Kung Fu Hustle
Directed by: Stephen Chow
Written by: Tsang Kan Cheong, Stephen Chow, Xin Huo, Chan Man KeungStarring: Stephen Chow, Yuen Qiu, Leung Siu Lung, Chi Chung Lam, Dong Zhi Hua
Director Stephen Chow’s movies have been smashing box office records in Asian markets for years, and his North American success is long overdue. Unfortunately, his breakthrough film, 2001’s Shaolin Soccer, was tragically mishandled by Miramax despite its abundant Western crossover potential. It was re-edited, dubbed, delayed, and then re-edited and delayed some more. But sometimes you just can’t stop a good movie from reaching its audience. By the time Miramax had stumbled its way through a severely limited theatrical release and eventually issued a DVD, Shaolin Soccer had already developed a huge Western cult following via the internet, word of mouth and plenty of import bootlegs from E-Bay. Fans were hungry for something new from Chow, and now he has given them exactly that with his latest film, Kung Fu Hustle.
Kung Fu Hustle is Chow’s homage to old kung fu movies, but you don’t neccessarily have to be a big kung fu nut to enjoy it. Essentially he pokes fun at the campiness of the genre, while utilizing the same cutting edge special effects and dumb slapstick humour that made Shaolin Soccer such a blast. I’m sure there are plenty of obscure inside jokes that went over my head in the film, but there are also references to mainstream Hollywood movies that just about anyone will get.
The story takes place in Shanghai in the 1930’s, with an evil crime syndicate known as The Axe Gang controlling the city. The only areas they have not yet reached are slums on the outskirts of Shanghai… places like the poor, unassuming “Pig Sty Alley”. Wanna-be gangster Sing (Stephen Chow) has always dreamed of being evil, but growing up, he was always a little too much of a wuss. When he shows up at Pig Sty Alley hoping to live out his petty crime dreams, he claims to be a part of the Axe Gang in order to intimidate the locals. But what he didn’t count on is the fact that some of the area’s occupants are actually ridiculously powerful kung fu masters in disguise. To make matters worse, the Axe Gang finds out that he is posing as a member and they are none too pleased.
Now let’s get one thing straight — you’re not going to want to see Kung Fu Hustle for the story. In fact, by the end it becomes so nonsensical that you’ll have completely turned your brain off. But that’s okay, because Kung Fu Hustle offers plenty of low brow enjoyment along the way. Which is not to say that there aren’t some clever jokes, only that the movie appeals to your basic senses more than anything else.
It has a very cartoony feel at times, including a CGI-enhanced sequence that is an obvious nod to Looney Tunes, and as a result it feels almost like a weird hybrid of live action and CGI animation… a Chinese Roger Rabbit if you will. Chow makes no effort to hide the computer effects though; if anything, he pushes them into overdrive, sometimes letting their ubiquity generate laughs. (Come on, you can’t take things like the “Lion’s Roar” attack seriously!) And yet, there are also many hard-hitting action sequences in the movie and the violence lends a darker edge to the otherwise cartoony tone. Choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping of The Matrix and Kill Bill fame is a busy man but he rarely disappoints.
The movie strikes a great balance between action and comedy, which is what makes it so unique. Much of Kung Fu Hustle is intended to make you laugh, and laugh you will… (or at the very least, smile). Its goofy sense of humour often seems to borrow from the Zucker/Zucker/Abrahams movies like Airplane and The Naked Gun. Visual gags and slapstick abound, and Chow is once again superb at playing a loveable loser. But as the movie builds to more climactic battles, the visuals also build with it, eventually reaching epic proportions.
Thankfully, Kung Fu Hustle is not distributed by Miramax like Shaolin Soccer was. It is presented by Sony Pictures Classics, who have always done foreign movies justice by keeping them intact and staying away from poor English language dubbing. Kung Fu Hustle really benefits from the well translated subtitles, making it more likely to be embraced by audiences rather than misunderstood.
The interesting thing about Chow’s infiltration of North America is that he has been able to do it on his own terms. Sure, he had to suffer a little bit of frustration at the hands of the Miramax marketing department, but in the end, he’s brought his zany flavour of comedy to foreign audiences and won them over through the merits of the movies alone. Thank god he didn’t have to star in any Hollywood buddy cop flicks to make it happen.
Generating movies with true international appeal is no easy task, but Chow’s filmmaking prowess has proven him to be more than capable. Kung Fu Hustle surpasses Shaolin Soccer in many ways and while its combination of styles may confuse some average moviegoers, it is most definitely worth your time. (Assuming you’re in the mood for a lot of ass kicking that is.) — Sean