Another fun Chow masterpiece
Despite being the highest grossing Hong Kong film ever, Stephen Chow’s previous film Shoalin Soccer was badly bungled by U.S. distributor Miramax, who didn’t seem to know what to do with it. When news leaked out that they planned to make massive changes to it for its U.S. theatrical release – including dubbed dialogue, hip-hop music, a different title, and a thorough butchering in the editing bay – the outcry was so loud they pulled it from their schedule for another year, finally releasing a more moderately edited dub in limited release, and wisely providing both versions on an outstanding DVD edition. Understandably, Chow was more careful with his latest feature and new box office champion Gong Fu, which now comes to us relatively untouched as Kung Fu Hustle (seeing as Chow is not quite the superstar in the USA that he is in most of the world, the title modification is forgivable – even welcome).
In Soccer, Chow used digital effects to enhance the cartoony quality of his visual humor, and he increases this factor considerably here, making Kung Fu Hustle a cartoon with human actors. Much of the humor springs from the exaggeration of action that would be taken perfectly seriously in any other martial arts film, with bodies flying all over the screen, twisting in impossible configurations. But a whole lot of Chow’s trademark nonsense dialogue humor also comes through via the performances and subtitles.
Chow himself has a minor but pivotal role in much of the first half. In the early 1930s, criminal gangs took over much of Shanghai, and the most widespread and feared of these was the Axe Gang (Chow’s synchronized choreography of the top-hatted Gang’s movements brutally mocks Scorsese’s Gangs of New York). The Axes have influence everywhere it seems, except for the poorest neighborhoods that aren’t worth their bother. Sing (Chow) is a seedy drifter who, along with his chubby sidekick (Lam Chi-chung), tries to hustle the inhabitants of one such neighborhood, Pig Sty Alley, by pretending to be lieutenants in the gang. But the poor but tough inhabitants don’t put up with his nonsense, especially the real power in the neighborhood, the fierce Landlady (Kan Chia-fong). And when Sing bluffs further to try to save himself, he inadvertently brings some real Axe men into the conflict. The gangsters get a surprise when three of the Alley’s meek tradesmen turn out to be formidable kung fu masters.
Though it appears the trio of warriors has saved the Alley, the Landlady knows they’ve only invited more trouble by bringing them to the Axe Gang’s attention. She’s right of course. The Axe chief (Danny Chan) hires a pair of supernatural-powered blind musicians to kill the trio and teach Pig Sty Alley a lesson.
To reveal any more at this point would only spoil too much of the hilarious surprises contained in the plot’s many twists. Suffice it to say that Kung Fu Hustle is yet another of Chow’s films in which he plays a weak idiot that nevertheless has a hidden talent that brings him into the forefront of the story in the third act.
Chow has made no secret of the fact that it was his worship of Bruce Lee that drew him into performing. While Shoalin Soccer sent up sports movies as a way of promoting the message of kung fu, Kung Fu Hustle is his own silly, joyful love letter to vintage kung fu movies. The cast is peppered with familiar faces from those pictures – from Yuen Wah (Mr. Vampire) as the Landlady’s heckled husband to Bruce Liang (My Kung Fu 12 Kicks) as the powerful Beast, any face that looks older than 50 is probably a former kung fu superstar. The venerable Yuen Woo-ping, with an assist from Sammo Hung, provides the incredible fight choreography. The basic plot structure, the soundtrack music, and hundreds of individual details are lifted from the many action movies churned out by Shaw Bros. and other studios from the 1960s into the 1980s, and if the movie brings great joy to general audiences, that joy should be doubled – with a gentle nostalgic tug at the heartstrings – for any fan of Old School martial arts cinema.
After 20 years of making all of Asia laugh, Stephen Chow’s genius has finally made it to America unmolested, and everyone is encouraged to go see this movie.