Let’s say you live in a big tenement building called Pig Sty Alley, and some punk wanna-be gangsters try to intimidate you. Unfortunately, they end up pissing off the Axe Gang, a horde of criminals with slick choreographed dance moves, nice suits, and a bad habit of chopping up their enemies. Now the Axe Gang thinks you’re connected with the punks and they want you dead.
Who do you turn to? Sure, there’s the Kung Fu Master who dazzles with wooden staffs. There’s the Master who sends gangsters flying with his powerful punches, iron bracelets around his wrists. There’s also the Master who knocks down bad guys with the 12 Kicks of the Tam School.
When the going gets tough, though, it’s going to be up to a middle-aged chain-smoking landlady in a nightgown (and her philandering husband) to take on the Axe Gang until the ultimate Kung Fu Master finally gets his act together.
Landlady (her only name in the film) is pretty damn awesome. You think your Kung Fu is pretty good? Oh, please. One minute of her Lion’s Roar and you’ll be crying like a baby. And when she tag-teams with her husband, also a Master, they’ll pretty much destroy you AND your 200 well-dressed tap-dancing axe-wielding followers. Heck, you’ll have to break a madman called The Beast out of prison just to have a chance against them.
Aside from her general ass-kicking ability, I loved the fact that Landlady isn’t your typical action heroine. When we first meet her, she’s bossy, mean, wears her hair in rollers, and doesn’t look like she has a makeup crew following her around. Even when she reveals more of her humanity, she isn’t transformed into a nymph-like glamor girl. She’s just a person. She may also be the oldest character we’ve reviewed yet at Heroine Content. Qiu Yuen, who plays Landlady, is definitely the oldest female actor. Her biography on Kung Fu Cinema states that she was born in 1950, had not been in a film since 1985, and she had recently become a grandmother when she went to the audition for Kung Fu Hustle.
I also appreciated the fact that she’s a more realistic body size than many of the female actors we see in American movies… until I saw this in an interview with director Steven Chow in Kung Fu Magazine:
Now to me, all landladies need to be fat; it’s just what they look like in Hong Kong. And so I asked her to put on weight, and she did, somewhere between 30-40 pounds. It wasn’t easy for her, and I put her on a high protein diet like the Sumo wrestlers. She ate a whole lot of food. And now, after the film, she has thinned down.
The stereotyping evident in this quote makes me wish I hadn’t found it. Without it, Landlady is a great antidote to the Charlie’s Angels style of action heroines. With it, she’s practically another side of the same coin where female characters are defined by their appearance. It’s also consistent with some of the “comedy” in the film, which relies on abusing characters who are deemed by other characters to be ugly, fat, or gay. There are plenty of other jokes in the movie, and much funnier ones than that. Even though it may be predictable in comedy, it’s unnecessary and mean-spirited.
Overall, I give Kung Fu Hustle three stars. I would have given the film four stars for Landlady herself, especially because she is treated as an equal by the male characters. Watching her fight together with her husband as a team is profoundly gratifying. However, I’m taking one star away for the juvenile humor that plays off stereotypes. I do highly recommend the film, despite the mixed review. Just roll your eyes ahead of time so you get it out of the way.
This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.