Hong Kong actor/filmmaker Stephen Chow would probably have become a household name in America if Miramax didn’t f**k up the U.S. theatrical release of his 2001 blockbuster Shaolin Soccer. Chow is getting a second chance at American crossover success with his new adventure, the brilliantly absurd “Kung Fu Hustle,” it is impossible not to imagine people sitting up to notice this one.
“Kung Fu Hustle” is something you rarely encounter in theaters: a genuinely original comedy. Although designed to lampoon the excesses of the martial arts movie, the film is so rich with inventive sight gags and so deep in the scope of its action sequences that it goes far beyond the restrictive limits of mere parody. Literally, I’ve never seen anything quite like this one before, and giving too much detail will ruin the bottomless pit of surprises which Chow has in store.
“Kung Fu Hustle” takes place in Shanghai before the 1949 revolution (the film deftly avoids anything even vaguely political). The city is run by the notorious Axe Gang, an oversized mob of young men dressed in morning suits and top hats who swing axes to instill fear. More often than not, the axes wind up being planted in various skulls and between the shoulder blades of those who don’t kowtow to the Axe Gang’s reign. The only part of the city which the gang has no interest in controlling is Pig Sty Alley, a ramshackle neighborhood of poor but seemingly happy folk. Pig Sty Alley is run by the Landlord and his Landlady, an older married pair who seem to be in a constant state of sparring. And by sparring I mean genuine knock-down fights, often with the Landlord being socked out the window by his angry wife, who flies into a rage when she discovers her mate has been flirting with the lady neighbors.
Chow and the porcine Lam Tze Chung play a pair of would-be extortionists who try to shake down the seemingly docile denizens of Pig Sty Alley. Their attempts at intimidation fail miserably, especially when elderly women can land stomach punches which cause them to spit up blood. The dim duo accidentally bring the Axe Gang into the fray when a stray firecracker lands on the hat of the gang’s leader. But when the Axe Gang attempts to take control of Pig Sty Alley, they discover the lowly residents are more than capable of not only maintaining a degree of self-defense, but can also launch a high-octane offensive assault.
And that, good friends, is the end of the plot summary. I will not give any additional details where the story goes because that would wreck the unpredictable treats which “Kung Fu Hustle” dishes out. It is literally impossible to predict how this film will run its course.
What can be stated, however, is the amazing manner in which Chow has framed his movie. “Kung Fu Hustle” is pure and undiluted kinetic energy, to the point that the film is almost cartoonish. In fact, there seems to be a strong cartoon influence here, especially in a Road Runner-worthy chase where the legs become a circular blur. In the course of the film, people crash through walls and floors, fall out of windows, get banged about the head, and even have their hair set on fire – yet in the next scene, they’re back, ready for more mayhem. Chow even winds up being shot into the sky, passing a flock of eagles and reaching the higher celestial plateau where the Buddha is in residence! The film uses CGI effects to such extreme surreal impact that one can finally appreciate that a filmmaker exists who knows how to use CGI to enhance the style of the film instead of over-using the effects to hide a lack of substance.
But the best special effect here is one of the greatest performances to come along in recent movies: Yuen Qiu as the Landlady. With her hair wrapped in curlers and a cigarette dangling off her sneering lips, she is a wonderfully atrocious sight. And when her temper turns volatile, she packs more power than Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson combined. The actress was a former Hong Kong glamour gal and a one-time 007 diversion (“The Man With the Golden Gun”) who was not only lured back to acting after more than two decades of retirement, but who also willingly packed on 30 pounds to her still-svelte frame. Chow wisely cedes much of the film to her performance and she responds to the challenge with a stunning tour-de-force of visceral comedy.
“Kung Fu Hustle” is a complete triumph. Truly, films like this can help jaded movie addicts earn a new level of respect for motion pictures.