Saturday, December 23, 2006

Kung Fu Hustle

Kristi came down for a nice little visit this past week, and just before she left we watched Kung Fu Hustle, which might be her all-time favorite movie. With her and on my own I've probably seen the film a good four or five times now, and I'm a little surprised how little has been lost in the repeat viewings - it actually gets more enjoyable every time I see it. I like the way the film mixes and shuffles genres, which jumps not just from comedy to action to melodrama, but from Warner Brothers cartoon-style slapstick to traditional kung fu action tropes to more contemporary Yuen Wo-Ping/Matrix-y fight scenes, etc. It's pretty great how the film jumps between references and genres without ever being dragged down into Leslie Nielson territory. The allusions are never central to the plot or even to the film's enjoyment (and rarely even central to the joke - as witnessed by the huge popularity of the film among people like myself and Kristi who miss every single one of the kung fu genre references that many HK audiences would recognize instantly). The allusions are just kind of there, without any apparent purpose other than to ensure that the proceedings never get too serious - which they certainly could with the death of likeable major characters, the harsh social/economic conditions of "Pig-Sty Alley" and the unheroic protagonists who keep trying to do bad things to the film's most charismatic characters.

The film's about as close in feel to the classic slapstick of the silent era as anything since Tati, with the focus going completely the opposite direction of a film like Playtime. While the gentlemanly Tati oriented his films increasingly away from the body (particularly his own) and towards perception as the source of his comedy, Stephen Chow throws bodies all over the screen like a CGI'ed Buster Keaton. The interesting thing is that the old slapstick comedians are funny because they really dropped houses on themselves, or pole-vaulted into windows, or climbed the sides of skyscrapers. You take away that trust in the image and half the jokes aren't funny anymore. Think back to your favorite Buster Keaton film - would you have laughed if that drop from the two-story building into the villain's car, or the perfect timing that allowed the train to avoid the obstrutction, etc if there wasn't the implicit possibility that it might not actually work out, or that it might even be dangerous? That tension, which can make us squirm in our seats in anticipation, is central to the humor of those films. Bergson thought that humor came from infusing man with the properties of objects and objects with human properties, an part of what makes Keaton or Chaplin funny is their ability to perform truly inhuman acrobatic feats. They couldn't have been funny in the same way if they were digitally aided, because they wouldn't be humans acting like objects, but images/objects acting like objects.

But Chow is all about the CGI, enough that Kung Fu Hustle is practically a cartoon. So how is Kung Fu Hustle funny when digital gags in other films usually fall flat the moment the CG becomes apparent? (Or when, in another register, another film's CG monster isn't scary, or another film's CG action scene isn't exhilirating?) Again, I think that the allusions have a little something to do with it - the characters live in a movie world, so it's only naturally that they obey the rules of other movies, which in this case extends to slapstick and cartoons and kung fu action scenes and superhero movies all at once. And there's a certain consistency to the film's cartoonish logic, which only affects certain characters and only enters the action in certain kinds of scenes, and the consistent cartoonish-ness of it all means that the CGI never makes an especially jarring introduction. Because it's so much like a cartoon, the physical comedy is enjoyed as if it were a cartoon rather than classical slapstick, except that the cartoons are more detailed and familiar than most animations drawn by hand or computer because they're based originally on photography.

There's an insistence on the body throughout the film as well that is central to the physical, cartoonish humor. Not only is the body twisted, contorted and hurled across the screen through CGI, but there are repeated jokes about characters' appearances. It expresses a lot of anxiety about the body generally, in its jokes about the overweight landlady and the jiggling fat of Chow's sidekick, or buck-toothed Jane, or the general preponderance of seemingly mis-matched physiques, and also in the harsh grotesqueness of its violence (sliced limbs, body-throwing shotgun blasts, decapitations, etc). This location of cartoonish elasticity in the body feels like a part of the film's general thrust towards reassurance, and an unrealistic transformation of the body that's more akin to the Matrix and American superhero conventions (like in Spider-Man, which is referenced) than the physical sacrifice-heavy kung fu films. While the jokes are clearly parodic, in that they're intended to refer to a "normal" state of the body, the film tends to highlight them in order to minimize their ultimate importance. (One shouldn't overstate the case - the film doesn't dismiss them, and that line between "normal" and "abnormal" is most definitely present. It should also be noted that the most "normal-bodied" characters in the film are the axe gang members, who are anonymous, practically featureless, and don't have access to the cartoon exaggerations of the kung fu masters.)

Of course, there's a problem with the Bergsonian-ish (emphasizing the "ish") formulation above that equates images and objects. They are entirely different. Perhaps most CGI effects aren't effective because they treat images as images, mere pixels arranged on screen to resemble something vaguely photographic. That is, regardless of what it's depicting, what's on screen is just an image, and CGI remains faithful to that. Altering the Bergson-ish formulation just a little bit, you could say that it doesn't pit human-ness against object-ness, but that slapstick brings to the forefront the object-ness of a person (with Keaton being the embodiment par excellance). This slightly revised formulation is not reversible in the same way as the original, but we could say that infusing objects with human qualities is comedic partially because it blurs the lines between human and object, naturally a source of anxiety in the machine age. So, when an object takes on human traits, it's as if it were a human whose object-ness had all but drowned out its human qualities - or at least that's the way a human relates to it. So, Chow's film emphasizes the image-specific qualities of characters, and, conversely, finds familiar, human-ness in even its most ridiculous images, rather than letting the film devolve into a mere string of 2-d images.

PS - I don't know Bergson all that well and I'm guessing I've misremembered, misunderstood or not taken into account important points that should have been addressed (or should have been differently addressed).

That's much more than I intended to say about the film. I guess the relaxation of this vacation has turned to boredom and restlessness, and, perhaps, idle speculation. Maybe I just like typing.

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