Film Reviews: Wednesday, April 20, 2005
Stephen Chow (center) and Lam Tze-Chung (asleep in chair) try to terrorize the citizens of Pig Sty Alley in ‘Kung Fu Hustle.’ (Saeed Adyani/Courtesy of Sony Picures Classics)
Kung Fu Hustle
Starring Stephen Chow and Yuen Qiu. Directed by Stephen Chow. Written by Stephen Chow, Tsang-Kan Cheung, Lola Huo, and Chan-Man Keung. Rated R.
Chow Fun

Just for kicks, here’s Kung Fu Hustle, a hysterical martial-arts movie parody.


In trying to describe Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, the critics have cast far and wide, comparing its director/co-writer/star to everything from Jackie Chan to Quentin Tarantino to Bugs Bunny, and that’s just Roger Ebert talking. All these comparisons are useless, because this Hong Kong filmmaker’s comic talent is wholly and powerfully unlike anyone else’s. His delirious Shaolin Soccer should have introduced him to American audiences last year and likely would have if Miramax hadn’t botched the release. (If you haven’t seen it, put this review down and rent it on DVD this second.) The arrival of his latest movie is a glorious chance for things to be set right, because now our crowds can experience the almighty force that is Stephen Chow.
He plays Sing, a small-time thief living on Shanghai’s streets in the 1930s. He and his tubby sidekick (Lam Tze-Chung) think they’re badasses, even after they’re beaten up by a bespectacled accountant. They long to join the feared criminal syndicate called the Axe Gang, possibly because it’d allow them to participate in a Broadway-style dance number like the one the Axes burst into after murdering their nearest gangland rivals. Everything changes when Sing unwittingly leads the gang to Pig Sty Alley, a run-down tenement that turns out to house an unusually high concentration of expert martial-arts fighters. Only then does he discover his destiny as the ultimate kung fu master.
If this sounds absurd, you have no idea what’s in store. The jokes fly furiously and nonsensically in Chow’s world, where a kung fu master’s likely to be a limp-wristed gay guy or a fat lady with curlers in her hair. As an actor, Chow has a goofy/handsome face like Ben Stiller’s or Jamie Foxx’s. As a director, he has an exquisite, unfailing sense of how to time and frame a gag — check out the offhand virtuosity of a sequence where the Axe Gang’s leader (Chan Kwok Kuen) has his hair catch fire, or the more painstaking brilliance of a scene where Sing and his sidekick come to painful grief trying to throw knives at someone. Staying true to his penchant for rapid-fire parodies of both Chinese and Hollywood movies, here he gleefully sends up The Matrix, Kill Bill, Gangs of New York, The Shining, and Pirates of the Caribbean, among others, and he quotes a line of dialogue from Spider-Man to hilarious effect.
As sophisticated as Chow’s humor can be, he’s just as good when he’s making incredibly stupid jokes. He’s not shy about resorting to slapstick, rhetorical excess, or deliberately bad visual effects for laughs; when Pig Sty Alley’s landlady (Yuen Qiu) chases Sing down a road, their legs become blurs like the Road Runner’s and Wile E. Coyote’s. We’re just not used to foreign films that are intentionally this silly. That silliness is a key to Chow’s greatness — his combination of genuine filmmaking chops and boundless comic inventiveness and energy is unique, one that makes his movies as easy to appreciate in the frat house as the art house.
The film is much heavier on kung fu action than Chow’s previous works. The fight sequences are staged by Yuen Wo-Ping of Crouching Tiger/The Matrix/Kill Bill fame, which means that in many instances here he’s imitating his own work. His intricate choreography is carried out with tremendous flair by a cast full of veterans from previous decades of Hong Kong martial-arts movies. The standoff between Pig Sty Alley’s tailor (Chiu Chi-Ling) and noodle maker (Dong Zhi-Hua) and two evil harpists firing invisible knives from their instruments is compelling, even if you don’t know that the scene is an extended parody of Zhang Yimou’s Hero. The action sequences grow more spectacular as the movie unfolds, and a huge set piece that teams the landlady with her whipped husband (Yuen Wah) against a psychotic killer called The Beast (Leung Siu-Lung) would be a mind-blowing climax if it weren’t merely the setup for an even bigger showdown between Sing, The Beast, and the Axe Gang. After seeing the film indulge in bad special effects for laughs, it’s shocking and thrilling to see the terrific effects in these scenes. If this movie were completely drained of its humor, it’d still be a great action flick.
Ah, but then it wouldn’t be nearly as special. Kung Fu Hustle takes the solemnity that overhangs most Hollywood and Hong Kong action films and throws a pie in its face. It doesn’t achieve the perfect weightlessness of Chow’s other comedies, when all the kung fu action was over nothing more than a soccer tournament or a tv cooking show (as in his manic 1996 Iron Chef parody, God of Cookery). Even so, it’s a movie that’ll leave you gasping, either from laughter or awe at the director’s flagrant disregard for the laws of physics and the conventions of movie genres. I left Shaolin Soccer thinking Stephen Chow might be the funniest filmmaker in the world right now. Kung Fu Hustle removed all my doubts.

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