Kung Fu Hustle
Hong Kong 2004
Directed by Stephen Chow.

The place is 1930's Shanghai, caught in the grip of the murderous Axe Gang. Sing (Stephen Chiau) and his sidekick (Lam Tze-Chung) are small time cons who try to pass as members of the all-powerful Gang in order to shake down some of the impovershed residents of run down Pig Sty Alley. But the tenants are not easily fooled, and soon their confrontation draws the attention of the real Axe Gang, setting off an ever escalating sequence of violent confrontations. Rarely pausing to let you catch your breath, KUNG FU HUSTLE is without a doubt the most exciting, action filled martial arts comedy ever made.

What is really impressive, though, is how rich the film is in all aspects; from costume and set design, to action, to humor; and all of it is deeply layered in subtext. There are many ways to approach KUNG FU HUSTLE. Martial arts fans will immediately point out the great kung fu old timers that fill so many of the strong supporting roles in this film -- first and foremost Yuen Wah, as Pig Sty Alley's landlord, and stuntwoman Yuen Qiu as his wife, but also late period Chang Cheh favorite Dong Zhi Hua ("Doughnut"), master of Hung Ga style kung fu Chiu Chi Ling ("Tailor"), and LITTLE SUPERMAN Leung Siu Lung (as "The Beast"). Some of these actors haven't appeared in a film for over 20 years. Their appearances, at Chow's request, are extraordinary and most welcome.

You could also spend time dissecting all the many homages paid to the history of Hong Kong cinema during its running time (and yes, KUNG FU HUSTLE is definitely in the homage business, not simple imitation or cheap parody). Pig Sty alley and its shouting landlady is ripped straight from the classic Shaw Brothers comedy THE HOUSE OF 72 TENANTS, the film which helped revive Cantonese as a language for films (and which is the language over which Stephen Chow has become famous for his mastery). And the ultimate kung fu style "Buddha's Palm" comes from the classic series of Cantonese films of the same name, which are of such a vintage they featured special effects drawn directly on the cells.

But really, none of these things matter, because the film works on its own. We've all seen too many films that rely on your fondness for other, better films to muddle through - this isn't one of those. KUNG FU HUSTLE works. But it takes some getting used to, the film is more complex than most comedies are expected to be.

SHAOLIN SOCCER, Stephen Chow's previous directorial effort, and until KUNG FU HUSTLE unseated it, the all time Hong Kong box office champ, succeeded beyond all expectations. It did this by taking a simple plot that we all know -- the misfit sports team, struggling with their own demons, making it to the finals. SHAOLIN SOCCER executed this simple, well known story flawlessly. By inserting Shaolin kung fu, and the idea of making kung fu a part of everyday life, and using soccer to deliver its message, SHAOLIN SOCCER was able to transcend its simple story and become something wonderful.

KUNG FU HUSTLE is different. It does not give us the simple, well known story. Though it sounds like it does, to read the synopsis I wrote in the first paragraph. Small time guy rises up to be "the one." But the moment that you might expect to be the climax of the movie occurs within the first half-hour, when some of the residents of Pig Sty Alley reveal they are stronger than they first appeared. A rousing battle follows, and you wonder what could possibly follow up what in any other movie would have been the action ending of the year.

The answer is, the violence keeps escalating. And there are real costs. KUNG FU HUSTLE is the kung fu comedy version of that poster in which the little fish is eaten by the bigger fish which is eaten by the still bigger fish, and so on. As a result of this unusual story structure, KUNG FU HUSTLE doesn't stay with most of the characters long enough for you to get to know them very well, a fact which many viewers have found frustrating. Mainly because the winners of one battle are typically the losers of the next. And the losers in KUNG FU HUSTLE do not walk away to fight another day. The movie has a lot more death and mayhem than you might expect from a comedy. And the ever-escalating violence, with ever more powerful martial artists making their appearance, begins before the opening credits, and only ends in the last scene.

The pre-credit sequence sets the tone for the film: a gangster is cruelly beating a police officer because the officer arrested his girlfriend. He beats the officer thoroughly and the other police cower. He walks out on the street, as if he owns it. And that's when the Axe gang shows up. The police shutter their doors, and the gangster suddenly finds he isn't a big potato after all. Everyone is predator, and everyone is prey.

What makes KUNG FU HUSTLE a great movie, not just a good one, is the way that it unflinchingly follows the cycle of violence. And the way, in the end, that the cycle is broken, exceeds all expectation.

Stephen Chow creates movies about humanity, his comedy funny because it is the rough and cruel comedy of the schoolyard, and it rings true. There are goofy moments here as well, some of which are not particularly amusing, some that even may make you wince because they are so lame, but Chow is to be forgiven these moments, as he has created a powerful film that delivers comedy, action, and a message of hope.

I enjoyed KUNG FU HUSTLE. What's more, I admire it. Now if Stephen Chow would only make more movies, more often, I would really be satisfied.

Rating: Highly Recommended (Highly Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on March 27, 2005.


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Posted by: Irvin at May 9, 2005 02:46 AM
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