smpx: The movie goes a lot deeper than most moviegoers realize.
I read and was obsessed with a lot of Kung Fu movies as well as Kung Fu novels growing up. Kung Fu novels (Wu Xia Novels) like Jing Yong are a movement in Asia that never really translated over to the west, but is absolutely MASSIVE. I also grew up watching pretty much every single one of Stephen Chow's films.
The sheer number of references in the film, both literary and cinematic, was astounding. Almost every fight scene and move had a history that Stephen Chow was either making fun of or paying tribute to, almost to the point that nary a scene will pass without me getting excited and pointing out a reference to my annoyed viewing partners. It's also what, in my view, made it THAT much more genius than Kung Fu Soccer. Every single character was a reference to something else. He also didn't just reference Asian works, he also referenced a ton of North American works. Amongst them would include The Godfather, Spiderman, Untouchables (1987 one), Blues Brothers, The Matrix, Raging Bull, The Shining, and of course, Loony Toons.
Edit: Additional details:
For instance, at one point, the Landlord and Landlady reveal their names to be (YangGuo)楊過 and (XiaoLongNu)小龍女, two of the most famous Wu Xia novel characters who were known for a Romeo-and-Juliet-esque turbulent love affair (The English subs would have said Paris and Helen of Troy, which is in itself funny). They were known to have amazing martial arts skills, and the two characters were known to eventually go into hiding, as the Landlord and Landlady does, but the irony is that the personality of the Landlady and Landlord were starkly opposite of the graceful and gentle literary characters. The martial art style of the Landlady is the Lion's Roar, which is actually based off of one of Shaolin's 72 skills. The Landlord's, of course, is Tai Chi, though there is light reference to ZhouBuoTong 周伯通's KongMingChuan空明拳. Either way, it's based on "using one's power against themselves". One is 鋼, or hard, one is 柔, or soft. It's meant to compliment each other in a philosophic way.
Edit 2: A bunch of people asked about the musical instrument played by the two blind assassins. Aside from the Blues Brothers reference, the instrument is based on this epic fight scene from Deadful Melody.
smpx: Don't want to go full movie nerd here, but the film was, in my opinion, a brilliant critique on a modernizing China that still battling a lingering memory of a romanticized, but outdated, history. It's about China's struggles to hold onto romantic ideals against a modernized, globalized, West.
A core theme of the film is on image versus reality. Instead of the classic young, manly, and heroic protagonist, we instead have this effeminate tailor, this low-classed coolie, and a weak, cowardly cook. Instead of some grand setting of Shaolin monastery set high up above waves of clouds in the mountains, it's in a place called Pig Sty Alley. Instead of a love story featuring beautiful and loving young couples, we have middle-aged, chain smoking, sexually harassing, absolutely classless landlord and landlady. But none of it is worse than Stephen Chow's own character, who is the true anti-hero. He is cowardly, he is dishonest, he bullies the weak (popping children's soccer balls and stealing from a blind girl) he is not even a very loyal friend.
The main villain, even, is duplicitious. The first time he is revealed (The Beast), the head of the Axe gang's reaction is disbelieve because he's wearing very classless clothing— cheap slippers, underwear, and bald. His fighting style, incidently, is a reference to 蛤蟆功, "Toad Style" (Hence him dropping to the floor and doing that croaking thing), thus revealing him to be 欧阳锋, a character from the Jing Yong novels who was one of the most evil villains that became so greedy he ended up losing his mind (he also fought with 楊過 and 小龍女， the Landlord and Landlady's alteregoes), as The Beast acts quite insane throughout the film. But his evil is beyond brute strength, but in using his opponent's heroic nature of mercy against them, attacking while their guard's down.
This is a Wu Xia movie, or Kung Fu Movie, that is most distinctively NOT a kung fu movie because it turns all classic ideals of a kung fu hero on it's head— we have a hero who starts off wanting to be a villain, so instead, the true hero that Chow focuses on in the film are the everyday individuals, and Chow's own transformation into the Messiah character essentially follows the same message.
So when Chow's character appears, he is dressed identically as Bruce Lee's character from Enter the Dragon. White shirt, black pants. This is because Lee's character is about defeating one's opponent without defeating them— in the same way, Chow defeats The Beast by not killing him, but rather with forgiveness and mercy. It's also not a coincidence that the move he defeats him with is with "Buddha's palm", and spins The Beast's weapon (a hidden pin) into a lotus flower.
smpx: Well I can blab on if nobody wants to stop me. Nerd alert:
IMO, nothing in the film was throwaway. There is a very powerful message against the modern Chinese political environment hiding in a lighthearted comedy.
