Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Kung Fu Hustle

Posted by CinemaPsycho on April 27, 2005

Directed by Stephen Chow/written by Stephen Chow, Tsang Kan Cheong, Xin Huo, Chan Man Kung/starring Stephen Chow, Wah Yuen, Qiu Yuen, Chi Chung Lam/Sony Pictures Classics

A small-time criminal joins up with a gangster who is harassing citizens of lower-class Pig Sty Alley, only to discover the hero within.

I’ll try to put this in the least fanboyish way possible: Stephen Chow is the motherfucking bomb.

This guy is like Quentin Tarantino and Jackie Chan rolled into one freakishly talented human being. If that sounds like a facetious statement, believe me, it’s not meant that way. He’s the next great martial-arts star and the next great auteur filmmaker.

Shaolin Soccer, Chow’s insanely cool and incredibly enjoyable last film, was the first of his to be released in the United States. Unfortunately, it was released by Miramax, who kept it on the shelf forever, then barely gave it a theatrical release before shuffling it off to DVD. The movie deserved a lot better. The lucky few who’ve bothered to see it understand what I’m talking about.

Thankfully, Kung Fu Hustle is being released by Sony Pictures Classics, mere months after its Chinese run began. It’s playing nationwide. You can go see it, right now, at a theater near you. In other words, time to get on the bandwagon now. Don’t wait to discover this on DVD or cable and smack yourself on the head wondering why you didn’t see it on the big screen. This is too much fun to miss out on.

The pleasures of this movie are so great that I really don’t want to spoil them for you by detailing too much of the story. It’s ostensibly about Sing (Chow), a down-on-his-luck small-time hustler who gets along by scamming people into thinking he’s one of the notorious Axe Gang. They’re the big-time crime syndicate who are feared by most of the populace, and for good reason. When Sing attempts to ply his trade to get free stuff in Pig Sty Alley, the local run-down slum, it attracts the attention of the real Axe Gang members, who try to shake down the residents. Let’s just say that the struggling shopkeepers and landlords of Pig Sty Alley are not quite what they seem.

What Kung Fu Hustle is really about, of course, is Chow paying tribute to the martial-arts heroes of his youth, as well as creating a gleefully eccentric kung-fu slapstick comedy. It’s an inspired combination of classic influences, from old “chop-socky” Hong Kong flicks to Road Runner cartoons to early Hollywood screwball comedies. Chow fuses together elements from these disparate sources to create an anarchic hybrid that somehow feels uniquely his own. There are references here to a lot of other movies, but Kung Fu Hustle doesn’t feel like any other movie. Chow didn’t invent the martial-arts comedy any more than Tarantino invented the gangster film, but his loony, off-the-wall sensibilities aren’t quite like any others I can think of.

The cast is full of Hong Kong martial-arts legends of decades past, now much older but still able to deliver on the action scenes. I wish I were knowledgeable enough to be able to cite these actors’ credits chapter and verse, but I’m not. The important thing is that Chow is. He knows how to use these actors to their full potential, enabling them to give great comic performances as well as awesome, kick-ass fight scenes. There are some real (re)discoveries here, particularly Qiu Yuen as the astoundingly grouchy landlady who will become an instant audience favorite. Even if you don’t know who these actors are (and for the most part, I don’t), they’re incredibly enjoyable to watch. If you never thought you would have fun watching old people engage in combat with each other, well, you really need to see this movie. They’re amazing.

Not that the younger actors don’t acquit themselves well. Chow has a great eye for interesting and unique faces, something that is sorely missed in Hollywood these days when every movie seems to have been cast by a modeling agency. I especially liked Chi Chang Lam, who manages to give a certain dignity to the role of “fat sidekick”. Even the tiniest supporting roles seem to be filled in with people who look like they could actually exist in real life.

And yet there’s a certain air of unreality to the whole movie. It often feels like the events are taking place in “movie world”, where literally anything can happen and nothing has to make any sort of logical sense. There are no rules. Normally I hate that kind of thing, because it often seems like if anything can happen, then nothing that happens really matters. In movies like this, however, that’s just part of the fun. You go with it, and enjoy every minute of it. It may be a live-action cartoon, but it’s a great one.

You’ll know pretty early on whether this film is your type of entertainment, when the dancing Axe Gang leader is introduced. It’s not a full-blown musical number (although that would have fit right in), but it’s one of those things you either respond to or you don’t. Like the musical cues on the soundtrack (which sound to me like they came from old ‘60’s spy movies, but I’m probably wrong about that), you don’t necessarily have to get why it’s cool and funny. You just have to get that it is.

That’s just the kind of movie Kung Fu Hustle is. If you want gritty realism, look elsewhere. It’s not deep stuff, and it doesn’t need to be. This is a “movie movie”, made by someone who’s absolutely drunk on cinema and loves to pass it around. This is a major step forward from a great talent who we’re going to be hearing from a lot in the future. That’s not something I say about every actor/writer/director who comes down the pike. I can’t wait for some video company to get wise and pick up the U.S. rights to Chow’s previous films, so we can all catch up. And I hope that success with American audiences won’t spoil his work the way it has with so many other Asian talents. I hope he keeps making his films in Hong Kong, and doing them his way. The guy’s just too good to get watered down.

I only have one question – wouldn’t that lollipop be kinda nasty by now? (I know, this doesn’t make any sense to you now. Just see the movie.)

**** 4/27/05

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