Kung Fu Hustle
2004Director: Stephen Chow
Cast: Stephen Chow, Qiu Yuen, Wah Yuen, Kwok Kuen Chan, Siu Lung Leung
ripping with style and overflowing with references to classic films, Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle shares a great deal with Quentin Tarantino’s latest, Kill Bill. The two directors walked a tightrope between parody and genre homage; both ultimately chose to lovingly embrace the absurd faults of their cinematic forbears. For Kung Fu Hustle, Chow’s choices center on martial arts pictures.
Kung Fu Hustle relates the story of one would-be hoodlum, Sing (Chow himself), and the fierce battle he inadvertently touches off between the murderous Axe Gang and the peaceful residents of Pig Sty Alley. Sing was an ordinary boy before a chance meeting with a street con-man. The scam artist convinced his young mark that his natural body structure would enable him to become the greatest Kung Fu master; capable of saving the world from evil. After spending his life savings on a supposedly priceless Kung Fu pamphlet from the aforementioned creep, Sing trained relentlessly.
"Y'all wanna step to me? Huh?"
Upon discovering his first opportunity to use his powers for good, our hero fearlessly attacked a half-dozen older boys who were bullying a mute girl. Problem being, Sing’s pamphlet was bogus, and the meanies beat him thoroughly before relieving themselves on his bruised body. At that moment, Sing decided that virtue was for suckers and the bad guys have all the fun, so he set out to become a gangster.
A grown up Sing and his corpulent sidekick light the action’s fuse with their bumbling attempt at extorting money from a hairdresser in Pig Sty Alley. The two masquerade as members of the feared Axe Gang (introduced in the films opening sequence with a fabulous dance number . . . seriously), but Sing’s bluff is called when the hairdresser cries rat. When he realizes that no amount of chest-puffing or fast-talking will get him out of the situation, Sing pretends to call for his fellow gangsters as backup, only his signal actually does provoke a response from the Axe Gang. Sing’s quick thinking and blame-deflection result in the Axe Gang squaring off against the residents of Pig Sty Alley en masse, thus touching off a more traditional Kung Fu story.
As the Axe Gang prepares to terrorize the poor innocents of Pig Sty Alley, three Kung Fu masters stand up to protect the helpless. Their success in thwarting the Axe Gang’s initial attacks incites an ever-escalating series of battles, in which Sing must ultimately involve himself. Eventually, Sing learns to recognize his true self, and returns balance to the city streets.
Seriously, people. Elephantiasis is no joke...
Kung Fu Hustle has been marketed in America as a comedy, and Chow gets a chuckle from the audience with both comic visuals and silly writing. Thankfully, his variation of form ensures that the jokes are not repetitive. And while a handful of, “Look! I’m pointing out something weird about Kung Fu movies!” jokes were generally off-putting, overall one would ask for more gags rather than fewer.
Also fun are the different warriors dreamt up by Chow. The styles of musical assassins, deadly tailors, and toad-inspired bruisers are enjoyably absorbed, occupying the minds of moviegoers who aren’t much for the fight scenes. Such martial arts sequences are liberally doled out, and consequentially the plot takes a back seat to humor and homage.
The conflicted nature of Sing, juxtaposed with the Axe Gang’s pure malevolence, are the two most interesting parts of Kung Fu Hustle’s narrative. Much of the rest is convoluted or tedious, with shortcomings generally sloughed off by self-aware cracks from characters. Self-awareness, however, does not forgive poor writing, and the film suffers from too many random occurrences.
One could certainly argue that in this type of film plot is irrelevant, and when it comes to entertainment value, she may have a point. So if you’re game for an escapist flick with an unusual style, some kick-ass music, and a smattering of decent comedy (Kill Bill with humor instead of cool), you have a fine candidate. If you’re looking for a well-crafted story, you might want to try something else.