Film review from April 2005
A visceral, visually explosive kick, Stephen Chow’s "Kung Fu Hustle" is one of the most enjoyable, elastic, and relentless films of 2005. Where his previous film, 2001’s “Shaolin Soccer,” mostly kept the whiz-bang of CGI-pyrotechnics to the soccer pitch, the visual exploits of Kung Fu Hustle know no such bounds. (“No more soccer!” one gangster says early on, after stomping on and deflating the ball three young boys are kicking around in an empty lot.)
Part homage to Hong Kong chop-socky, part ode to 80’s American cartoons and film parodies, and part paean to recent sci-fi spectaculars like “The Matrix,” Chow’s film serves up a wealth of aesthetic delights: spectacular combat sequences, a grinning Buddha in the sky, suited gangsters dancing with hatchets, a weapons-grade harpsichord, and an immediate classic of a chase scene lifted from the Road Runner. The viewer stumbles out woozy, stomach muscles sore from laughing and cartoon tweety birds circling his head.
And, oh, yes, there is a story as well. In Pre-Revolutionary Shanghai, the Axe Gang holds sway, turning cops, peasants, and crooks into lackeys, and making Sing, an unaccomplished street dweller played by Chow, yearn for membership and respect. Stumbling upon the aptly named Pig Sty Alley, Sing sees an opportunity to impress the Gang and tries to intimidate and extort its residents, who are more than up to the challenge, to even their own surprise. The Axe Gang soon shows up seeking vengeance and is quickly dispatched by three kung fu masters who had been hiding in plain sight as Pig Sty residents. From there, the stakes, chaotic carnage, and fantastic visual and physical gags swell to Looney Tunes proportions, climaxing in a vertical battle between Sing and a killer known as the Beast for what might well be the entire Universe.
There is a cutesy love story thrown in for good measure. As a child, Sing was told by a wizened con artist that he had the look of a one-in-a-million master of the Buddhist Palm kung fu technique. After buying an instructional book from the man and flipping through it, he tries to save a deaf girl from bullies. The young Sing is beaten badly and gives up his dream of being a master, but the girl, who will of course be seen again, never forgets.
But concerning ourselves too much with narrative misses the point, for Chow uses the tale mainly as a vehicle for broad comedy and fantastical physical exploits.
Although a deft, fearless comedian, Chow smartly chooses to focus less on Sing and lets the other players shine. Comprised of several former Asian action greats that Chow practically resurrected for this film, the cast is uniformly good. Yuen Wah, known to Chinese audiences for his many baddies, plays the split personalities of the Pig Sty landlord to insouciant perfection. Lueng Sui Lung’s Beast, a physically volatile yet emotionally contained assassin for hire, is undeniably one with which we would never mess. And special recognition must be given to Yuen Qui as the landlady of Pig Sty Alley. A former Hong Kong action star returning to film acting after a 28-year absence, Yuen gained 30 pounds to play a chain-smoking human powder keg that dominates tenants and husband both physically and verbally. A comedic force of nature, she steals every scene she's in.
With its brutal violence and occasionally pixilated images, Kung Fu Hustle is a mishmash of X-box fighting game – the Toad Style and Lion’s Roar are two of the combat moves – and animated violence from Tom and Jerry and the Road Runner, but jacked up on crystal meth and peopled with slightly more human characters. The combatants’ ability to withstand impossible beatings and the outlandish nature of many visuals, however, render the brutality benign and entertaining rather than cringe-inducing. When the Landlord is slapped about his own home and then thrown through the window by his wife, only to land face first on the stone ground three stories below and have a flower pot crack on his head, we do not feel his pain but relish the perfectly executed beating. There may be a loss of empathy that results from such cartoonishness, but it’s hard to complain when having this much fun.