April 25, 2005

Kung Fu Hustle

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Great Martial Arts movies from Enter the Dragon to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to even Quentin Tarantino’s tribute Kill Bill series all succeed by avoiding reality. It’s not about whether or not Bruce Lee can or can not really break through a wall (even though I think a lot of us find it quite believable), all that matters is that it looks cool. Stephen Chow accomplishes the same enjoyable ignorance of silly physical constants like gravity and such in Kung Fu Hustle, but, in addition, uses his genre’s overlook of physical reality not only to highlight stirring action scenes, but to also create great humor.

The plotline of Kung Fu Hustle is not only too divergent to explain in one review, it’s also not worth ruining since its many twists and surprises provide some of the film’s best thrills and laughs. However, all I can say is that it concerns the following: A crime syndicate of thugs called the Axe Gang who, by some coincidence use axes and is lead by a ruthless leader (Kwok Kuen Chan) who doesn’t mind breaking out into dance now and then; martial arts masters who range from “The Beast” (played by veteran Siu Lung Leung) to deadly harp players, to masters who are a little, well, light on their feet and enjoy wearing pink underwear and residents of a slum affectionately named Pig Sty Alley, which is presided over by a landlord couple that make Ralph and Alice Kramden from the Honeymooners look like prime examples of marital bliss. The landylady of this pair (Qiu Yuen) is one of the best surprises of the film. Qiu, who was actually lured out of a 30-year retirement by Stephen Chow for this film, is perfect in her role as the despotic ruler of Pig Sty Alley and almost never seen without her hair full of curlers and a cigarette loosely hanging out of her mouth.

In the center of all this craziness is Sing (Stephen Chow) an apparent looser, who, with his chubby friend (Chi Chung Lam) is trying to get into the Axe Gang. Instead of becoming rich crime lords, this Laurel and Hardy-esque duo end up unleashing all of the characters listed in the previous paragraph in what turns into a all out rumble in pre-Mao China.

The main draw to see this film is simply because nothing like it has been done before. However Kung Fu Hustle isn’t different from other films like Sin City was from other action flicks (even though Kung Fu Hustle divvies out the CGI graphics en masse). Kung Fu Hustle is different from other movies because of its genre-bending story and mood. If martial arts films have one key weakness, it’s the fact that they often take themselves a little too seriously. As a result, Kung Fu Hustle’s greatness stems from its blatant refusal to do so. Everything in Chow’s film, from the pinball-machine sound effects that ring off every time the protagonist hits someone in one fight scene to a totally out of place but hilarious tribute to The Shining, aims at destroying any preconceived notion of martial arts films.

However Kung Fu Hustle isn’t a parody of Martial Arts films, it’s more of a tribute. Chow deliberately stacks his cast with veteran and upcoming marital arts stars and the film is so filled with references to kung fu movies, its impossible to notice even half on the first viewing. The film even manages to fit in a cute love story that, for reasons almost unexplainable, doesn’t become cheesy. Not too mention, this is all boosted by Chow’s skill as a director. Don’t let all the sight gags fool you; Kung Fu Hustle is a beautifully shot film.

The most important aspect of Kung Fu Hustle’s success is simply the feeling you get watching it. Chow’s film possesses that certain unexplainable likeability which pops up in films ranging from Singin’ in the Rain to There’s Something About Mary that makes you genuinely happy for watching. It’s this factor that will keep you laughing about Kung Fu Hustle for several days after you have seen it. If anything else, you can at least be grateful that by the end of the film, you get to find out what The Buddhist Palm really is.

Archived article by Mark Rice
Sun Film Editor