Kung Fu Hustle – Movie Review (****)

(Originally posted on i-Pocalypse.com on 5-13-05)

Stephen Chow is a stud. He absolutely gets movies as entertainment. Plus, he isn’t cowed by the Hollywood juggernaut. Unlike so many other Hong Kong film makers (like John Woo, Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam) who have tried to make the move to Hollywood with varying degrees of success, he isn’t in any rush to jump on the bandwagon; he is perfectly content making his movies the way he wants for the audience he knows.

His Shaolin Soccer was such a joyously energetic film that you were never quite sure what was going to happen next, only that bliss and a sore gut would be your reward in the end. It was so unlike anything that has had any kind of success in the US that Miramax, upon acquiring it for US distribution after it had become one of the highest grossing films in Hong Kong of all time, immediately tried to make it more American by editing all of the bits and pieces out of it that made it whole. Kung Fu Hustle has the same joyous energy as Shaolin Soccer, and then some. And admirably, Chow has not shied away from the essential elements of Hong Kong Kung Fu Films that make them so intrinsically Asian. It has everything. There is melodrama, there is brutal violence, there is silly physical comedy, there is the pure evil of the bad guys, there is the pure innocence of the lead characters, there is the pure sincerity of the artists trying to entertain their audience and it is all wrapped up in a tight ball of destiny.

Chow plays an aspiring gangster trying to break into the notorious Axe Gang, the most brutal and powerful gang in the city, but he just doesn’t have what it takes to be a bad guy. He tries to con some of the residents of Pig Sty Alley (which is so poor that the gangs ignore them) into believing he is with the Axe Gang and from there accidentally gets the real Axe Gang involved, with each encounter escalating in action and humour.

And the biggest surprise is that it is a Kung Fu comedy that is respectful of Kung Fu films and their conventions. It isn’t for a second making fun of what has come before. It is a real Kung Fu film that fulfills all of the plot points of the genre and in addition is funny as hell, not in spite of.

The cast is packed with early era stars and mainstays in supporting roles (Yuen Wah completely against type as the Landlord, Yuen Qiu hilarious as the Landlady, Leung Siu Lung almost unrecognizable as the Beast, plus Hua Dong Zhi as the Baker, and Ling Chiu Chu as the Tailor) and choreographed by two of the best known Martial Arts choreographers in the business in the last ten years – Yuen Wo Ping (Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Sammo Hung (Once Upon a Time in China and America, The Medallion and Knock Off).

There are a myriad of inside jokes as well as pop cultural references that everyone should get sprinkled throughout and the action itself is respectable. Chow is believable as a martial artist and the effects themselves, a combination of traditional straight fight choreography, wire work, and CGI work well for the job at hand.

This is a must see movie, and revels in being exactly what it wants to be and no more. It is not for everybody, it is subtitled and it is violent and it has moments of quite outrageous cartoon action and it really is not for those viewers who are simply looking for a movie to make fun of based on the poorly dubbed and transferred Saturday Morning TV matinees that they grew up watching.

Hopefully that isn’t you, that way when you see it you will get a greater appreciation of the variety and depth that real Hong Kong cinema has to offer.

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