Stephen Chow directs and stars in a bombastic film that’s a blast from start to finish. You don’t get films like this over here.
“No more soccer!”
Quick! What are the top five western comedy action films you can think of? Men in Black? 21 Jump Street? Naked Gun? Rush Hour? One of the areas where, I think, Eastern films really stands out over Western is in kung fu. Sure, while gunplay can be used for comedic purposes, in the films listed above, it’s the situations and the dialogue that’s funny over the actual action. Firing guns is still as lethal, there are never any scenes where a bullet bounces off a character’s skull and hits some other dude. That would be stupid.
Less so when it’s done with kung fu. Chinese martial arts is, by design, incredibly versatile, and as such has been adapted and used in all sorts of motion pictures; from the deadly serious in Enter the Dragon, to the mystical wuxia style of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, to something light-hearted like Police Story. Enter Stephen Chow. Known in the West for his mo lei tau, literally “nonsense”, films, Kung Fu Hustle is arguably his most famous of the genre. First seen in his wildly successful Shaolin Soccer, Chow cranks the madness up to eleven to bring us a film that’s frankly more of a live-action cartoon than anything else.
Kung Fu Hustle stars Chow as Sing, a loser who, with his pal Bone (Lam Chi-chung), want to make it as members of the notorious Axe Gang, led by the ruthless Brother Sum (Danny Chan Kwok-kwan). His attempts lead him to the shanty town of Pig Sty Alley, where they figure they can trick the locals into thinking they’re members, when their antics draw the attention of the actual Axe Gang. The villagers fight them off – led by a trio of retired martial arts masters: Coolie (Xing Yu), Fairy (Chiu Chi-ling) and Donut (Dong Zhihua).
Helped by the landlord and his wife (Yuen Wah and Yuen Qiu respectively), the village win. Beaten, the Axe Gang retaliate with increasing force, and with Sing stuck in the middle of the two, unable to choose between his calling to good, and his decision to be a bad guy.
Right off the bat, Stephen Chow makes no apologies for the film. While he certainly worked hard to make the best film he could, there’s no sense that this was ever made to be a great film, or a masterpiece in any respect. But, it’s still incredibly entertaining. Mo lei tau is a comedy subgenre in Hong Kong cinema largely associated with Chow, and Hustle is one of the best examples of this. He jokes run rampant, from slapstick, irony, puns – anything goes with Chow. We’re treated to an onslaught of over-the-top violence, crazy action sequences and hammy acting. And it works. Sure it’s definitely not for everyone, this style, but for what he tries to achieve, he does so with a deft hand.
Stephen Chow is a very talented director, and he showcases this throughout. He never takes the easy approach, letting the silly situations do all the work, but instead tries to make a film that is visually interesting and, in certain scenes, really quite nice to look at. His use of light, and colour, and composition is all borrowed from classics, harkening back to old westerns, wuxia epics and smaller scale old kung fu films. To give us an even bigger visual feast, he brought in action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, who is arguably the biggest asset in the film. You might have seen his work in Drunken Master, or the Matrix trilogy, or Man of Tai Chi. There’s a definite similarity to the Matrix fight scenes – notably some of the slow motion scenes, and one particular moment when a bunch of near-identical Axe Gang members battle the villagers in a manner almost indistinguishable from the Agent Smith fight scene in Matrix Reloaded. The difference being that here, it’s supposed to look stupid. No one is taking it seriously and it works a lot better than watching dozens of Hugo Weavings get beaten to pulps. The fighting is kinetic and fun, and showcases all of the various (and I’m pretty sure made-up) martial arts styles in the film.
The cast is to thank for that. Half the cast is made up of old kung fu legends and superstars. The Landlord and Landlady are played by Peking Opera School alumni, the Beast is Bruce Leung Siu-lung, who retired from acting fifteen years prior, but came back for this role. The three village fighters are also famed martial artists. They’ve all been in similar films, from Dragons Forever to Winners and Sinners, so there’s a sense of familiarity, like old friends coming together for the first time in years. There’s a mix of old and new at play, on top of a variety of martial arts schools on display, which adds to the spectacle. Does it always work? No. Sometimes the acting is just a bit too off, and sometimes the CGI, despite not trying to look all that convincing, is just a bit too silly. Thankfully it’s all offset by smaller funny moments: if Kung Fu Hustle was all crazy all the time, it would get incredibly tiring.
As it is, if you’re looking for something in the vein of Rush Hour, you’ll be disappointed. But if you want something completely off-the-wall, this is a fun hour and a half of kung fu mayhem.
Verdict: Full of inspired moments of insanity, Kung Fu Hustle is as much to sit through as it undoubtedly was to make.
Kung Fu Hustle (2004)
Director Stephen Chow
Writer: Stephen Chow, Huo Xin, Chan Man-keung
Sing Stephen Chow
Brother Sum Danny Chan Kwok-kwan
Landlord Yuen Wah
Landlady Yuen Qiu
The Beast Bruce Leung Siu-lung
Coolie Xing Yu
Fairy Chiu Chi-ling
Donut Dong Zhihua
Bone Lam Chi-chung
Fong Eva Huang
Liang Lam Suet