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Kung Fu Hustle

Picture, if you will, a desolate wide-angle shot on Pig Sty Alley, a ghetto whose name speaks volumes for its state of being. In the foreground, two children juggle a soccer ball back and forth between them until the ball rolls errantly towards the camera. A voice booms from off-screen.

“No more soccer.”

A foot slams down onto the soccer ball, comically deflating it to the dismay of the children. It’s with said emphatic gusto that Stephen Chow makes his entrance in his new film Kung Fu Hustle, and one can hardly dismiss the resounding nature of such a statement. Chow was poised to storm the US with his last effort, Shaolin Soccer, when the film sat for years on the Miramax shelves collecting dust. The film grew in popularity through bootlegs and imported DVDs, so much so that by the time news of the film’s domestic release was first teased, fans in the US were outraged to hear that the film had not only undergone re-editing, but had also been sentenced to a fate worse than death. That’s right, it was re-dubbed in English, of all things.

Obviously, Miramax was unsure how the film would be embraced stateside, which was likely the impetus for the delays and massive re-working. Eventually, Miramax reconsidered and the re-edited version of the film was quietly slipped into theaters, un-dubbed. What was once the “highest grossing Hong Kong made film in Hong Kong” had made less than a whisper in the states, and undoubtedly Chow grew tired of the hullabaloo.

Which is likely the reason for his characters entrance in Kung Fu Hustle, a film so steeped in genius comedic genre play that it walks the fine line between brilliance and absurdity. From its opening sequence, depicting a group of 50’s era toughies dubbed “The Crocodile Gang” flexing their power with the local “Crime Busters” before getting cornered by their rivals, “The Axe Gang” in the streets. What ensues is a cross between the “Smith Virus” showdown in The Matrix: Revolutions and Gangs of New York, a full fledge brawl and an outright shifting of the power paradigm. The Axe Gang wields, as you may have guessed, axes so razor sharp that they cleave limbs with the greatest of ease. The Crocodile Gang never gets the chance to unleash their crocodiles, but I’m sure it would have been an interesting sight to see.

The film quickly shifts to Pig Sty Alley, where its inhabitants must do the best that they can to pay rent while suffering the rage of their landlords, a pair of lovers with extraordinary powers to rival their skills at hurling barbs and insults at one another. Chow deftly peppers the film, especially the Pig Sty Alley sequences, with enough insight to bring depth to an otherwise irreverent film. His astute fixation with labor practices is reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s own attention to details in regards to everything from the stitching of gangsters’ suits in Good Fellas to the minutiae of spaghetti sauce preparation in Italianamerican. Its insight such as this that makes the rest of the film much more weighty than it should, considering that it features characters whose legs mirror those of the Roadrunner while being chased by Wile E. Coyote.

Sing (Chow) arrives in Pig Sty Alley with dreams of grifting. He plans to usurp cash through intimidation, and his method is that of impersonation. Chow has been likened to Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, and both accounts are right on. However, Chow is doing much more than merely impersonating the likes of Keaton and Chaplin in a martial arts setting. What Kill Bill and Sin City was to chop-socky exploitation films and film noir respectively, Kung Fu Hustle is to US genre films. Everything from the Westernized appropriation of martial arts kung fu films to classic musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers fame to the big budget CG blockbusters in the vein of Spider-Man and The Matrix films is referenced here without crossing the line into spoof.

The most interesting aspect of Chow’s work is his use of reality. Most films that employ the use of CG do so in an attempt to recreate, or mirror, reality. Chow doesn’t even bother with realism here, instead opting to use our familiarity with reality as a means to gauge absurdity. Every factor of the unreal is intended to entertain first, and look realistic second. It’s a dangerous approach, but Chow operates on such a vibe all his own that pulls it all together concisely.

The plot is simple, Sing comes between the Axe Gang and the residents in Pig Sty Alley and battle after battle escalates into a climax so enthrallingly hilarious that I could hardly sit still through the closing sequences. The film plays like out like a rollercoaster ride, and it’s worth hopping back in line for repeat rides. The lackluster treatment of the brilliantly fun Shaolin Soccer felt like a travesty upon release, especially considering its potential to entertain. However, Kung Fu Hustle makes this all a distant memory.

No more soccer? Exactly.


Mario Anima

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