Kung Fu Hustle

Kung Fu Hustle

****1/2

Reviewed by: Keith Hennessey Brown

Though one of Hong Kong's biggest stars for much of the Nineties, the fact that Stephen Chow specialised in a somewhat unexportable form of nonsense comedy, Mo Lei Tau, reliant on Cantonese wordplay, inhibited his ability to break through into English-speaking markets until fairly recently.

Then Miramax (who else?) picked up his CGI-heavy kung fu sports comedy Shaolin Soccer and retooled it for US audiences - it was probably the most accessible of Chow's films, with the possibility of crossover perhaps in the filmmaker's mind as he was making it - and scored a minor hit.

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Someone at Columbia obviously took note, co-funding Chow's latest film, a CGI-heavy kung fu gangster comedy, set against the backdrop of Thirties Shanghai.

Chow plays Sing. Ever since he had his ass handed to him on a plate after trying to be a noble kung fu hero standing up for the weak and defenceless, he's decided that the only way to get on in this world is to be a badass. Thing is that, other than some mean lock picking skills, he's really not terribly good at being bad.

One day, Sing and his sidekick go into Pig Sty, a part of town so poor that no one has ever bothered it before, posing as members of the feared Axe Gang.

Their con is quickly found out, but not before the real Axe gang has gotten involved. A fight breaks out, whereupon three of the Pig Sty residents reveal themselves to be martial arts masters - of the octagon staff, iron fist and 12 kicks schools respectively - and promptly beat the snot out of the Axe gang's hatchet men.

Face lost, the Axe gang leader calls in a couple of mystical zheng-playing assassins to dispose of the three masters. They're not the best - they speak in hushed tones of the mysterious The Beast, whose devotion to his kung fu was such that he went insane - but they should be good enough. Feeling that Sing's lock picking skills could come in useful some day, he also grants the troublemaker a reprieve.

A ferocious battle ensues, during which the owners of Pig Sty, a middle aged lothario and his buxom wife, reveal themselves to be even more powerful martial artists, who had withdrawn from that world, following the death of their only son.

Taking things to the next level, the Axe gang leader then hatches a plan to break the enigmatic kung-fu killer The Beast out of the psychiatric hospital in the hope that he will prove able to defeat the rulers of Pig Sty. And who better to do the job than Sing, still smarting from his last embarrassment and eager for the chance to prove his worth...

Let's get the negative out of the way first: fans of old school down-and-dirty martial arts, or authentic realism in the manner of a Lau Kar Leung, won't like the wire-assisted, CGI-enhanced spectacle on display here.

That, however, is really the only criticism of a film that is geared simply, straightforwardly and, above all, honestly to providing absolute entertainment.

This has always been the major virtue of Hong Kong cinema's crowd-pleasers, who know that there's no point in making a film, however great and virtuous, if it doesn't find an audience.

You could pick on the threadbare narrative, little more than a way of stringing together the sketches and set pieces. However, insofar as this is a comedy, that's all that's actually required. Moreover, Kung Fu Hustle is a damn sight more coherent and of a piece than the scattershot approach favoured by, say, the Wayans Brothers in the Scary Movie series, or - probably more relevant in this instance - the old Aces Go Places and Lucky Stars series from Hong Kong's Cinema City studio in the Eighties.

In any case, Chow hasn't neglected to acknowledge the weight of history. His narrative and structure is reminiscent of countless Sixties, Seventies and Eighties episodic classics. In fact, he's bringing it bang up to date.

Yuen Wo Ping, responsible for Jackie Chan's breakthrough films in the late Seventies and latterly with making various otherwise hopeless gweilos look good in the Matrix and its flo-mo ilk, is his action director, with all that entails in terms of quality.

If this wasn't enough, Sammo Hung, Chan's "big brother", precursor and arguably the most under appreciated hyphenate talent to ever work in the Hong Kong industry - assuming producer-director-writer-star Chow gets the recognition he deserves here - is also on board.

Likewise along the way you notice countless allusions to their films and others of Hong Kong's late Seventies/early Nineties golden age - the "dai gor" of the heroic bloodshed cycle; the secret techniques, masters of death, noble "sifu's" and occult volumes of the Shaolin cycle; or the loving recreation of Thirties Shanghai reminiscent of Chan's Miracles. (The presence of bells, meanwhile, not only alludes to Chan's Frank Capra model here, Lady For A Day, but also the campanilismo of the spaghetti western, whose rhetoric of dramatic close-ups and grotesque physiognomies Chow also makes great use of as another way of showing his directorial chops.)

Yet again, the viewer who is not familiar with all this cinematic and cultural background, or who doesn't recognise old, familiar faces, such as Chan and Hung's classmate Yuen Wah among the cast, can undoubtedly enjoy Kung Fu Hustle, with Chow also throwing in nods to a variety of western films, including The Shining and Gangs Of New York; the latter hammering home the point, as the great French critic Andre Bazin recognised all those years ago, that the figure of the man living by a code of honour is truly universal, whether he be a western gunfighter, "heroic bloodshed" gangster, wu xia chivalrous knight or wandering samurai.

Kung Fu Hustle is not Hero, or House Of Flying Daggers, but, taken on its own terms, is every bit as significant an achievement, despite the difference in styles, in so far as Zhang Yimou kicks high and Chow low. Both, however, connect with their targets with an equally devastating impact.

Reviewed on: 25 Jun 2005
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A good guy, trying to convince people he's a bad guy, runs into serious trouble.
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Keith Hennessey Brown ****1/2

Director: Stephen Chow

Writer: Tsang Kan Cheong, Stephen Chow, Xin Huo, Chan Man Keung

Starring: Stephen Chow, Wah Yuen, Qiu Yuen, Kwok Kuen Chan, Siu Lung Leung, Chi Chung Lam

Year: 2004

Runtime: 95 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: China/Hong Kong

Festivals:

Sundance 2005

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