1930s Shanghai is in the grip of various gangs struggling for power, with the Axe Gang being foremost. Main character Sing is an ineffectual small-time crook trying to join the Axe Gang. In doing so, he and buddy Bone attempt to command respect from the Pig Sty Alley. Their bumbling attracts the real gang, who are repelled by the martially-skilled Coolie, Tailor and You-Tiao (fried dough sticks) baker. What results is an Escalating War between the Axe Gang and the (unusually strong) residents of the impoverished Pig Sty Alley.Directed, led and written by famous Hong Kong comedian Stephen Chow, it is a comedic parody of and homage to Chinese Wuxia films and American musicals from the 50's, best summarised, in the words of Roger Ebert, as "like Jackie Chan and Buster KeatonmeetQuentin Tarantino and Bugs Bunny". But really, it has to be seen to be believed.Compare Shaolin Soccer and God of Cookery, from the same creator.A sequel was set to release 2012, but apparently, that didn't happen. Stephen Chow has stated that he's been putting it on hold for other projects, so the sequel's currently aiming for a 2014 release.
This movie contains examples of:
Absurdly Sharp Blade: The axes used by the Axe Gang are sharp enough to cut clean through a man's leg when thrown. The harpists' invoked blades as well.
Agony of the Feet: The foot-stomping Sing delivers to some members of the Axe Gang, and later to the Beast, in the final battle. It's so strong, their feet get flattened.
Almighty Janitor: Basically The Movie of this trope, as all of the martial artists in the story have lowly occupations and/or appear quite wimpy until they display their powers. The three undercover masters, the blind musicians, the landlords, the Beast, and Sing are all examples.
Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy: The Beast, who claims nothing can beat him... despite wanting someone to beat him for a while. However, once he's definitively beaten, he immediately and genuinely concedes.
Audible Sharpness: From actual blades, but more badassedly: and the harpists' sonic attacks summon blades, and at one point a zombie army wielding said blades.. Which is, of course, is because they're made out of sound.
Aww, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: The ferocious landlady and her lecherous husband, who have been squabbling for the entire first part of the movie (she even hits him in the head with a flower pot), band together to defend the neighborhood from the Axe Gang, fight the Beast, and nurse the movie's hero back to health. They're also named after famous lovers.
Back Blocking: Done oddly; when Sing and the mute girl meet each other in the denouement, the camera spins around the two; when the girl passes through the camera and obstructing Sing's view in the process, suddenly Sing turns into his younger self.
Also contains a Real Life example: The Beast's actor Bruce Leung was about 55 when this movie was filmed. He did his own stunts. CGI had to assist where The Beast lifted his leg high for the earthquake stomp in the casino due to physical limitations, but otherwise it was all him. And by "limitations" we mean "he CAN perform an axe kick over his own head, but he can't HOLD his leg up there like in the shot."
The Landlady and Landlord, for majority of the movie, wears pajamas and a nightgown. Until they go to fight the Axe Gang, where they have a change of clothes and look a lot more fashionable.
The Beast also trades in the dingy tank top, boxers & flip-flops he wore at the asylum for a tailored three-piece suit and stylish leather shoes (except he doesn't wear a shirt under the jacket).
Bandage Mummy: Sing is reduced to this after his thorough thrashing by The Beast.
Bath Of Poverty: The slum that most of the movie takes place in has a communal fountain that some residents have to use to clean themselves... when the water's even turned on, as the landlady is prone to turning it off on a whim.
Better Than New: The Hero gets fully healed (and becomes much more powerful than before) because being beaten nearly to death by the Big Bad turned out to awaken his Chi.
In the first attack on Pig Sty Alley, there are three Big Damn Heroes moments, one from each of the Three Heroes. The first is easily the most impressive, involving a lighter being caught by a coolie in a scene that would make the Firefly crew green with envy, and the hero facing off against something on the order of a hundred gangsters. The others are less impressive, but only by comparison, involving a gay tailor sending a man through and beating the crap out of the gangsters swarming the first man, and a congee-making baker taking on three men armed with Thompson machine guns with a pair of blunt sticks meant to roll out dough. Ain't they just Three Big Damn Heroes?
The landlords showing up at the casino, suddenly decked out in their finest and ready to do battle with the Beast.
