The Pop-Culture Grab Bag that is Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle is a Work of Martial Art
In Jazz Age Shanghai, gangs of pinstriped gangsters with brilliantined hair and Tommy guns are out for blood. “Please don’t shoot me,” begs a beauty stuck in the center of the wrong massacre. “Don’t worry,” the leader assures her, his grin full of rotten teeth. “I would never shoot a woman.” Just as she turns her back to run, he guns her down. The Axe Gang is victorious again. And how do they celebrate? With a dance number, complete with a little soft-shoe and choreographed waving of their namesake weaponry. Something tells me we’re not in Canton anymore. Director/writer/star Stephen Chow hits the ground running with the vibrant absurdity of the first scene of his exuberant comedy Kung Fu Hustle and never stops for breath.
Chow (Shaolin Soccer) obviously watches a lot of movies. He’s cribbed notes from Scorsese, Kubrick, Baz Luhrmann, Chuck Jones, Busby Berkeley, and Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker to flesh out his film, and the result is so gorged to the seams with style and wit and energy you’re ready to pay his Netflix subscription for life. Chow stars as Sing, a cowardly slacker seeking gangster greatness. After picking the wrong quaint hamlet to run his con game, he’s drummed out of town by a fearsome landlady (Yuen Qiu) who’s equal parts Hon and Hun, complete with perpetually dangling cigarette and multicolored curlers. Turns out everyone in the village is a kung fu master, right down to the swishy tailor and meek baker, and when the aforementioned Axe Gang (looking snazzy in their matching Abe Lincoln hats) arrive under their own personal rain cloud to extort the poor town, the residents transform the curtain rings and rolling pins of their trades into deadly weapons and beat the tar out of the interlopers.
But Sing’s ambition catches the attention of the gang members, who give him a chance to prove his mettle (and help them avenge the village that trounced them) by liberating a dreaded assassin known as The Beast (Leung Siu Lung) from a local mental hospital. Sing agrees, but his heart’s not in it. He’s only interested in being a tough guy because of a beating he took as a kid defending a deaf girl (and her lollipop) from a crowd of bullies. Are you keeping up with this? Chow doesn’t care. He’s like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, bellowing “No time! No time!” as we tear through one scenario after another, rushing to the next excuse to kick ass Matrix-style or provoke gut-buster hysterics.
As an actor, Chow possesses a balletic physical charisma and flawless timing, both comic (his deadpan is on a par with Buster Keaton’s) and martial (computer graphics can help boost a jump, but Chow’s grace and control is real). He’s not above being the butt of jokes, including a brilliant scene in which an assassination attempt involving a knife and a poisonous snake ends up endangering the assassins more than their victims. But he’s most devastating as a director, employing his fearsome Five Fists of Dry Wit, Exploding Genre Technique, and Immortal Art Direction. Not content to limit computer graphics’ contribution to kung fu movies to just erasing wires, Chow instead envisions a universe that obeys the same stretch-and-snap physics as a Looney Tunes short. Faces bend like bread dough after being struck. Warriors twist and bounce and sprout multiple footsteps like Fred Flintstone, or wind up like Jackie Gleason before pyow! tearing through the dust in hot pursuit. The bounce and droop of the exaggerated motion enhances perfectly the far-out feel of an already juiced-up, super-silly universe. Chow’s decision to include the cartoony embellishments is a postmodern wink to the already strained believability found in most other martial-arts movies. If we’re supposed to believe there’s a deadly technique called Lion’s Roar, why not have its practitioner pull her elbows back and puff out her sternum like Foghorn Leghorn getting ready to blow out a candle, before letting loose with an aural hurricane that blows the room to literal splinters?
Chow swerves and dodges at every turn the kung fu film’s twin pitfalls of pretense and pseudoprofundity. What would you like to see next, he asks? How about a fight with the world’s most dangerous zither players? How about a kung fu master transforming himself into a bullfrog? How about a daring escape from a sanitarium, complete with The Shining’s blood-gushing elevator? Maybe hundreds of black-suited gangsters tossed into the air, making pinball pa-ching! noises as they hit the sky? There’s not a wasted moment or inch of unused space in every gorgeous, laugh-out-loud, “let us entertain you” frame. Kung Fu Hustle’s verve, dash, and brilliance make Kill Bill—even its zingier Vol. 1—look as plodding and pretentious as a Noh drama. If only Pauline Kael had lived to see this ultimate “kiss kiss bang bang” of a movie.