Title: Kung Fu Hustle
Year: 2004
Genre: Action, Comedy, Crime
Play time: 
Director: Stephen Chow
Screenwriters: Stephen Chow, Kan-Cheung Tsang
Starring: Stephen Chow, Wah Yuen, Qiu Yuen

Maybe the most surprising thing about , Stephen Chow’s latest bit of martial arts silliness, is its willingness to reference American pop culture. It is almost startling, in an arrogant and oblivious way, to see a subtitled film, a foreign film, allude to something as emphatically domestic as Spider-Man or The Matrix, as if we would ordinarily expect international cinema to be too haughty to even acknowledge the existence of those icons. I’ll leave it to you to find them — the Spidey nod is bloody brilliant, it is — but their presence should give you an idea of the kind of venture this is: anarchic, gleeful, uninhibited, non-chalant. Those who have seen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer should further know what to expect.

What Chow does here, essentially, is take the Jackie Chan formula up several dozen notches. Chan’s tendency to engage in slapstick comedy in between fight scenes, usually involving improbable chase scenes and being hit by heavy objects, is exaggerated, with the slapstick suddenly becoming brutal — someone being repeatedly stuck with large knives is played for laughs, pretty much successfully. And Chan’s brand elaborately orchestrated, consistently impressive stuntwork is, of course, maxed out, as Chow employs legions of CGI technicians to send people flying, often literally.

Kung Fu Hustle, with its feverishly pitched story of a war between the landlords of the slums and the gangs of the rich parts of town, will win over most viewers with its novelty and exuberance. Those already familiar with what Chow does may find that the movie overstays its welcome, and that its antics grow thin when one realizes that the plot developments, such as they are, are almost entirely arbitrary. There is only so much hokey martial arts slapstick you can take before crying uncle.

That being said, it is difficult to deny that Kung Fu Hustle, despite its hyper-aggressive absurdity, manages to retain some mettle as a martial arts flick on top of everything else. Even when the fight scenes break all boundaries of cinematic decorum, they still remain, somehow, fight scenes, with some vague set of rules, and some consequences, however nebulous, to being punched, or kicked, or thrown against a wall. That the elaborate final showdown (or set of showdowns, more like) remains remotely suspenseful, with its outcome having some weight, is a fairly remarkable accomplishment.

Perversely, part of me wished that Chow had the guts to stick with the musical leanings of the staggeringly brilliant opening sequence — the movie has a terrific soundtrack, and elaborate dance sequences are just the tiniest step away from what Chow is already doing. It simply has to be the next logical step — there is no way that he can continue doing what he is doing and hold on to the miraculous amount of arthouse and festival cred that he has attained in this country. He undeniably has a talent for entertainingly ludicrous martial arts theatrics, but he is in need of some diversification.

For now, though, his movie is a hoot, with a hilarious pair of Landlord and Landlady kung fu masters, some hilarious bits about the Axe Gang that rules the streets, and a running gag about a far too expensive Buddhist Palm Manual. There is also a spectacular sequence involving what I think is a knife-throwing harp that is so viscerally effective that I would swear it came from a different movie. Here and in other places, Chow has an occasional flair for genuinely surprising images — watch what happens when one of the heroes is forced to infiltrate an insane asylum and free a prisoner from the last cell.

I’d encourage those who haven’t seen Shaolin Soccer to give Kung Fu Hustle a shot. Martial arts fans will get a kick out of it for what it is, while others might get a good laugh, or even enjoy some of the surreal imagery that Chow throws on the screen. But in the end what Chow has here is a good gag, not, as he seems to think, a genre.


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