Big Little Man: The cowardly hero is facing down a hostile crowd, and looking for an easily beatable opponent to prove his nonexistent skills against. He calls out a runty-looking fellow who, it turns out, was sitting down!
Blown Across the Room: When Sum wipes out the Crocodile Gang, he shoots the Crocodile Boss's wife in the back with a shotgun, flinging her halfway across the street.
Break the Haughty: When Sing finally defeats the Beast, he offers to teach him his technique. The Beast responds by sobbing, and then he bows and calls Sing his master.
Color-Coded Characters: Not only is the Axe Gang dressed in black, not only do the various kung fu masters wear white clothes (most of the time), Sing's wardrobe changes colors to match his inner character through the film.
Conservation of Ninjutsu: Dozens of Axe Gangsters vs. a trio of martial arts masters, and later vs. one single man. Guess who wins in each of these scenarios.
Creator Cameo: Yuen Cheung-Yan plays the hobo who sells the Buddhist Palm manual to a young Sing. It's mentioned in the Director's commentary, however, that the media and most reporters of the movie thought it was Yuen Wo-Ping (his brother, who cameoed in Chow's previous movie), and wouldn't believe Stephen Chow when he said it wasn't.
The American sub replaced an offhand reference to two beautiful, star-crossed lovers in Chinese literature with Paris and Helen of Troy. The sub script is Woolseyed in other areas as well, while the dub is more straightforward, including keeping the reference to Yang Guo and Xiaolongnu (from yet another famous Wuxia novel). The French dub preferred the less subtle Romeo and Juliet.
"Baker" also counts since Dong Zhihua's character makes fried dough sticks, very similar in concept to the donut, hence his more appropriate sub name.
Culture Chop Suey: The overall aesthetic, which blends traditional Chinese and more modern, Western-derived styles.
Deadly Dodging: The Landlord defeats the pair of kung fu villains who double as Musical Assassins by throwing his arms over their necks in the way friends often do. Then he moves his hips and head, causing their punches to strike the other one. Even when a punch connects, it bounces or slides off and hits the other man in the face.
Death from Above: Subverted, in that Sing halted his attack as soon as the Beast faked his surrender. Prior to that, he was knocked into the sky by the Beast's Frog technique, which in turn helps Sing realize the full potential of his Buddhist Palm technique before falling back down to Earth: like a comet. In flames.
Death Glare: After defeating the pair of musical assassins and performing the first part of a Stealth Hi/Bye, the Landlady gets her point across to the Axe Gang leader with one of these.
Defiant to the End: After Sing strikes The Beast with a post, The Beast flips out and smashes his face in. The Beast then asks Sing why he hit him, and, rather than answer the question, Sing picks a splinter up off of the floor, and bops The Beast on the head with it. He gets three more smacks to the face that sink his head further into the ground for this.
Easily Forgiven: The ending of the film, in which Sing has proven to be more than a match for The Beast. Rather than killing him in cold blood, he forgives him and takes him as his first student, giving the mass murderer the same chance he got to start a new life as a good person.
Empathic Environment: The first time the Axe Gang rolls into Pig Sty Alley, storm clouds gather overhead. Strangely enough, they only gather over the gang proper.
Fan Disservice: One Pig Sty resident's butt is hanging out the entire movie. Doubles as Running Gag, and he's seen talking up a girl in the background of the final scene.
Faux Affably Evil: The Beast is very laid-back and friendly at first, but eventually shows that he's not above dirty tricks when he's backed into a corner and pretty much drops the facade by the time he takes over as leader of the Axe Gang.
Flare Gun: Used by the Axe Gang to signal when their members need help. Definently a bad sign.
Flower Pot Drop: Parodied. The character doesn't get up after a pot is dropped on him from a top level apartment, and still played for laughs. When bad stuff starts happening, the recipient gathers the scattered dust around his head to hide.
Flynning: The tailor uses the iron rings on his arms to block attacks by the Axe Gang members that didn't look like they were close enough to hit him if he just kept his arms down.
Played with when Sing is approaching the Beast through a group of mooks. The camera pans to the Beast's face, looking somewhat amused, then back as Sing reaches him to reveal the aftermath of a foe tossing charge in a confined space. One mook's head is still wedged in the ceiling.
