This 1971 Shaw Brothers martial-arts flick is definitely full of action — energetic camerawork, gallons of stage blood, and a widescreen frame full of gracefully choreographed movement on the part of dozens of performers wielding an impressive variety of weapons all contribute to the film’s sense of urgent forward motion.
The very first image in Manufactured Landscapes is a stately, Sacha Vierny-style tracking shot peering down the long aisles of a massive Chinese manufacturing facility where scores of workers hunch over tables, dutifully assembling little bits of material into larger pieces of whoknowswhat. At first, what’s remarkable about the men and women in the shot is how little attention they pay to the movie camera moving sideways past them. Occasionally someone glances up, or peers over a shoulder, but mostly they seem absorbed in their routines. The camera keeps tracking, taking in aisle after aisle, stacks and stacks of boxes, and gliding past slightly more open spaces where one or two uniformed workers are actually walking around. The seemingly endless spectacle builds up an almost comical intensity — I was suddenly reminded of the traffic jam in Week End and half-expected Mettler’s camera to alight on some heinous act of violence — a supervisor garroted, perhaps, by a finely-tuned machine tool. Instead, the pay-off is nothing less ordinary than an overhead shot depicting the factory’s aisles receding into distance.
Stephen Chow’s newest — about a small town in pre-revolutionary China populated by kung-fu masters who are drawn out of retirement by the arrival of a criminal gang — is being compared to Buster Keaton and Chuck Jones, correctly enough, but its cartoon-come-to-life visuals put me in mind most immediately of Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen. Then again, it’s clearly a Stephen Chow film more than anything else, with broad slapstick undergirding typically impressive martial-arts choreography by the amazing Yuen Wo-ping and Sammo Hung.
By itself, the opening sequence — a near-musical set piece involving a group of well-dressed, ax-wielding thugs that come on like the gangs in “Beat It” — is pretty amazing, but the rest of the film is an ever-escalating, near-joyous expansion of the possibilities offered by Chow’s particular brand of homage and parody coupled with a willingness to try anything with CGI. (If you’re watching carefully, you might notice an actor transform into a digital double right before something terrible happens to him.)
Like the other Chow films I’ve seen (only Shaolin Soccer and God of Cookery) Kung Fu Hustle is a fresh, contemporary take on Chinese storytelling traditions, and few directors in world cinema are working so competently and consistently in any mode as Chow is in this one. A really good time.