***/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras B-
starring Stephen Chow, Yuen Wah, Yuen Qiu, Lam Tze Chung
screenplay by Stephen Chow, Tsang Kan Cheong, Lola Huo, Chan Man Keung
directed by Stephen Chow
by Walter Chaw There's a moment near the beginning of Stephen Chow's Shaolin Soccer where a reverie about sweet buns turns into a spontaneous, slightly Asian-fied street recreation of the zombie shuffle from Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video. If Chow is going to break through into the American mainstream with more success than fellow Hong Kong émigrés Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, John Woo, Jet Li, Ringo Lam, and Sammo Hung, it'll be because of his savvy and respect for Western pop archetypes. Evidence of this has surfaced with some regularity in all of his pictures to date, no less so in Kung Fu Hustle, a delirious-verging-on-surreal send-up of Kung Fu attitudes and traditions mutated with a Tex Avery cartoon. It's the film Joe Dante has been trying to make for the whole of his career: a multi-cultural pop explosion cross-pollinated to produce a fevered hybrid of the post-industrial standard of Asian innovation of Western invention. Chow is Asia's answer to hip-hop: fugitive poetry primed to gratify the Yankee ruling culture while laying out a subtext of Chinese pride that would feel like a threat if it didn't get your hips shaking and your fingers snapping.
Sing, one of Chow's prototypical down-and-outers (Chow's mug recalls Keaton, but his alter ego is pure Chaplin), tries to bully schwag and face by pretending to belong to the infamous Axe Gang. That backfires, of course, not only in the expected way when the actual Axe Gang demands their pound of flesh, but also when his targeted victims in bedraggled Pig Sty Alley turn out to be a collection of retired kung fu masters (played to a large extent by actual retired kung fu masters). Suddenly, Sing finds himself the proverbial Sanjuro in the middle of a gang war mostly of his own bumbling creation.
After a well-publicized (but vehemently denied) falling-out with action choreographer Sammo Hung, Chow hired on master choreographer Yuen Wo Ping, best known in the West as the architect of The Matrix's iconic action sequences, and the result in Kung Fu Hustle is a comic wu xia epic that feels curiously familiar to Western audiences; the film might be the right one at the right time. Cannily, Chow makes sport of that familiarity, re-imagining moments from Spider-Man 2 and the Lord of the Rings films with a kind of fluid conversance that once connected classic Shaw Brothers and Tsui Hark fare to the Hollywood musical--that once found throughlines bold and brilliant between John Woo and Sam Peckinpah, or Sergio Leone and Akira Kurosawa. In a lot of ways, Kung Fu Hustle is China's answer to Kill Bill, with Stephen Chow as much the pop-phile dork as Quentin Tarantino. Their films have passion and a meticulous structure, too, that's often mistaken for arbitrary chaos--case in point, a sequence in the ghetto where a landlady (the incomparable Yuen Qiu, returning to the screen after a 28-year absence) punishes her husband (Yuen Wah) by first throwing him out of a window, then dropping a flower pot on his head and turning around to berate a line of parched tenants about their waste. Chaotic on the surface, the sequence in one compact burst of energy references social-minded silent film, cartoons, the Chinese class system, and the sly subtext of individual worth that underpins Chow's work.
Gay stereotypes, rampant misogyny--the dark underbelly of Chinese cinema is addressed herein with screaming queens and castrating mammys before being undermined when they turn out to be the most virtuous, the most ferocious defenders of community and order. Kung Fu Hustle comments on its own complexity with a cast of characters that are each more than they would at first appear. It's easy to label the film as another Asian export full of inscrutable philosophies and high-flying, over-stylized CGI effects, but this is a thornier beast, adorned as it is with elements from the West adapted, subtly, to the sensibilities of the East. It's not a perfect film, paced poorly in spots and threatening to become repetitive long before the final curtain drops. But as something that could be remembered as the last film Chow made with complete artistic control in Hong Kong (because it's the first one of his that will appeal to a broad American audience), it's a film to take note of, just as Stephen Chow is someone to watch. Originally published: April 22, 2005.
by Bill Chambers Sony issues Kung Fu Hustle on DVD in competing widescreen and fullscreen editions, the former (which we received for review) featuring an excellent 2.40:1 transfer enhanced for 16x9 displays. For one of the studio's 'scope titles, there is remarkably little edge-enhancement to compromise the image, and the colours are intense without oversaturating. How far we've come from the days of washed-out, beat-up Hong Kong imports is thrown into unsubtle relief by this sterling presentation. Constantly throbbing with activity (especially during the sequence in which the musician assassins infiltrate Pig Sty Alley (chapter 11)), the Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is no less sensational. A similarly-mixed English dub is also on board, but don't even bother: rather than heighten the film's cartoonishness, it cheapens it. On another track, director-star Stephen Chow, actors Lam Tze Chung (always referred to as "Fat Chung"), Tinkai Mau, and Chan Kwok Kwan team up for a busy, Chinese-language feature-length commentary. Confusingly, whenever they take a breather, the subtitles translate the bits of movie dialogue that leak through at low volume--making it nigh impossible at times to distinguish one type of white noise from the other.
Extras include a lengthy (42 mins.) special produced for Chinese television, "Behind the Scenes of Kung Fu Hustle", hosted by stars Chung and Kwan. The tone of this interminable EPK is intentionally jokey, which soon becomes the only thing staving off boredom. There's a lot to say about this film in terms of its pedigree, some of which is said (Leung Siu Leung talks about coming out of a 10-year hiatus from the silver screen to play The Beast, for instance), most of which is left unspoken, though we do see footage from that fateful audition for a different actress that led to the casting of Yuen Qiu. An interstitial bit where Chung and Kwan struggle to rinse their hair of a stubborn gel commonly used in the '30s and '40s is, sadly, probably more compelling and informative than 99% of the piece. In the other longform video-based extra, director-star Stephen Chow submits to an English-language interview with the ubiquitous Ric Meyers, who, with his yin yang lounge shirt and increasingly Farley-esque line of questioning, scales new heights of dorkdom.
But while it's painful to watch Meyers reduce Chow to a human glossary (expect lots of "Explain Tai Chi to the folks at home"s), at least this 28-minute one-on-one aims to impart knowledge, unlike the aforementioned documentary. Two deleted scenes offer more of the "Pig Sty Community Meeting" and Sing's introduction to Brother Sum; these elisions are not, to the best of our knowledge, from any longer cut of Kung Fu Hustle, although this DVD reportedly contains the same digitally sanitized version of the film that played in North American theatres. "Outtakes and Bloopers" (5 mins.) with Chinese profanity bleeped (take that, "Firefly"!), fourteen American TV spots, a step-frame "International Poster Exploration Gallery," and trailers for Layer Cake, 2046, Lords of Dogtown, Kung Fu Hustle, November, 3-Iron, House of Flying Daggers, xXx: State of the Union, Stripes, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Mirrormask round out the platter. The first three previews also cue up prior to the main menu. Originally published: August 8, 2005.