Kung Fu Hustle (Gong fu)
Director : Stephen Chow
Screenplay : Stephen Chow, Tsang Kan Cheong, Xin Huo, Chan Man Keung
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2004 (Hong Kong) / 2005 (U.S.)
Stars : Stephen Chow (Sing), Wah Yuen (Landlord), Qiu Yuen (Landlady), Kwok Kuen Chan (Brother Sum), Siu Lung Leung (The Beast), Dong Zhi Hua (Donut), Chiu Chi Ling (Tailor), Xing Yu (Coolie), Chi Chung Lam (Sing's Sidekick), Kai Man Tin (Axe Gang Advisor)
Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle (Gong fu) is a maniacally comical blitzkrieg of slapstick humor, movie parody, musical numbers, and chop-socky action. Not all of it works as well as it probably should, although there is likely a cultural divide that renders some of the humor less effective outside of its native Hong Kong context. However, if there's an Asian filmmaker who can bridge East-West cultural divides on a mass level, it's Chow, since his devotion to Bruce Lee is matched only by his passion for Hollywood genre films (movies quoted in Kung Fu Hustle include Stanley Kubrick's The Shining and Brian De Palma's The Untouchables).
Kung Fu Hustle takes place in a funky cinematic netherworld, which is ostensibly Shanghai in the 1940s. In the neon-branded city, a vicious band of tuxedoed, axe-wielding dandy mobsters known as the Axe Gang rules the streets, and the only parts of the city they leave alone are the ones that are too poor to bother extorting. One such area is a large tenement on the outskirts of town known as Pig Sty Alley, which is ruled by a despotic force of its own, a ruthless, cigarette-chomping Landlady (Qiu Yuen) and her comically salacious husband (Wah Yuen).
The worlds of Pig Sty Alley and the Axe Gang are brought together by a smarmy, no-good, would-be con artist named Sing (Stephen Chow), who tries to pass himself off as an Axe Gang member in order to extort money from a barber. He desperately wants to be part of the gang, not because he actually has the chops, but because he doesn't fit in anywhere else. As both director and star, Chow doesn't scrimp on the greasy qualities of his character, although he invests Sing with a comical desperateness that signals to the audience that he will be redeemed in the end, so even his worst actions (which includes stealing from a pretty mute girl whom he once tried to protect as a child) are just fillers until he learns to be a better man.
Cinematographer Hang-San Poon (A Chinese Ghost Story) gives the film the look of a cartoon come to life, which is enhanced by the goofy inflection of the plasticy CGI effects and Chow's generally manic treatment of the genre material. Kung Fu Hustle is a comedy through and through, although some American audiences may find that the violence steps over the boundary between the humorous and the unsettling (this is even after the American distributor trimmed the gore from several shots). Hong Kong action films are notoriously violent, although the native audiences tend to have a different understanding of its implications. The violence in Kung Fu Hustle is consistently of the Tex Avery sort -- with people falling from great heights and smashing flat on the ground, only to get up later, or one character having his head literally punched into the ground. However, blood often flows (and flies), characters register pain, and they sometimes die in notably ghastly ways.
This is not meant as a criticism, since Chow is exceedingly nimble in negotiating the various registers of the violence he portrays. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's disheartening, and sometimes it's exhilarating. Part of Chow's artistry is the way he works the material to his own ends, never allowing it to sink completely into one tone or another, which keeps the film from becoming as tiresome as it probably should be. Thus, although Kung Fu Hustle appears to be little more the adrenaline-soaked, hyperkinetic ramblings of an ADD kung fu addict, there is a lot more going on under the surface. Chow's triumph (and near downfall) is that he makes it look almost too easy.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2005 Columbia Tri-Star