Kung Fu Hustle

written and directed by Stephen Chow

starring Stephen Chow, Leung Siu Lung, Yuen Qiu, and Chiu Chi Lung

available at Oddities on Whyte


DVD review by Stephen Notley

North American movieland looks kinda barren these days, but fear not; the Asians are still making films. South Korean cinema is the surging new style, and of course those folks in Hong Kong keep cranking them out as well. New in town we have on DVD last year's Kung Fu Hustle, Stephen Chow's next at-bat after the shatteringly good Shaolin Soccer.

We start with some cops getting humiliated and the introduction of the Axe Gang, black suit-and-top-hat-wearing hatchet-wielders, a giddily cool mélange of styles from Matrix Reloaded and Gangs of New York. After some appropriately cold establishment of their badassery we are told that the Axe Gang are ascendant in 1940's Hong Kong, ruling all through terror, and only the poorest neighborhoods escape their notice. And so we proceed to one of these neighborhoods, Pig Sty Alley, wherein we meet an assortment of the oddball types with which Stephen Chow likes to pack his movies. There's the drunken but affable layabout Landlord stumbling around under the thumbnail of his screamingly tyrannical Landlady wife, and an effeminate tailor, and a friendly donut-maker, and Bucktooth Jane, and a slim fresh-faced boy who's always exposing his dimpled ass.

And then there's Stephen Chow, taking an almost subsidiary role in this film, as the cheap hustler who wanders into Pig Sty and tries to pretend he's an Axe Gangster. One thing leads to another, the real Axe Gang gets involved, suddenly it turns out there were a lot more kung fu masters in this little slum than anybody realized, and from there the rest of the movie is an escalating unveiling of ever-more astonishing kung fu mastery.

Kung Fu Hustle is no Shaolin Soccer. There's even a scene where Stephen Chow's character stomps a soccer ball flat --"No more soccer!" and makes the children cry. Shaolin Soccer, for all its exploding joy and fun and humor, is a serious film; when it goes for the heart it means it, and it never makes jokes at its own expense. With Kung Fu Hustle, that's the whole game --crazy referential gags, gigantic action sequences turned into jokes, stuff flying out in all directions. It's a much sillier movie, more along the lines of Chow's earlier films like King of Comedy and God of Cookery, with more absurd computer-assisted special effects. There are homages to and lifts from Matrix Reloaded, Spider-Man, Top Hat with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Legend of Drunken Master… the list goes on.

And of course, there's some pretty primo kung fu. There's this one guy, Iron Fist, rings around his wrists, very punchy, and there's a light, almost poetic assassination scene that unfolds into a throw-down of ridiculous craziness, and there's some old-school Toad Style stancing, and the best Buddha's Palm ever, and jammed in there is a corny little sweet romantic scene that keeps dragging tears from my betraying, sentimental eyes every time I see it.

In short, it's a Stephen Chow movie, jam-packed with crazy Chinese humor and whipsaw tone changes, a perfect example of that wonderful Chinese style of film that confidently blends comedy, action, horror and romance. In a better world Shaolin Soccer would have burst across America as a ray of golden light rather than being dribbled, pisslike, across the continent by the faithless folk at Miramax. In a better world, Stephen Chow would be revered here as he is in Hong Kong. Such was not to be. But Chow's still one of the great living filmmakers, and Kung Fu Hustle is prime Chow. Dig in.