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Going to the Source: Kung Fu Hustle and Its Cinematic Roots at the 29th HKIFF
The Tenement Courtyard 1/1 - Page 1
Author(s) : Gina Marchetti
Date : 5/5/2005
Type(s) : Analysis
Food for thought
 Intext Links  
People :
Chu Yuan
Bruce Lee
Sun Yu
Yuen Qiu
Movies :
Fist Of Fury
The House Of 72 Tenants
The Kid
Kung Fu Hustle
Story Of Huang Feihong (Part 1)
Companies :
Shaw Brothers
Lexic :
Wong Fei-hong
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Page 2 : The Lion Dance

2005 marks the 100 th anniversary of film production in China , and the 29 th Hong Kong International Film Festival (March 22-April 6, 2005) has helped to mark this occasion by featuring Chinese film. The Archive contributed to this celebration with two series delving into Chinese film history—one highlighting the career of prominent Shanghai director Sun Yu and the other focusing on the links between Hong Kong and Guangdong cinema. The opportunity to look at the cinematic roots of the Hong Kong commercial releases for 2004 through the lens of the Hong Kong Film Archive's Pearl River Delta: Movie-Culture-Life film series provided one of the more enjoyable aspects of attending the festival this year.

The series covered films made in or about the Pearl River Delta area of China, which includes Macau, Hong Kong, Guangzhou and its environs. Given that the festival focused on films from the People's Republic and the intimate links between Hong Kong and the mainland, this series also highlighted the importance of the shared Lingnan/Pearl River Delta culture and history of people on both sides of the border. While the series included everything from actualities filmed at the turn of the nineteenth century to current experimental shorts featuring the Delta region, the highlights of the program, at least for those interested in post-WW II Hong Kong popular culture, were the screening of two installments of the enormously popular Wong Fei-hung series (from 1949 and 1968) and a screening of a version of the popular comedy The House of 72 Tenants (1963). Stephen Chow 's Kung Fu Hustle (2004) directly references The House of 72 Tenants, and, less directly, but still palpably alludes to the Wong Fei-Hong saga. Also, showing The Kid (1950), featuring Bruce Lee, at the Archive, and Fist of Fury(1972) at an outdoor screening in the same series with Kung Fu Hustle, prompts reflection on the enormous impact Bruce Lee has had on Stephen Chow's oeuvre. Although Fist of Fury and Kung Fu Hustle take place in Shanghai and not the Pearl River Delta, all these films pay tribute to Cantonese culture-particularly Southern Shaolin martial arts, music, humor, and folk beliefs and customs.

the tenement courtyard

Even though The House of 72 Tenants was originally set in Shanghai when staged in 1945, the Cantonese adaptation and Chow's liberal borrowings from it in Kung Fu Hustle place it squarely within a Pearl River tradition of folk humor. The version shown at the HKIFF was jointly produced by the PRC's Pearl River Studio and the “progressive”/”Left-wing” Hong Kong studio Sun Luen. The story has been remade several times, including an enormously popular Shaw Brothers version in 1973 directed by Chor Yuen in conjunction with TVB, which also likely inspired Chow. Like Chow, who was born in Shanghai in 1963, The House of 72 Tenants presents a blend of the Shanghai/Hong Kong popular film culture that defines commercial Chinese cinema globally. The genre of the “tenement” film dates back to the golden age of Shanghai cinema before the Pacific War with Japan. Films like Street Angel (1937), for example, feature loose, episodic narratives about the lives of people thrown together under one roof. Comedy and melodrama intermingle with songs and vaudeville-like sketches to present a picture of urban life from rapacious slum lords to street vendors and prostitutes. Generally, these films had a politically progressive message that called for unity among the underprivileged as a way to wrest power from the hands of landlords, corrupt policemen, and the triads. Those produced after 1949 in the PRC pointed to the corruption of the “old society” and celebrated the triumph of working people over the rich.

The tenement Chow pictures in Kung Fu Hustle, including many of its inhabitants like the avaricious landlady and randy landlord as well as many of the poor folk who live under their decrepit roof, come straight from The House of 72 Tenants. However, in Kung Fu Hustle, the humble inhabitants of the tenement, who only rely on their wits to keep the landlord and landlady at bay, are transformed by Chow into kung fu masters. Remarkable, CGI-enhanced feats of martial prowess take form through the unlikely bodies of the Tenants as well as the owners of the tenement. Here, The House of 72 Tenants meets Wong Fei-hong, and Chow's Kung Fu Hustle takes off in a different direction from the original by taking up martial arts in addition to urban comedy.

The House of 72 Tenants (1973)

The House of 72 Tenants, The Story of Wong Fei-hung: Part I, and Kung Fu Hustle all show a marked sensitivity to architecture and the ways in which buildings define space, spatial relationships, and shape the contours of the plot by placing characters in particular proximity to one another within a confined space. The films take up architectural norms and turn them into sets, part of a mise-en-scene that also defines theatrical space, character hierarchies, and dramatic relationships. In late-Qing Chinese urban architecture and in the colonial architecture of the same period, the shop house provided a norm. Proprietors lived above their shops on the second storey with an overhang or balcony forming an arcade below, so pedestrians could pass through, do business in the shop, be protected from the elements, and the upstairs domestic space could benefit from the increased sunlight. The streets lined with these establishments were often dark and narrow—alleyways surrounding blocks of shops, homes, tea houses, and other buildings. Urban living spaces also included courtyard buildings—adapted from single family dwellings built by wealthy people who eventually fell on hard times—with a conglomeration of living spaces forming various levels around a central courtyard.

In the case of The House of 72 Tenants and Kung Fu Hustle, the central staircases that connect the various levels of the tenements are virtually identical. The staircase provides a platform and a stage for the characters and an ever changing hierarchical design for the machinations of the plot to unfold. Both films introduce the tenement pecking order as the Tenants gather to use the one water spigot in the morning. The formidable landlady played by Yuen Qiu in Kung Fu Hustle and Tan Yu-Zhen in 72 Tenants—toothbrush in her mouth in 72 Tenants and cigarette dangling in Kung Fu Hustle—looks down on her disgruntled and dry Tenants, complaining about their extravagant use of the water, and threatening stricter rationing of the supply. Defiant, they look up and challenge her authority.

Yuen Qiu and Yuen Wah in Kung Fu Hustle
As the stories unfold, the central courtyard allows for the practice of a variety of professions—from tailor to cook to carpenter to doctor—to serve the other Tenants as well as the surrounding neighborhood. Street life includes the wealthy and the poor, street performers, thieves, prostitutes, beggars, and a range of others trying to make a living in spaces that are somewhere between the traditional village of rural, feudal China and the European districts of the colonial cities of the Treaty Ports like Shanghai. The drama of negotiating between the modern and the traditional, the lowly and the elevated, the popular and the elite, the profane and the sacred, is played out through comedy and martial arts action. These are films based on gags and fights, the “cinema of attractions,” that seem to fit well within the tradition of popular entertainment in the region that has a global appeal with films like Chow's Kung Fu Hustle.
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