. The character doesn’t have the information, but we do.
This creates terrific suspense, and in true cinematic tradition you will take pleasure … in anticipating the worst.
Watch full screen for best effect! Click the icon in the bottom right of the image.