Old Dudes Kicking Ass
Photos by Saeed AdyaniThe durability of the Chinese martial-arts culture is embodied in Kung Fu Hustle by the visible sturdiness of a supporting cast of spry if superannuated martial artists who occupy the movies magical tenement-housing block. Most of these roles are played by veteran Hong Kong film performers, journeymen rather than superstars, who have been granted a few extra moments in the sun by lifelong genre aficionado Stephen Chow. The most familiar of them, at least to Hong Kong cinema fans in the U.S., is likely to be the tall and wiry Yuen Hua, who plays Landlord. He was a classmate of Jackie Chan at Hong Kongs draconian Peking Drama Academy in the 1960s, and is recognizable as a bit player or bad guy in hundreds of pictures made at Shaw Brothers and elsewhere in the 1970s. As it happens, Yuen Qiu, who plays Landlady, Yuen Huas intimidating spouse and the Axe Gangs nemesis, was also a student at the Drama Academy, in a section cordoned off for women. All of these students were trained for the Beijing Opera, a classical medium that was all but dead by the time they graduated in the late 1960s. The men were able to adapt their talents to the demands of the movies, but Yuen Qiu was not so lucky: Her only notable role before she married and retired from the screen was a brief appearance in the James Bond film The Man With the Golden Gun (1974). She was recruited for the KFH role by Chow after she accompanied one of her own martial-arts pupils to a casting call in Hong Kong. Not every old-school prospect Chow wanted for the film and was able to track down proved to be up to the task. Dorian Tan Tao-liang, for example, who co-starred with a young Jackie Chan in Hand of Death (1976) for director John Woo, was no longer qualified to represent the ageless resilience of the martial arts in KFH. In at least one case, though, an aging performer proved to be even more impressive than Chow had hoped. This was Bruce Leung Siu-long, who plays Chows most intimidating foe, a mad-dog killer known as the Beast, recruited out of (no doubt voluntary) retirement in an insane asylum. Leung had launched his career in the 1970s in so-called Bruce-ploitation movies as one of a herd of Bruce Lee clones, along with Bruce Le, Bruce Lai, Bruce Thai and several others. His most famous effort in this vein, more often talked about than seen, is Godfrey Hos The Dragon Lives Again (1976), in which Bruce Lee (played by Bruce Leung Siu-long) is discovered in purgatory after his untimely death, in the company of James Bond, Zatoichi, Dracula, Emmanuelle, Clint Eastwoods Man With No Name and Popeye the Sailor, the latter portrayed, complete with corncob pipe, by future Infernal Affairs ganglord Eric Tsang Chi-wai. Silliness aside, Leung (a.k.a. Hsaio Liang) was a respected martial artist who seemed to have a solid career in front of him. According to Chow, His jumping high kick was the best in the world. Then he made the mistake, in the early 1980s, of accepting an invitation to visit mainland China. This made Leung instantly persona non grata in Taiwan, which represented such a large slice of the market for Hong Kong movies that he became all but unemployable. It took the producers of Kung Fu Hustle several months to track him down in retirement, and in their first meeting Chow was disappointed that Leung looked so good almost alarmingly fit in his mid-50s, with a full head of bushy black hair for the ferocious role the filmmaker had in mind. Fortunately for Chow, most of this mane turned out to be a wig, and removal of the rug revealed a long, straggly fringe around a bald dome. He was exactly my image of the character, Chow says. I asked him if he could still do the martial arts, and he just stared at me. Then he started to stand up and said very quietly, Do you want to try me? and I said, Oh no, no. I believe you! I was actually a little scared. Which is just what should happen when you are having a conversation with the Beast!
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.