When the Chase is as Absurd as the Pie by Yu Ching Yau

Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle (2004) is a classic example of a specific type of slapstick movie, the Cantonese mo lei tau or “silly talk” film — the name refers to the overall nonsensical characteristic of comedies that emerged from Hong Kong in the late eighties. Anything can happen, with the plot bursting with non-sequiturs, parodies and long sequences of ad absurdum action just because. The fact that mo lei tau has been identified as something uniquely different from conventional slapstick led me to wonder whether the pie/chase dynamic may function differently to the one outlined by Donald Crafton. After examining a clip from Kung Fu Hustle I discovered that the totally logic-defying narrative (owing to the magic realism elements and localised humour common to the sub-genre) makes it all the more obvious that it is a “quasi-narrative”, where “despite a weakly structured set of causes-and-effects… [the films] emulate feature film narrative structures, the audience is scarcely aware of it, navigating the film from laugh to laugh as though enjoying a sketch. This is gag-driven cinema.”[1]

In this sequence where the main character Sing and his buddy try to kill the landlady of the slum after declaring their desire to be baddies, there is a running sight gag of the thrown knives always returning to the thrower to painful effect, punctuated by the melodramatic traditional Chinese music equivalent to the badum-tsst in the West. The pair ultimately fails to harm the landlady and she begins a pursuit of Sing, which is a chase, but not a Chase (The overall narrative Chase is Sing’s desire to be a Kung Fu hero). With the use of special effects, Chow gives the two characters superhuman speed, dragging out the running scene for the pure comical spectacle. Finally, Sing finds shelter in a traffic hideout and suddenly discovers his increased super-strength, which is a sign of the development of his Kung Fu powers. Sure, it could be argued that this whole sequence is a set up for this narrative moment of character development, and it is absolutely true that the comedy of the knife-throwing functions because of its subversion of narrative expectation. That’s probably what Tom Gunning would argue. But at the end of the day, most viewers will never remember the details of the convoluted nonsensical plot stringing one gag to another. Just search for the name of the film on Youtube and all you’ll find are the short gag clips which people search for again and again, not really caring about its place in the narrative of the film.

 

[1] Crafton, Donald. “Pie and Chase: Gag, Spectacle and Narrative in Slapstick Comedy.” In Classical Hollywood Comedy. New York, 1995, pp. 109.

 

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