HK double bill – Kung Fu Hustle (2004) / The Adventurers (2017)

These two very different Hong Kong action films are both afflicted by script problems. In one case, the sheer imagination of the film overcomes these flaws; in the other, the film is fatally undermined.

Kung Fu Hustle (2004) is a live action martial arts cartoon in both good and bad ways – it’s bursting with visual energy and zany imagery, but it’s lacking when it comes to a strong narrative.

After a scene-setting prologue establishing that we’re in gangster-run 1940s Shanghai, the action immediately shifts away from recognisable genre pastiche to the mundane suburban squalor of Pigsty Alley, a slum owned by characters identified only as Landlord (Yuen Wah) and Landlady (Yuen Qiu). The inhabitants of Pigsty Alley are introduced quickly and economically as Landlord makes his rounds of the tenants and shop-owners, accepting free goods and behaving like a complete sleazeball to any woman he comes across, finally returning home to Landlady and receiving a thorough beating from her for his actions (which seems to be a daily – or perhaps hourly – occurrence). The inhabitants are all broadly sketched caricatures, but this is all that’s required for the story, and has the advantage of cementing their characteristics in the viewer’s mind immediately.

After attracting the unwanted attention of the Axe Gang, top of the heap in Shanghai, it becomes apparent that some of the ageing lowlife inhabitants are secretly martial arts masters. Coolie (Xing Yu) has powerful legs, Tailor (Chiu Chi-ling) uses the curtain rings from his changing room as forearm armour, and effeminate gay stereotype Donut (Dong Zhihua) is a master of the staff and spear. After fighting off the gang, they are in turn defeated by the weaponised musical notes of assassin duo The Harpists, before Landlord and Landlady escalate the absurdity and take out the assassins through a combination of sleepwalking and shouting… and the exponential increase in scale continues.

Writer/director/producer Stephen Chow plays Sing, a lowlife hustler who’s not particularly good at anything. He continually picks fights with those who look weaker than him and is thoroughly trounced every time. When he attempts to use throwing knives to kill somebody, they ricochet back and lodge in his arms. He’s determined to be a terrible person, but is only successful at victimising a mute woman operating an ice cream cart who lets him steal from her because (he later discovers) he defended her from a bully when he was a child (his last altruistic act). Sing is peripheral to the action for the first hour of the movie, acting as a catalyst to set off the initial conflict but otherwise barely relevant to the plot and impossible to empathise with. This is the core reason for the unsatisfying narrative structure of the film, because in the final act a change of heart will lead him to become the ultimate champion of martial arts and defeat the Beast (Bruce Leung Siu-lung). While his physical and moral transformation does have an emotional resonance, as his transmutation of the Beast’s weapon into a lotus flower spiritually purifies the city and himself, allowing him to reconnect with the girl from his childhood, it’s at least partially undermined by this narrative dislocation.

There’s no faulting the film on the level of physical comedy or martial arts choreography. Sammo Hung’s comic instincts come through in the basic concepts behind the choreography, although he was ultimately replaced by the great Yuen Woo-ping, who has a much higher profile in Hollywood due to his work on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and The Matrix (1999). Yuen incorporates older martial arts styles into the existing pattern, providing a traditional underpinning which anchors the rampant absurdity of the exaggerated fighting.

Despite my complaints about the narrative, this is still a thoroughly enjoyable action comedy which is perhaps Stephen Chow’s biggest international success. I wouldn’t rank it as highly as Forbidden City Cop (1996) or Shaolin Soccer (2001), but it’s still a huge amount of fun.

The Adventurers (2017) is a superficially slick master thief adventure film which lacks convincing characterisation or any real substance.

The plot revolves around dissecting the aftermath of a heist that went wrong five years prior to the main action. Andy Lau plays a master thief who was betrayed in the middle of a job and sent to prison. After being released from a surprisingly short prison term, he sets out to finish the job and determine who betrayed him. He’s pursued by Jean Reno, playing a French detective who has been his long-term nemesis. Also on Lau’s team are cookie-cutter characters played by Tony Yang (hacker who doesn’t understand women) and Shu Qi (sexy firecracker thief with poorly defined skills allowing her to do whatever is convenient for the plot). Tagging along with Reno is Zhang Jingchu, playing Lau’s ex-fiancee who left him when she realised he was a thief.

Unfortunately, while the underlying plot backbone holds together, it’s completely lacking in any surprise and the plot twists are telegraphed a mile off. The McGuffin consists of three interlocking necklaces with portentous titles which combine to form GAIA (written in capitals for no apparent reason). The names suggest that the necklaces might have special powers, or some other cultural significance, but apparently that’s only true in some alternative reality where this was a more interesting movie. They exist in this form purely to provide the suggestion of an exciting backstory which is nowhere to be seen.

Lau’s character lacks the dynamism demanded of an international jetsetter master thief. Lau tries to inject some charisma into the role, but is given very little to work with. His detective nemesis is an inconsistently characterised mess. Reno’s first appearance in the film, an exchange of banter with Lau at the prison gates, suggests the long term connection of two foes who respect each other but refuse to admit to themselves that they enjoy the chase. Later, he is portrayed as a tormented Javert-type who is driven to catch Lau because Lau saved his life by pulling him from a burning vehicle, a decision which led to Lau’s initial capture. This is accompanied with some poorly conceived argument that this makes him even more dangerous than a criminal without ethics, a bizarre justification which is accepted on its own terms as if it makes sense. Once the detective finally catches Lau, he greets Lau’s suggestion that he should be set free in order to retrieve the jewels by… immediately (and cheerfully) setting him free without a qualm. Reno struggles vainly to find a character in this mess and frequently looks as if the script has made him lose the will to live.

Among the supporting players, Yang is adequate in a thankless comic role. Zhang is given nothing to do other than look earnest until she finally hooks up with Lau and is given the opportunity to display a personality. Qi is the only person in the entire film who looks like she’s having any fun – she elevates her role by amping up the attitude and throwing herself into the material with glee. And there is at least some pretty scenery on view, with beautiful aerial vistas of Cannes and the Czech Republic featuring prominently.

I know that writer/director Stephen Fung is capable of much better than this, because I thoroughly enjoyed his earlier film Tai Chi Zero (2012). While the plot of that film was a nonsensical mashup of steampunk tropes and traditional martial arts parody, the story actually had something to say about the conflict of industrialisation with rural living and the broadly brushed characters, while melodramatic, felt more real than the poorly thought through cardboard cutouts on display here. What should have been an exciting action heist romp fell flat on its face.

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