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.