The Beast's Toad Style, which throws himself with a lot of force directly at an opponent.
Foreshadowing: Possibly just for the gag, but the scene where Sing runs away from the Landlady and is able to run about the same speed as her is possible foreshadowing to the fact that he has The Gift since the only other characters seen running that fast in the movie are master warriors.
Gag Dub: in the Spanish version, which takes several liberties with the original dialogues, and makes the characters speak in a variety of Spanish dialects.
Gale-Force Sound: The Harpists are two villains who fight their opponents by playing a guzheng (Chinese zither), which can send anything from bone-crunching fists to blades to a fucking skeleton army. Then there's the Landlady's Lion's Roar, which reduced walls to kindling and, when amplified, manages to temporarily defeat the Beast.
Gang of Hats: The Axe Gang all wield axes, wear black suits (with some of them actually wearing top hats) and perform choreographed dancing in unison. Brother Sum is played by a professional choreographer.
Impact Silhouette: The Buddha Palm technique. Foreshadowed when Sing, wracked with the pain of knives and snakebites, hammers the sides of the traffic tower and leaves a barrage of perfect handprints.
Implacable Man: The Beast. Takes being punched through walls and flattened into the ground and still keeps going.
Improvised Weapon User: the Lion's Roar is a weapon unto itself, but alone isn't enough to defeat the Beast. When focused using a funeral bell as a megaphone, the results are impressive. More realistically, Tailor using his shelf rings as bracers and Donut using kneaders as staffs.
Although using the rings as bracers is an actual style of fighting in the martial art. More probably Tailor used his weapons as shelf rings.
In the Back: Sum is not above shooting unarmed and surrendered enemies in the back.
I Surrender, Suckers: The Beast attempted to pull a fast one (twice) with a dart gun disguised as a flower ornament when faced with someone who can give him a real fight; the first time against the Landlord and Landlady, the second against Sing. The first time, it works. The second, it doesn't.
Sum shoots the Crocodile Boss's wife in the back after pretending to let her go free.
Sing stomping the kids' soccer ball is a Poke the Poodle moment, since it's so petty and small, but also establishes the fact that he's a real asshole.
Sing robbing the mute ice cream girl, then laughing hysterically at her as she cries.
Large Ham: All of Stephen Chow's "guests" have been given full license to ham it out, and Tailor, Landlady and even the Beast all have their moments. Special mention must be made of Yuen Qiu channeling Bruce Lee in the completely wordless scene in Sum's car.
Sing gets a comical number of injuries throughout the film. It turns out that it was necessary.
The landlords manage to steal Sing away and heal him despite the snot having been kicked out of them.
The Beast of course, able to take blows to the head without even wincing.
Magic Music: The Harpists fight using a guzheng, a Chinese plucked zither. They can manipulate the vibrations into shapes such as razor sharp swords and skeletal warriors capable of cutting through stone.
Sing at the end becomes an example of this trope, as he opens a candy shop as opposed to, say, teaching kung fu. He, too, faces an arrogant villain, The Beast. It is, however, apparent he's teaching The Beast.
The other masters were attempting to live peaceful lives as well. Then Sing accidentally drew the Axe Gang's attention to them, ruining any chance of peace.
Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The hobo and his martial arts manuals. The manual doesn't seem to work on Sing as a kid, but once he gets his chi unlocked, it's quite effective. The hobo also seems to magically appear at the end of the film without any sign of aging.
Sing's Heel-Face Turn is marked by a whole series of these. It begins with the (apparently) moral conflict within him as Sum orders him to attack the helpless Landlord and Landlady... only for Sing to turn around and attack Sum. Not out of right or wrong, but stress. Then Sing mans up enough to attack the Beast: only to have his own head beaten into the ground. Cue the futile but significant show of defiance as Sing... weakly picks up a bit of rubble to bonk the Beast, to no effect at all..
Also when Sing was dying, he draws a lollipop, showing he was thinking of the Cute Mute ice cream lady. Then the Landlord freaks out, telling him to write in Chinese because he didn't understand what he was trying to say.
Mook Chivalry: Inverted and subverted, especially in the first and the last mass brawl. The mooks don't shy from pulling Zerg Rushes and generally try to take all possible advantages they might have... but they are just mooks in an Affectionate Parody of wuxia.
My God, What Have I Done?: A variation occurs when Sing tries to steal from the ice cream lady. He realizes that she was the little girl he tried to save when he was a kid and just how far he had fallen from his previous ideals.
And the irony of it: Sing gets pounded by the Beast during his Heel-Face Turn and mortally wounded, only to have his chi flow cleared, restoring him to life and unleashing his actual potential. Cue a butterfly emerging from its cocoon and Sing appearing again all healthy and sound, ready to punch out whoever gets into trouble with him any day. And it became subverted when the Beast somehow wanted to see a worthy opponent before his eyes.
No Challenge Equals No Satisfaction: The Beast is introduced locked up in a mental institution, but he could easily break out any time he wishes. He voluntarily stays there because there doesn't seem to be anyone left who can offer a challenge and put up a good fight against him.
No Name Given: Almost nobody in the movie is given an actual name. At best, you'll get a title to refer to them by instead (the Landlord and Landlady, Donut, Tailor and Coolie, etc.)
No Sell: At the start of the fight with the Landlord and Landlady, the Beast ends up taking a jump kick to the face, and then a punch and a kick to either side of his head, without even budging.
The Beast. Bald, overweight, and at first dressed in a tank top, shorts, and cheap flip-flops, even The Syndicate that freed him didn't believe he was really the Beast until he held a gun six inches away from his head, pulled the trigger, and caught the bullet. He quickly ascended to being the Big Bad shortly after.
All of the Kung Fu Masters get their own moment. The Landlord is basically Plucky Comic Relief prior to owning the Musical Assassins without breaking a sweat. The Coolie breaks a guy's SPINE so fast no one knows what happened. The Tailor, of all people, is an effeminate joke before (and AFTER) revealing himself to be the manliest brawler of all Pig Sty Alley.
Pinball Gag: Done in the climax, complete with electro-mechanical sounds and chimes.
Poke the Poodle: Most of Sing and Bone's antics, ranging from trying to skip out on paying for a haircut, harassing random people on the street, and so on, for most of the movie. In harrassing the mute ice cream girl, however, he crosses into Kick the Dog.
Donut destroys few tommy guns and mauser pistol with his Simple Staff.
Rule of Cool: Oh, so, so many... 90% of the movie is either taken up by this, or Rule of Funny. The whole fight scene all the way through with the blind musicians takes both of these Up to Eleven.
Rule of Three: The number of times Sing gives a right-leg roundhouse kick to The Beast. The first time he's right back up to let you know he's no slouch. The second time, he nearly needs to put a hand on the ground to steady himself. The third time takes him to his knees.
Sealed Evil in a Can: The Beast. Subverted because he willingly checked himself into the insane asylum out of boredom from the lack of worthy opponents to challenge and kill. Of course when we first see him after his cell door is picked open, he's sitting on the john reading a newspaper which makes him Sealed Evil On the Can.
When Coolie is walking down the alleyway, about to be killed by the murderous musicians, you can hear their music being played, and a cat walks on one of the roofs and offscreen. However, you can still see the cat's shadow become bisected to the music while Coolie notices nothing. Plus a splatter of blood on the wall. Ominous.
The various fighting techniques demonstrated in the movie contain many shout-outs that had been twisted and parodied in some way for comedic effects. For example, the Ha Ma Gong (literally, Toad Technique, used by The Beast) is a technique used by an infamous poison-master from one of Jing Yong's famous novels. It's supposed to create harmful chi in the target's body, eventually killing them with no external injuries (the toad is considered one of the "Five Poisons" in Chinese culture, along with snake, lizard, centipede and scorpion). In the movie, however, this is taken a bit more literally.
ALL the names on the manuals the beggar held at the end of the movie are shout-outs to many of Jin Yong's novels. Audiences unfamiliar with the Wuxia genre will not be able to fully appreciate the parodic values of it.
The Axe Gang's introduction is styled suspiciously similarly to The Blues Brothers (complete with a knockoff of the famous Peter Gunn theme music).
While the theme music may be inspired by the Peter Gunn one, the overall Axe Gang look and weapon of choice is inspired by Bill the Butcher.
