Glee Club

Salt Lake City Weekly | April 6, 2005
Because outrageous generalizations are fun: Stephen Chow adores cinema more than you, me and God put together. And: No movie you will see this year will exude as much unadulterated movie-love as Kung Fu Hustle.

You probably don’t need to be a hard-core film geek to find Kung Fu Hustle ridiculously entertaining. After all, it combines the physics-defying, wire-assisted martial arts that allowed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to cross over to mainstream success with a simple, broadly physical sense of humor. Ass-kicking and cartoon violence--c’mon, America, what’s not to love?

But where action and low-brow comedy generally get stuck to your shoe just walking out of a multiplex, something particularly delightful happens when Stephen Chow gets hold of them. His previous film, Shaolin Soccer, was a lively enough test run that showed his willingness to use everything from chicks in fake mustaches to Bollywood-style production numbers in a quest to please his audience. But Kung Fu Hustle takes that filmmaking joy to another level entirely. As a chop-socky comedy, it’s pretty cool; as Chow’s mash note to filmed entertainment in all its forms, it’s even cooler.

Here’s your little bit o’ spaghetti western: There’s gonna be a showdown in the 1940s Shanghai neighborhood called Pig Sty Alley. A ne’er-do-well petty thug named Sing (played by director Chow) has made the mistake of pretending to be a member of the nefarious Axe Gang, and the real gang is going to take it out on the Pig Sty residents. Curiously, however, many of those residents--including the shrewish landlady (Qiu Yuen) and her husband (Wah Yuen)--appear to be masters of unique forms of kung fu, leading to ever-escalating warfare.

Here’s your little bit o’ Charlie Chaplin: Sing’s me-first ethos was born of a childhood trauma where he tried to protect a blind girl from bullies, only to be beaten down for his act of kindness. When he encounters the girl again as an adult street vendor, it could mark a turning point for Sing back to a concern for the greater good.

There are plenty more nods of respect along the way. As in Shaolin, there’s an out-of-nowhere dance number, this time involving nattily attired gangsters. Chase scenes become extended homages to vintage Looney Tunes escapades, with people racing along on churning Road Runner legs and slamming into billboards. A dying character gasps out quotes from both Spider-Man and The Untouchables with his last breath. And though you probably think you’ve seen enough goofs on The Matrix trilogy to last you until the machines actually do take over, you haven’t seen anything quite as extraordinary as this variation--which, oh by the way, was choreographed by Matrix master Yuen Wo-ping.

Don’t let all the movie-movie touchstones distract you from what a dazzling piece of pure filmmaking Kung Fu Hustle is, though. The fight sequences alone should be enough to keep any viewer happy, ranging from the 50-on-one battles of classic Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan-style goofiness to wildly over-the-top smackdowns between superhuman combatants. But there are also scenes of physical comedy timed with Chaplin/Keaton perfection, and a sequence in which an assassin’s attack is rendered hilariously through images of his targets’ shadows. Even the production design of Pig Sty Alley itself--a multi-level set almost more theatrical than cinematic--offers giddy pleasure. Scarcely a moment goes by without Chow’s imagination exploding in controlled bursts onto the screen.

If Chow had done nothing more than strut his visual pyrotechnics, Kung Fu Hustle might still have been an E-ticket ride. Yet because he also has that little bit o’ Chaplin in him, there’s also enough warmth in Sing’s redemption story to make the story feel human. It’s no easy task making a story feel human when characters are being pounded into the ground by palm-shaped pillars of pure force.

For some, the relentlessness of Chow’s vision might feel overwhelming--a superhero action film heavily seasoned with a hundred other genres. And it may feel like he’s pushing too hard for his guffaws, as when he makes one kung fu master so flamingly gay that he sets off nearby smoke detectors. Yet it’s hard to hold anything against him when his gags are as hilarious as his stunts are inventive. The glee that pours out of Kung Fu Hustle makes it easy to love Stephen Chow almost as much as he loves movies.

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