As any observant Transbuddha reader will know, I’m a huge fan of Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer, so my anticipation for his new (to the U.S. at least) Kung Fu Hustle was nearly sky high. With high hopes and giddy excitment, I hit the advance screening hoping, wishing, expecting to be blown completely away.
Guess what? I was. So take a minute to head over to RazorFine Review to check out my full review, along with reviews of Fever Pitch, The Upside of Anger, and Sahara by myself and The Scarlet Harlot. Extra bonus with some interview action Scarlet got with Sahara star Matthew McConaughy.
|Seriously, go see this movie.|
Writer/Director/Star Stephen Chow may be one of the most famous entertainers you’ve never heard of. His films are blockbusters in China and Asia in general, and his previous effort (Shaolin Soccer) broke every box office record in Hong Kong. Miramax picked up Shaolin Soccer and then sat it on a shelf for two years, only to release a dubbed and re cut version into a staggering 6 theaters. Word of mouth and region-free DVD’s created a cult following here in America, and Miramax finally did the right thing and released an uncut, subtitled version on DVD. His newest film, Kung Fu Hustle, blew past Shaolin Soccer’s box office take, and managed to sweep the Hong Kong version of the Oscars.
Kung Fu Hustle tells a story of the epic battle between the residents of Pig Sty Alley, home of the poorest of the poor, and the notorious Axe Gang, a vicious band of thugs who’ve taken over the local gang scene. Doing triple-duty again, the ever charming Stephen Chow plays Sing, a wannabe gangster who (in his ill-conceived attempt to run protection racket in Pig Sty Alley by posing as a member of the Axe Gang), inadvertently brings the attention of the real gang to the not-so-helpless denizens of the slum. This forces three disguised Kung Fu masters to fight off the gang, and all hell breaks loose as the three seemingly harmless men just decimate the gang. Unwilling to accept a beating, the leader of the Axe Gang recruits his own kung fu masters to take revenge which of course escalates into a miniature war of superhuman proportions.
While that may read as your run-of-the-mill chop-sockey plot of conflict and revenge, Kung Fu Hustle stands apart with it’s deft balance of humor, plot, and jawdroppingly amazing action. It’s a testament to his filmmaking prowess that the jokes in Stephen Chow’s films manage to get through the translation to subtitles. It’s funny where it’s supposed to be funny for non-native speakers, and that’s a rare treat in most foreign films. Sure he’s not averse to the occasional sophomoric or low-brow sight gag, but mostly the humor comes from the seemingly incongruent actions of his characters and his exceptional eye for casting. There’s more than a few laugh-out-loud moments in the film, and I found myself grinning for most of the 95 minute running time. So much so that my jaw actually hurt as I was leaving the theater, and for once that wasn’t due to Milk Dud consumption.
While most action film plots are threadbare things just there to propel you from one fight sequence to the next, Kung Fu Hustle inserts some serious thought about personal responsibility and the consequences of our actions (which results in a couple of subtle Spider-Man references, no less), without resorting to treacle or preaching. Chow’s action films all share a common message about the underlying meaning of Kung Fu and how it should be used to better our lives, not end others, and that message makes it’s expected (but not obvious) appearance.
While the characters at first seem like crude stereotypes, they’re endearing enough to make you care about their fates and mourn for their losses. Super high marks must be given to Wah Yuen (the Landlord) Qiu Yuen (the Landlady), and Siu Lung Leung (the Beast), as these three grandparent age actors were simply a joy to watch onscreen. Not only accomplished fighters, their interactions were among the highlights of the film. A pre-battle conversation between them was at once both charming and forbidding as each (in their outlandish costuming and graying hair) managed to convey a perfectly realized sense of barely contained power and vitality. Delusional hobo-clad Leung especially managed to deliver a performance that was funny and brimming with gleeful malice. And as always, Stephen Chow put his odd looking cast to the best possible use.
Stephen Chow is a self-confessed Bruce Lee fanatic and it shows in every gesture and expression on his face. He’s a perfect heir to Lee’s charm and magnetism, and Sing’s eventual spiritual transformation neatly captures Lee’s trademark power and grace. He manages to sneak a not-so-subtle dig at Keanu Reeves’ Neo that only underscores why the Matrix films ultimately failed to connect. A hero shouldn’t exist just to fight, and Chow knows that.
But the fights! Oh, the fighting! Sweet, beautiful Kung Fu madness leaps from nearly every frame of this movie. This the world of wire-fu, and the blissful disobedience of the laws of physics is ratcheted up a notch with each successive fight. Bodies fly through the air, everyday objects become weapons of mass destruction, and it’s an even race for what’s more in danger of being destroyed; the fighters or the world around them. While the fantastic elements of these battles remove some of their visceral impact, these fights get downright brutal. (Though for all its violence, Kung Fu Hustle remains a fairly blood & gore free movie.) Characters are literally pounded into the ground if they’re not being flung into the air like rag dolls. Famed fight choreographers Yuen Woo-Ping and Sammo Hung once again prove their worth as the architects of this ballet of violence. Chow seems to be enjoying his bigger budgets with more refined and seamless CGI effects, which put the Matrix sequels to shame. Unlike the almost masturbatory slow-motion shots seemingly designed to make stars look cool, Kung Fu Hustle knows that speed wins in the end, and so it reserves it’s slow-motion for sequences that deserve the attention. It’s the action that will bring this movie it’s attention from non-Hong Kong savvy filmgoers, and in that regard it should deliver above and beyond the normal expectations.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, I absolutely adored this movie. Everything about it was top-notch entertainment, and I was wonderfully surprised with its final direction. Kung Fu Hustle is tremendously good fun. Endearing, positive, and filled with the kind of mind-blowing action sequences that Michael Bay can only dream about, this movie is a must see for fans of Kung Fu action and good comedy. Here’s hoping Sony Pictures Classic can manage to give Stephen Chow the American attention and accolades he so richly deserves. Do yourself a tremendous favor and go see Kung Fu Hustle this weekend. You will not be disappointed.