Let's start with the setting. 1940-50's Shanghai is important because that was the real birth of his kung fu film love, and Pig Sty Alley is a DIRECT REFERENCE to the 1973 Shaw Brother's classic "House of 72 tenants", which in itself was a mockery of the Chinese government's attack against the poor. Both Kung Fu Hustle and "House of 72 tenants" captured the everyday life, the struggles and celebrations, of the poor, ordinary folks of China.
Basically, the real heroes of the story are ordinary folk, not the classic ideas of individual heroes. When Chow first shows up at Pig Sty Alley, he threatened the somewhat gay hairdresser with violence, and was faced with the entire village standing up against him. Tall, short, old, young, everyone rises up to face him for a fight. When the Axe Gang shows up and drenches the innocent young girl with gasoline, it's the coolie (whose style is 12 Kicks of Tam school, if I remember correctly) who steps in, then the Cook (Doughnut), then the Tailor. All ordinary citizens.
What's significant about it is what Axe Gang represents: the political, financial elites of China. The movie begins with the leader of Axe Gang, named after the boss from Infernal Affairs (dealing with corruption within the police force), beating up cops, then paying them. They threaten to burn down Pig Sty Alley, the same way modern Shanghai is demolishing the slums, like Pig Sty Alley, to make way for modern buildings. Most Chinese viewers living in Beijing and Shanghai will likely get this immediately, because back in 2005 it was literally everywhere—the government was wiping away entire neighbourhoods to replace them with new, modern buildings.
Everything about Axe Gang is modern. They work in a modern, western club. They are dressed in black, western suits. They listen to modern music, while classic Chinese instruments are heard in Pig Sty Alley. Note that I don't feel like this is a statement about the West, but actually about the loss of classic values in modernity. The movie didn't feel specifically nationalistic, which is important— Chow doesn't think this is an issue between China and the West, but China and it's obsession to modernize, which often comes off as trying to Westernize.
Meanwhile, the REAL heroes— landlord, landlady— have lost their way. They hide and cower at the face of trouble, until real injustice occurs when the three ordinary heroes die. They are able to contain the threat and even intimidate the Axe Gang.
So what role does Sing play? Stephen Chow enjoys torturing his heroes, it seems, because the film had to first make sure Sing fully suffers before he is allowed to transform (quite literally, in a cocoon). He gets what he wants— money and power from the Axe Gang, but when faced with the act of evil (to kill the Landlord and Landlady), he just couldn't do it. So he is punished for it, but then as a result comes to terms with his real growth and elevates (like, literally elevates, into the sky) into a better person.
So we, as ordinary people, are basically who Sing is. We have been cowardly and have been neglectful in our greediness, and have forgotten what it means to truly be a hero— it's not about fame or honour, but about right and wrong. To not stand down in the face of the oppressors (hint hint), and to not forget our origins in a modernized world. As such, despite becoming The One (the references to Matrix is many, but most importantly the scene where he fights off all the Axe Gang goons), Sing at the end returns to become an ordinary citizen, selling candy to children with his childhood love.
bhamv: A fascinating analysis, but I'm afraid I disagree with one of your points, which calls to question your entire conclusion that the movie is deliberately structured as a comprehensive reference to wuxia works. I think it's more likely that Stephen Chow was tossing out wuxia references in a more haphazard manner, without explicitly drawing parallels with wuxia novel characters. The reason I say this is twofold.
Firstly, the Landlord in the movie refers to the Toad Style as coming from the Kunlun School (崑崙派) of martial arts. However, in the novels, Ouyang Feng and the Kunlun School never have any sort of interaction with each other. Ouyang Feng's martial arts were explicitly stated as being taught to only one pupil at a time (一脈單傳), and his distant western origins is very far from Kunlun Mountain, making any sort of mixing between them unlikely. This makes the Landlord's exclamation of "the Kunlun School's Toad Style" (崑崙派蛤蟆功) a very noticeable goof to fans of Jin Yong's novels. In fact, Ouyang Feng never taught his Toad Style to anyone, except for Yang Guo (楊過).
This brings me to my second point. In the novels, Ouyang Feng and Yang Guo were allies. They never fought each other. Yes, one is definitely an antagonist, and the other is a protagonist, but the moral grey areas these characters occupy mean that they were never enemies, and in fact referred to each other as father and son.
