Kung Fu Hustle is a comedic triumph, the high point of actor-director Stephen Chow's career over the decades. Before the international hit, he spent years refining his trade as the wacky, roughly-hewn rascal with just the right amount of gold in his heart. Chow plays the bad guy well enough; a bit of stubble, ragged sleeves rolled up, and just a hint of manic crazy in those eyes when he brandishes his little pocket knife that suggests he'll do anything to make it big in this uncaring world. His goal is to ascend to the top of the criminal underworld and join the ranks of the legendary Axe Gang - and Chow's opening scene is a testament to the sort of style and status that he admires. The word here is cool; the top hats, the black suits, the jazz backing, the sashay of Brother Sum as he approaches another victim. Think the goofy KKK clansmen in the Coen's O Brother Where Art Thou, only without the uncomfortable historical baggage. Chow blends touches of class (the slow pull out from within the police headquarters, the inhabitants frozen in fear), realistic grit (black and white newspaper headlines documenting their reign of terror in 1930s China) and pure chopsocky fun (the operatic ridiculousness in the slow motion axe taking off a leg) effortlessly.
But while the cities are under constant fear, the slums of Pig Sty Alley live so sloppily they are practically immune from all the outside whizbang. The setting is built up like an old style Hollywood set on the studio backlot, a towering structure with a life of its own, reminiscent of that in Irma la Douce or Rear Window. We find the beating heart of a community that becomes a character in itself - here money is immaterial, luxury is a foreign language, and its petty squabbles are only surface conflict. Chow riffs off traditional wuxia stories by plucking legendary heroes out of the ordinary village fabric, martial arts masters for one day and then back to their modest living. Even with the Buddhist-steeped redemption arc of his own character Sing, it's clear that Chow is attempting to undo some of the mythos surrounding these action figures. They fight out of sheer necessity to protect those who can't, but in the meantime they're tailors and cooks and labourers. The story is the proof that Sing needs to see; that good guys can come from any walk of life, whereas ambition without restraint can often lead one down darker paths.
Chow's always had a penchant for goofy, unrestricted action, with liberal use of wire-work that doubles as slapstick comedy (Flirting Scholar comes to mind). He would hit his creative peak with Kung Fu Hustle, in which a quaint village becomes the arena for an increasingly zany series of martial arts battles. The set design is there to be a battered and collapsible playground; walls crack with relish, and stone banisters go flying in bits so regularly it's surprising there are any stairs left by the end of the film. Chow enlisted the best to choreograph his fighting sequences, among them kung fu royalty in Yuen Woo-ping, who brings the same rapid, weightless intensity that the Wachowskis asked for in The Matrix. His sequences verge on the edge of realism, as if real life had merged with a cartoon. Elsewhere there's more of the same slapstick in the way that CGI and sound design lift the live action motion, with puffs of dust trails, legs whipping up into a blur, and Axe Gang cronies dropping like flies from up above and splattering onto the ground. Hear Sing rack up hits like an arcade game in the climatic melee, and the machine gun rattle of the toes broken by his fast feet. And listen to how the traditional Chinese instrumentation like Erhu and the Guzheng build to thrilling crescendos, and in one scene become the actual weapon in a stylised martial arts showdown.
It's not every movie that has slapstick and pathos all rolled into one, and leaves us satisfied by the end that the protagonist has come of age, and finally realised his place in the world. This is broad stuff, but Chow has always excelled at the scruffy everyman, the rascal, and although I mention he plays the bad guy well enough, he's not good enough for a pure villain. He doesn't have that snarl, or the complete mean streak. There has always been good in him. There's nothing in those cheap manuals worth a damn, but it's what inside that counts, and in the final scene where the camera swings around and takes us back into the past, we once again glimpse the little boy who believed he could save the world.
Kung Fu Hustle
Action / Comedy / Crime / Fantasy
Kung Fu Hustle
Action / Comedy / Crime / Fantasy
Set in Canton, China in the 1940s, the story revolves in a town ruled by the Axe Gang, Sing who desperately wants to become a member. He stumbles into a slum ruled by eccentric landlords who turns out to be the greatest kung-fu masters in disguise. Sing's actions eventually cause the Axe Gang and the slumlords to engage in an explosive kung-fu battle. Only one side will win and only one hero will emerge as the greatest kung-fu master of all.
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August 19, 2011 at 11:44 AM