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Sony Pictures Classics

Official Site

Director: Stephen Chow

Producers: Po Chu Chui, Jeffrey Lau, Stephen Chow

Written by: Tsang Kan Cheong, Xin Huo, Chan Man Keung, Stephen Chow

Cast: Stephen Chow, Yuen Qiu, Wah Yuen, Siu Lung Leung, Kwok Kuen Chan


In the wire-assisted wake of 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon the foreign martial arts film has evolved, in American eyes, at least, from cult delicacy and the inspiration for Wu-Tang Clan album titles to art-house meditations on love, loss, and the emotional power of monochromatic color schemes. While Crouching Tiger proved trendsetting and genuinely magnificent, 2002’s Hero (exported to America, at last, in 2004), though sumptuously photographed and grandiose in scale, tasted stale, and 2004’s House Of Flying Daggers was insufferably redundant, at best. All three films are thematically linked by tragedy and utilize the determined and flawless beauty of actress Ziyi Zhang. These movies took themselves dreadfully seriously and ruminated repetitiously on maudlin and spoon-fed romance, heaping insincere importance upon their now-chic audiences unwilling to sit through action for action’s sake. Enter Kung Fu Hustle, a refreshing film altogether unconcerned with cogitating on life’s greater sentiments, and made for the sole purpose of allowing director Stephen Chow to play a martial arts master like his boyhood hero, Bruce Lee.

In pre-revolutionary China gangs rule the streets, and none is more feared than the Axe Gang. They carry axes, and also like to dance after hacking rival ganglords to pieces and shotgunning ladies in the back. Only the impoverished and insignificant are safe from the lunatic wrath of Brother Sum (Chan) and his Axe Gang. Following a failed bamboozling by smalltime hood Sing (Chow) on the Pig Sty tenement, the Axe Gang intervenes only to be ravaged by retired martial arts masters (Hua, Ling, Yu, Qui, and Yuen) who reside in the slum community. In textbook cause-and-effect fashion, Brother Sum responds to his gang’s embarrassing rout by sending two expert killers (Xi and On) to assassinate the tenement’s guardians culminating in cartoonish beheadings and the unleashing of obligatory spectral knives. Meanwhile, Sing the unsuccessful crook embarks on a quest to discover his personal significance while struggling to master the potent Buddhist Fist technique, bequeathed to him in his youth by a filthy street-side sensei. The storylines ultimately intertwine when the world’s foremost killer, The Beast (Leung), the stringy-haired, balding master of the widow-making Frog style, is wantonly unleashed upon China.

Kung Fu Hustle prevails precisely because it is so crass, so dunderheaded, and so unapologetically sophomoric (while being punctuated with delightful moments of icy, remorseless violence) that it’s impossible not to hedonistically gulp it all down. Chow’s decision to plant the film with a stuffed minefield’s-worth of jokes draw more comparisons to the slapstick/screwball comedies of the 1930s, such as Howard HawksBringing Up Baby, than Ang Lee or Yimou Zhang’s recent martial arts spectacles. This reviewer is even (terrifyingly) reminded of the early Jackie Chan film Fantasy Mission Force in terms of Kung Fu Hustle’s liberal and welcome dearth of logic. Never before have I absorbed a picture in which the main character is gang-urinated on as a child, simultaneously bit on the lips by a duo of cobras, and involved in a Looney Tunes-esque chase sequence, complete with revolving legs and long trails of dust—in a span of 10 minutes, nonetheless. And amidst the chaos of so much kung fu and so, so much hustling, Chow and his co-writers and actors manage to populate their madcap world with characters that are likable and accessible beyond reason, most notably the incognito residents of the Pig Sty tenement. A surprising amount of heart even beats through the insanity, as the theme of unprejudiced friendship and the Mickey Rooney-old message of not judging a book by its cover are deftly enforced. And I may be going all soft as I age and all gooey as a result of my perpetual seclusion, but I found the relationship between Sing and his mute candy cart sweetheart (Yi)—backed by a mere three minutes of exposition—to be more affecting than the nearly interminable 111-minute whole of House Of Flying Daggers. Not only is that a testament to my loosening grasp on humanity in general, but also to Chow and company’s skill in establishing and sustaining a pleasant and wholly unpretentious moviegoing experience.

And though it is pleasant, pleasant beyond adequate praise, in fact, Kung Fu Hustle by nature never transcends mindless fun. Nor should it have to. In spite of several glaring instances of 1991-quality CGI, as the film relies upon computer imagery to an almost alarming degree, Kung Fu Hustle is a satisfying and utterly charming work of comic escapism, a much-needed dose of martial arts counter-programming, weaknesses included.

—Nathan Baran

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