When the Landlady appeared in the seat of Sum's car, she wordlessly threatened him with her fists, cracking her knuckles and brushing her nose in a way reminiscent to what Bruce Lee did in Return of the Dragon.
The Landlady and Landlord introduce themselves to The Beast as being Xiao Long Nu and Yang Guo, the protagonists of Jing Yong's "Return of the Condor Heroes".
The scene where Sing - attacked from all sides swoops down and crushes the toes of his enemies - is a homage to one of the more comedic Wong Feihong movies Last Hero In China, where Wong Feihong himself uses the counter-strike whilst dressed as a chicken.
The Buddha's Palm technique (and the 'Daring General' tune of the soundtrack) are lifted directly from the 1982 film Buddha's Palm.
Shut Up, Hannibal!: While The Beast and Sing fight, The Beast stops to mock his opponent's technique while praising his own. The opponent in question interrupts his sentence by FLATTENING his foot with a stomp, and then kicking him in the side of the head. Worse, the Beast had seen that technique earlier, and mocked it as only fit for children: yet he still fell for it.
This movie has a rather clearly evident Algorithm, starting with the Shanghai Police completely dominated by the Crocodile Gang, and then the Crocodile Gang getting massacred by the Axe Gang. The Axe Gang are countered by the Pig Sty Alley's three martial artists, who are then countered by the Axe Gang's hired Musical Assassins, who are then countered by the Landlord and Landlady, who are in turn countered by the Made of Iron and superhumanly-fast Beast, who is in turn countered by the Heel-Face Turn-ed Unsympathetic ComedyVillain Protagonist. In a slightly jarring subversion, the Beast attempted to use a pile of basic Axe Gang members to soften up the hero before properly fighting him.
Though, The Beast never told them to attack. Rather, he just enjoyed the show as those idiots lemming'ed themselves against Sing's awesome might.
A flashback reveals how Sing got into a life of crime: he tried to protect a girl from a gang of thugs using a kung-fu manual he bought, only to get the shit kicked out of him, laughed at for learning a fake technique from a fifty-cent mock kung-fu manual, and pissed on. This moment convinced him that Good Is Dumb.
Except the "fake" kung-fu manual turned out to have been the genuine article all along when Sing lets loose with the Buddha's Palm, one of the techniques taught, on The Beast.
The Landlady demonstrates this as early as the first time the Axe Gang sets foot into the Pig Sty Alley... by running back home to hide underneath her covers. She then uses it to chase Sing out after the failed assassination attempt, and to carry the badly injured Sing out of the casino after the Beast's beatdown (this one, along with her husband).
Threw My Bike on the Roof: Sing stomps the kids' soccer ball flat for no reason than to be an asshole. Behind the scenes, it's also a clever retort to fans who keep insisting that Chow make a sequel to Shaolin Soccer
Wheel o' Feet: Rare live-action example, namely the chase scene with the Landlady running after the hero. To reinforce how absurd this is, the hero uses two knives buried in his shoulders as rear-view mirrors, and at the end the Landlady goes flying and ends up flattened against a billboard for pain medication (somehow losing her hair curlers and bra on impact).
With This Herring: Inverted. Sing is given a big bag of tools to use to break The Beast out of the mental asylum... which he promptly loses once inside. He actually gets the door to The Beast's cell open with the same dinky bit of wire he used to break out of his own shackles earlier in the film.
"If you whistle, they'll go away!" Claims Bone to Sing, regarding venomous snakes all over him. Sing tries it and is promptly bitten.
It's kind of a running gag with those two. From the same Masochism Tango, came the above "Don't pull it out! / Oh sorry *stabs back in*", which fits just as well. Unless prepared to deliver immediate first aid, or if the object itself is an ongoing threat due to dirtiness or instability, it's better to leave something like a knife impaled in the wound to limit bleeding. But if you do pull it out, it's an even worse idea to put it back in.
You Wouldn't Like Me When I'm Angry: Brother Sum - in a fit of extreme hubris - calls out the Beast and scolds him for letting Landlord and Landlady get away with Sing when they were all on the verge of being killed. The Beast promptly breaks Sum's neck like Linda Blair with a backhand.