To call Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle silly and/or ridiculous is to miss the whole point. The film’s not only supposed to be silly and ridiculous, it revels in the fact that it is — and it provides the most sheer fun you’re likely to find at the movies these days.
The 41-year-old Chow has been a star in Hong Kong cinema for some time, but it wasn’t until Shaolin Soccer — a movie spectacularly mishandled in the United States by Miramax — that he made a name for himself on the international scene. With Kung Fu Hustle, which is being handled with respect and decent promotion by Sony Classics, he ought to make a pretty big splash with American audiences. That’s assuming they can get past their aversion to subtitles and just go with Chow’s outrageous absurdities.
Personally, I find it hard to imagine the film fan who can’t get into the sublime silliness of Kung Fu Hustle. The pure love that Chow has for the medium of film is infectious, as is his cornucopia of deliberate quotations from other movies. How can you not love a filmmaker who includes nods to D.W. Griffith, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Mark Sandrich, Sergio Leone, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Stanley Kubrick and Chuck Jones within the confines of a single film?
I know I find it impossible not to be delighted and even a little awed by the range of Chow’s frame of reference and the way he works all this into one film without seeming to graft it on. Everything seems perfectly in keeping with this living Looney Tunes approach to a martial-arts film.
The film opens with a terrific sequence that climaxes with the Axe Gang (improbably festooned in black coats and top hats) taking out the leader of the Crocodile Gang and thereby taking over a whole city. The scene borrows elements from Sergio Leone westerns, but takes its major thrust from the opening battle in Gangs of New York. With this opening, it’s established that the only thing the Axe Gang doesn’t control is the slum known as Pig Sty Alley (the name is taken from the world’s first gangster movie, D.W. Griffith’s 1912 The Musketeers of Pig Alley).
Pig Sty Alley is well-named. It’s a collection of impoverished misfits lorded over by the outrageous chain-smoking harridan known only as Landlady (Qiu Yuen). Into this little corner of the world come two would-be gangsters, Sing (Stephen Chow) and his sidekick named Sidekick (Chu Chung Lam, Shaolin Soccer). “Dimwitted” hardly begins to describe this pair. Sing is convinced he’s a martial-arts expert and a bad ass, but everything he learned he got from a two-cent pamphlet he paid 10 bucks for. His badness is about on par with his answer to the question of whether he’s ever killed anyone: “I’ve thought about it.”
Nonetheless, Sing accidentally gets the slum in trouble with the Axe Gang, whereupon people in the neighborhood start revealing talents no one would ever have imagined. Plot-wise, this is all leading to even more “startling” revelations — some of which are quite charming, but all of which are mostly there to get the film from one amazing set-piece and movie reference to the next.
As with the best of modern martial-arts movies, the fights — and the structure of the film — resemble nothing so much as an old Hollywood musical. This element is deliberately evoked in a scene that takes place in front of a huge poster for Mark Sandrich’s Astaire-Rogers classic, Top Hat. There’s even one small production number with the Axe Gang (a kind of nod to Kill Bill, actually), but all of the fights are so balletic and so heavily set to music that it might as well be a full-blown musical film.
The overall style of the movie is not unlike one of Chuck Jones’ “Roadrunner” cartoons (one sequence is deliberately in this mode), and that might be the best way to look at the film overall.
Yet, that observation somehow sells the film short, because Kung Fu Hustle is really much more than that. The more cinematically encyclopedic among us will catalogue the movie’s raft of film quotations (my personal favorite is a gag based on the most dynamic image from Kubrick’s The Shining). For others, it will be the outrageous comedy that sells the film. Still, there will be some who get into it for the martial arts.
This really is a film with something for just about everyone, but it’s one that will lead to the same utterly romantic and completely captivating ending, which has the kind of kick one finds at the end of Chaplin’s City Lights and its modern-day counterpart, Woody Allen’s Manhattan. And it’s very telling that the frequently manic Chow chose to end his outlandish adventure this way. For all his cleverness and flights of fantasticated fancy, the director proves himself an unabashedly romantic filmmaker, and there aren’t nearly enough of those around these days. Rated R for sequences of strong stylized action and violence.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke