The rules of Randomisation:
1. Select a film on DVD. Eclectic choices are encouraged.
2. Using a random number generator, select three frames from the film. So, if the film is 100 minutes long, enter the numbers 1 and 100 into the randomiser and it will select three figures. Capture the frames which occur on the DVD on the minute mark. You might want to cut out the titles and end credits if they’re just text.
3. Use the three frames as a starting point for discussing the film. Focus on the composition of the image, the content of the frame and, if you’re familiar with it, how it might fit into the rest of the film’s narrative or visual style. The random selection of frames will hopefully force you out of habitual preoccupations and selective analysis and make you focus on points of the film you might otherwise have ignored. Sometimes the frames will be very revealing and illustrative of the film’s central themes, and sometimes they will seem inconsequential, but you will always find something to say about them, even if it wasn’t what you instinctively wanted to say about the film in the first place.
Today’s film is Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, and the randomly generated numbers are 35, 49 and 87. That should give a good sample of the movie, but let’s wait and see what happens…
Kung Fu Hustle (2004) is the story of Sing (played by writer-director Stephen Chow), who wants to be a gangster in 1930s Shanghai. His petty-crook extortion methods are pretty pathetic, but when he tries to con the residents of the Pig Sty Alley (a reference to D.W. Griffith’s early gangster drama The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), perhaps?) slum, he reveals it to be the hiding place for a cluster of legendary kung fu masters, and triggers a turf war with the notorious Axe Gang. Sing will ultimately be revealed as an all-powerful martial arts legend in his own right, but at this point, the 35-minute mark, he is still a clumsy con artist. Attempting to throw a knife into the slum’s imposing matriarch, known as the Landlady (Qiu Yuen), he succeeds only in rebounding it back into his shoulder. Twice. His sidekick Bone (Chi Chung Lam) has a go, and accidentally stabs him again. One last attempt, after this frame, will see Bone oafishly tipping a basket of snakes over his companion.
Bone’s concern for his boss seems less than urgent. Sing’s face is one of pain, but also of resignation to his own failure. One accidental injury is conceivable, but three in a row hints at a booby-trapped world conspiring against him. Kung Fu Hustle is all about flying objects: bodies, axes, fireballs, weapons, eagles, rings all glide through the air with digitally-directed precision. Where once a martial arts film might have required painstakingly practised dexterity (or cunning editing), computer-generated special effects allow a director to control exactly the trajectory of objects. For Chow, this permits a hyperbolic slapstick style – those are CG knives stuck in his shoulders. While most slapstick involves blunt things bouncing off hard hollow heads, in this case the sudden, unexpected penetration of flesh by blades is a hilarious shock. The film repeatedly remixes the rules of physical endurance: sometimes bodies are featherlight and destructible, and then impenetrably powerful. Chow plays with discrepancies of scale and grandiosity; he loves moving rapidly from scenes of graceful, superhuman combat and crude, trivial idiocy.
At the 49th minute, we arrive right in the midst of a fight scene. The Axe gang have hired the two zither players, legendary warriors whose weapon is the guzheng, a traditional Chinese stringed instrument. When plucked just right, it fires bolts of ernergy. Having brought the slum’s guardians to the brink of defeat, they suddenly attract the attention of a new opponent. In a shot containing only their feet, they leap into the air, but upon landing, a third pair of feet lands between them. This is the subtle unveiling of the Landlord’s extraordinary abilities, the first of which is the ability to appear on the scene undetected: conveying his appearance with a shot of feet is a nice touch – the shot begins as it ends, with feet on the ground, with that simple addition of an extra pair between them. The purple silk pajama suit is not usually an indicator of deadly skills, but then this is a film that makes great play with the appearance of its superpowered combatants and the capabilities they conceal behind a facade of ordinariness.
A Google Earth shot near the end of the film and its climactic battle between Sing and a fearsome, froggy fighter known as the Beast. Hurled upwards into the air, Sing spins towards the clouds, where he will step on an Eagle for the extra height needed to reach the Buddha and acquire the knowledge of the Buddhist Palm, a match-winning move that he has long wished to master, ever since buying a martial arts manual from an old beggar when he was a child. This moment will bring his character arc to its culmination, consolidating his status as a true warrior, and its significance is marked by this soaring shot of literalised transcendence – his distance from the ground (another hyperbolic extension of the usual rules of martial arts film) gives him heightened awareness, a more global context and a broader overview of the scene below. He is far away from knives in the shoulder, loosed from gravity, inertia and troublesome objects. His suspension between the two eagles makes him one of them, even as his superimposition over the tenement blocks below reminds us of where he has come from and where he must fall to once again.