p>Kung Fu Hustle is a movie in the spirit of early Mel Brooks or Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker comedies, a knockabout genre parody that throws in gags faster than the audience can catch them. As perceptive readers will guess, it’s essentially a send-up of kung fu movies — a dicey proposition, as they themselves often verge on self-parody — but it wisely casts its net wider, into both Hong Kong and American styles and genre conventions, throwing in allusions to John Woo-style action movies, westerns, horror movies, comic-book superheroes, romantic weepers, and MGM musicals. What makes it superior to all but the best genre parodies, and in an entirely different class from such recent toilet-humor extravaganzas as the Scary Movie series or Not Another Teen Movie, is that it keeps the gags coming without letting them take over: Too often, the parodist’s approach is simply to throw in everything he can think of, whether it fits or not, and scene after scene is thrown off course by a misplaced and unfunny non sequitur. Kung Fu Hustle integrates the jokes into the story, so that even when they don’t work (which is rarely), they’re still of a piece with the rest of the film; they don’t distract you.
The story is set in the 1940s, in an impoverished neighborhood called Pig Sty Alley, one of the few areas of Hong Kong poor enough to escape the control of the black-suited Axe Gang. Instead, the alley is run by a married couple, identified in the unusually literate subtitles only as Landlord (Wah Yuen) and Landlady (Qiu Yuen). Landlord appears to be a sniveling weakling, mocked or ignored by his tenants and harried by his domineering wife. Qiu’s Landlady is a brilliant comic character, an archetype that feels rich and new. With a perpetual squint and a lit cigarette that never leaves the corner of her mouth, even when she kisses her husband, she struts peevishly around the alley, wearing flip-flops that double as weapons, abusing and intimidating her tenants with grim enthusiasm.
When two hapless petty criminals, Sing (director/co-writer Stephen Chow) and his sidekick (Chi Chung Lam) come to the alley and try to intimidate its residents by pretending to be gangsters, they unwittingly attract the attention of the actual Axe Gang and ignite a battle. It turns out that the tailor (Chiu Chi Ling), the noodle-shop owner (Dong Zhi Hua), and the coolie (Xing Yu) are secretly kung fu masters. Their successful defense of their poor neighbors embarrasses the Axe Gang, and assassins are sent to deal with them.
This leads to hilariously over-the-top computer-generated battles and an escalating series of confrontations between ever more powerful combatants. The CGI, while not up to the standards of the priciest American action films, is an improvement over Chow’s last movie, Shaolin Soccer, and is as convincing as it needs to be, given that it’s used in part to achieve cartoon effects — when Landlady chases Sing, their legs are oval blurs, just like the Road Runner — and partly in mockery of American action films, as in a scene that hilariously parodies the “Burly Brawl” from The Matrix: Reloaded.
The story is laced with inspired bits of lunacy that mock tradition and add rich comic texture. There’s a homely prostitute named Bucktooth Jane who’s a witty travesty of the glamorous courtesans and concubines of more traditional Chinese films, and the heroic tailor is flamingly gay — Landlady taunts him, “You may know kung fu … but you’re still a fairy!” There’s a young man known only as “Handsome” with a giant lollipop head atop a scrawny frame (he was the singer at the bun shop in Shaolin Soccer), who wears his pants just below his buttocks and is a special target of Landlady’s abuse. After she interrupts his morning ablutions at the alley’s outdoor water pump, he spends the rest of the movie with soap suds in his hair.
Taken hostage by the Axe Gang, Sing wins an opportunity to join up when they discover that he does have one useful skill—he’s an expert lock-pick. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much going on upstairs, so he keeps getting himself beaten up, and when he’s reunited with a girl who’s loved him since childhood he doesn’t even recognize her. It might have been best to leave it at that; the romantic subplot is perfunctory, and each time it pops up, the movie grinds to a halt. It seems to function like the romantic subplots of Marx Brothers movies — as a sop to those who aren’t interested in the comedy or action — but if you’re not interested in the elements the movie is about, why see it?
The romance has some sweetness, though, and it’s deployed only rarely. Most of the screen time is occupied by action scenes that cause so much property damage they make ordinary fight sequences look as destructive as setting down a drink without a coaster. The film’s climax — per genre convention — is our hero’s mastery of a martial-arts technique believed to have been lost, the Buddhist Palm, which is so powerful it leaves hundred-foot, hand-shaped holes in surrounding buildings.
Kung Fu Hustle’s writer/director/star, Stephen Chow, has acted in over 50 movies and had a hand in writing and directing seven. He’s Hong Kong’s biggest comedy star, the originator of the Mo Lei Tau (nonsense) comedy style, but he isn’t yet widely known in the West. This could be the movie that changes that. Kung Fu Hustle has already become the biggest homegrown hit ever in Hong Kong and has set box-office records in Japan and South Korea. Miramax bought Chow’s last film, Shaolin Soccer, in 2001 and gave it a red-headed stepchild’s release in the U.S. last year, after they’d held it for three years (as they did Hero), cut out big chunks of plot, and added crudely translated subtitles. Kung Fu Hustle has been given much more respectful treatment by Sony Pictures Classics, which seems to be willing to promote it sufficiently for it to reach the audience it deserves. I certainly hope it will. It may be premature, as we’re only four months into 2005, but I’m going to go out on a limb and call Kung Fu Hustle the funniest movie of the year.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()