Sound & Colour: Raymond Wong’s ‘Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained’ in ‘Kung Fu Hustle’
Sound & Colour is a column where we talk about memorable pairings of music and film. Think “Ride Of The Valkyries” in ‘Apocalypse Now’, and “Mrs Robinson” in ‘The Graduate’. It’s also an excuse for Matt to write about music.
I was blown away the first time I watched Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle 功夫; there was only so much craziness my 10 year old mind could process – and this was from a kid on a steady diet of cartoons about talking sponges and psychotic chihuahuas. Together with The Empire Strikes Back and 2008’s Jumper (terrible film, by the way), it’s probably one of the first films I remember loving.
Kung Fu Hustle has a paper-thin plot. A criminal organisation, the Axe Gang, has taken over and terrorised 1930s Shanghai. The last remaining sanctuaries are in the city’s run-down slums. Stephen Chow stars as Sing, a down-on-his-luck petty criminal, looking to extort from one of these slums by impersonating as an Axe Gang member.
This becomes the catalyst for the film’s non-stop dose of over-the-top action sequences. One moment you have spectacularly choreographed showdowns between superpowered martial arts masters, the next you have a chase scene between Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner brought to life. Kung Fu Hustle is a supremely entertaining film that begs to be experienced.
I never had the opportunity to give Kung Fu Hustle a second watch until this article called for it but I do fondly remember its slate of memorable characters and exciting action scenes. My most persistent memory, however, is with a song in the film’s opening sequence – Raymond Wong’s “Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained”, or better known as the Axe Gang dance song.
Frankly, I thought this piece would be straightforward: talk about how much of an earworm the track is and how it complemented the film’s surreal nature. Finally watching Kung Fu Hustle again years later made me appreciate how truly incredible – from a filmmaking standpoint – the opening sequence is.
The Music – Raymond Wong’s “Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained”
Raymond Wong is a Hong Kong film score composer, making his start with fellow composer and eventual celebrity Mark Lui on 1994’s A Taste of Killing and Romance 《杀手的童话》. The soundtrack was… very early 1990s (which really was just a bad hangover of the 1980s) with synthesisers dominating the soundscape.
He would strike gold the same year soundtracking The Lovers 《梁祝》, winning Best Original Film Score at the Hong Kong Film Award by beating out an astonishingly strong field including He’s a Woman, She’s a Man 《金枝玉叶》and Chungking Express 《重庆森林》.
Raymond would continue to be a workhorse throughout the 1990s, receiving nominations in both 1995 and 2001 for his works. While he was already a staple voice in Hong Kong cinema, he would arguably make his first big international break with Kung Fu Hustle.
Raymond’s work has featured a diverse set of musical influences, showing versatility with both Western and Eastern music compositions. The film’s soundtrack reflects this, with heavy influences from traditional Chinese orchestral music in martial arts films and pairing them with classical Western compositions. One of the original Western-inspired tracks is with the big-band bopper “Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained”.
I can’t put my fingers on it but the track always reminded me of another. The closest comparison I can pin it to is Pete Rodriguez’s “I Like It Like That” – both songs are infectiously catchy while sounding oh-so deliciously sinister and playful.
Soaring blares of the trumpet and the boisterous thumps of the drum fill “Nothing Ventured..”, before being briefly infiltrated by ominous notes and a brief cameo by the erhu. The drums rise again. The stage is set; the track only gets rowdier from here with the menacing bassline watching over like a looming shadow.
I can’t find any evidence on the Internet – and perhaps it’s just the Mandela effect – but this song was everywhere right after the film hit theatres. Riding on the film’s mega-hit status, the track was used in promotional vignettes for television channels, and the accompanying dance was parodied and reenacted by everyone. I think a big reason why this might be is because of how it was used in Kung Fu Hustle’s memorable opening sequence.
The Sequence In Question
Kung Fu Hustle is perhaps more well-known for its outlandish comedy bits and cast of misfits. However, upon closer inspection, it really is an incredibly well-made, thoroughly planned out film with superb use of movement and music.
The film wastes no time in establishing its villains. A police station, ironically dubbed the “super crime fighters”, sees its officers frozen in place, aghast at the sounds of someone receiving the beating of his life. The Crocodile gang has stomped into the station, establishing the lawlessness of the film’s world and how they’re seemingly the only game in town.
They strut out of the station but are paralysed by the earth-shaking rumbling of an army. The city knows the drill and boards up their windows. The tuxedo donning Axe Gang has arrived – and in legions strong.
Its leader Brother Sum (Danny Chan, who would play Bruce Lee in Ip Man 4!) marches into frame in a low-angle shot. The Crocodile gang is massacred, leaving only its leader and his wife to run for their lives. A well-thrown axe decapitates his left leg and he cries out in agony.
To answer, the horns of “Nothing Ventured..” kick in. Brother Sum dances to the beating drums and swaggers towards the helpless foe with axe in hand, before definitively burying the hatchet (into the enemy). The music takes a pause; the wife is shell-shocked and pleads for her life. Brother Sum assures her that he doesn’t kill women – before gunning her down once she turns her back. He prances out of frame as the music springs back to life.
What follows is a montage of vicious axe-related killings and criminal activities, spliced between a dance sequence led by its leader. The music may be uniform and consistent but Brother Sum sashays all over the hall, as if to show that he is now in control of what’s normal.
With a beckon, he is joined by two cronies, then three more, then an entire roomful, all following in his steps – albeit without his same manic energy. The trumpets swell one last time, and the gang lifts up their hatchets in unison.
Bringing It All Back Home
In an interview with IGN in 2012, Stephen Chow shared that he took some time to figure out how to differentiate the Axe Gang while making them look tough. Realising that actor Danny Chan is a dancer, he settled on the use of dance to establish just that; that everything is so effortless for the boss that he could waltz over everyone else.
Not only does the music perfectly complement the glitzy and decadent criminal underworld of 1930s Shanghai, its accompanying opening sequence establishes – in just five minutes – the threat of the film’s antagonists and the overall tone of Kung Fu Hustle. It reels in the audience by wanting these murderous thugs defeated and hooking them with expectations of the unexpected. Narrative wise, the sequence also establishes why Stephen Chow’s character Sing was desperate to be a part of the gang’s glitz and glamour.
On a subtler level, the Western-inspired “Nothing Ventured..”, is a sonic dissonance and sore thumb from the rest of the film as well, with traditional Chinese orchestra soundtracking the intense fight scenes and the triumphs of its heroes.
Like the rest of the film, there are just so many of these little details – in the soundtrack, choreography, and cinematography – that makes Kung Fu Hustle such an endearing and enduring action-comedy classic, all set up by its perfect opening sequence bringing new meaning to orchestrated crime.
Even on its own, Raymond Wong’s “Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained” is one for the books, telling as much of a story with its straightforward composition while being one of the most irresistibly catchy songs in all of cinema.
The film is now available for streaming on Netflix.
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