These are just two examples out of many in the movie where the references do not follow the source text's structure. All in all, it feels like Stephen Chow definitely wanted to show his inspiration from the wuxia genre while deconstructing it. He tosses out references for fans to spot, but to say there's a deliberate parallel with the original wuxia works seems like a huge stretch to me.
smpx: I think they're more symbols than directly "he is actually 楊過". For one thing, 老毒物 died by the end of the series, and YangGuo would have to be a few hundred years old if Chow meant for them to be actual people.
I think, and I am fully disclaiming this is just my subjective interpretations here, they are meant to be personas— anti-metaphors for their characters. 楊過 was chosen because he was the definition of a loyal lover, yet in the first scene Landlord was trying to take advantage of a young girl behind his wife's back. 小龍女was chosen because she was supposed to be perfect and a feminine ideal, described in the books as being beautiful beyond words and flawlessly emotionless...which the Landlady decidedly was not, with her cigarette and constant yelling at everyone. They were cowardly (hid at the first sign of trouble) and let innocent, but significantly weaker Fighters die before showing their skills, which countered their acts in the books of the "Xia" values.
In that regard, I doubt the references were throwaways. Chow was an extremely demanding director to the point that 梁小龙 even complained that he's too strict, demanding 28 takes just for their first scene together, it doesn't feel like he would toss out references thoughtlessly.
bhamv: I agree with your interpretation that they are personas, or archetypes if you will, while also subverting the audience's expectations towards these archetypes. Yang Guo and Xiao Long Nu are among the best known examples in Chinese literature of star-crossed lovers (rivaled perhaps only by the Dream of the Red Chamber 紅樓夢), suffering trials and tribulations that conspire to keep them apart, and yet they find ways to be together anyway. And one of the most important characteristics shown by the Landlord and the Landlady are that they're fiercely loyal to one another. They're flawed individuals, yes, but when the chips are down (ah ha ha, I just remembered their battle takes place in a casino) they will fight as a seamless team.
Similarly, the Beast fills the "backstabbing villain" archetype that is also filled by Ouyang Feng.
However, if you don't think Stephen Chow was throwing out references randomly, then you have to admit he was running pretty roughshod over the source text, grabbing archetypes where he could, and ramming them into his characters until they fit. Of course, this is somewhat understandable, he had to work with what he had, and the archetypes don't always fit 100%, so it can be forgiven.
smpx: I'm glad we agree! And oh my god don't even get me started on Dream of the Red Chamber, and of course 梁山伯 and 祝英台. But none of them did martial arts! Maybe in fan fiction, haha.
- running pretty roughshod over the source text, grabbing archetypes where he could, and ramming them into his characters until they fit.
Oh for sure. I honestly have no idea why he, as you said, used 崑崙 to relate to 蛤蟆功. It was unnecessary and entirely out of place (like, 500 years out of place), and given that he was himself a huge fan of Jing Yong and is surrounded by martial arts experts, it would make no sense for him to add that from out of nowhere. Not only that, he was mixing things from Kung Fu movies by Chang Cheh with classic novel references (12 kicks of Tam school vs Iron Fist of Hung?) in weird ways.
Then again, this is Stephen Chow we're talking about— the guy who did a bunch of movies on skipping school as an undercover cop. It's impossible to know when to take him seriously.
Mechamorph I think it is more that Stephen Chow is writing a Deconstruction of the Wu Xia genre using Jin Yong's famous characters are stand ins for very common archetypes in Wu Xia fiction. The person who sells the Buddhist Palms manual to young Sing (modelled probably on the real life Arhat Palms and various fictional depictions of Luohan Quan) fits the common image of Ji Gong, a figure from Chinese folklore. The mi ji (secret manual) of a martial art style is often the Macguffin of Wu Xia fiction and here in the movie it is up *for sale*, cheapening the value of something once fought over viciously by various martial arts powers. Heck it is for sale in bulk if you go by the last scene of the movie. Most telling however is the characters of the martial artists of Pig Sty Alley. That martial arts have little to no use in the modern world. That even masters of their chosen styles require a day job just to eat. That their skills have to be hidden rather than celebrated and admired is very common in other deconstructions of the Wu Xia genre. Also notable by its absence is the Noble Demon, a common antagonist in Wu Xia stories. Such characters often straddle the ally/enemy divide in such works but a deconstruction where the Ideal Hero is at best a memory, such characters are also subsequently absent.