AKA: Gong Fu, Kung Fu, Kung-Fu Hustle
Kung Fu Hustle
There are a select number of stars in Hong Kong that can afford to wait three years to make a movie, and Stephen Chow seems to be one of the lucky few. After the runaway success of Shaolin Soccer, Chow took an eternity (at least relative to the blitzkrieg-paced world of Hong Kong films, where productions often just take weeks, if not days, to finish) to come up with his latest picture, Kung Fu Hustle. The wait seems to have paid off. In an industry where more and more pictures seem to be cranked out to make a quick buck, Kung Fu Hustle is one of the increasingly rare efforts that manages to be highly entertaining and smartly constructed, something that both film aficiandos and those just looking for some laughs will enjoy.
The film takes place in 1930's Shanghai. A vicious group known as the Axe Gang (led by Chan Kwok-Kwan, the "Bruce Lee" goalie from Shaolin Soccer) has taken over the city, but leaves the poorer areas, such as a tenement called "Pig Sty Alley" alone. Seeing an opportunity, a couple of bumbling con artists (Stephen Chow along with Lam Tze-Chung, who takes Ng Man-Tat's place this time out as Chow's sidekick) come into Pig Sty Alley posing as members of the Axe Gang, thinking the poor residents will be an easy score. However, some of the residents (including the landlords, played by Yuen Qiu and Yuen Wah) have great kung fu skill and basically beat the crap out of the duo.
As Chow is leaving town, a chance meeting with one of the top members of the Axe Gang (portrayed by Lam Suet, who seems to be fufuilling his yearly quota for cameos at a breakneck pace, but is still very entertaining) prompts the gang to attack Pig Sty Alley, which turns disastrous as they feel the wrath from the unlikely heroes. The ass-whipping angers the Axe Gang enough for them to bring in a series of assassins (including Hsiao Liang, who plays a killer known as "The Beast", a top hitman who has the unfortunate habit of wearing pink flip-flops) to try and break the residents' collective will. As the attacks continue, Chow must decide whether to keep up his charade or help out the people he has grown to admire.
Kung Fu Hustle, from start to finish, is simply one of the most entertaining movie this reviewer has seen in quite some time. That might not seem like too much given Hong Kong's fairly anemic output as of late, but this is one of those movies that you almost want to re-watch right after it's done. However, as with many of Stephen Chow's other films, he does go all over the map and a bit overboard in parts -- most notably here with a subplot involving a childhood love (played in her adult form by Huang Sheng-Yi) that ultimately doesn't really go anywhere. There's also a Looney Tunes-inspired chase that goes over the top with CGI, the use of which is actually handled well during the fight scenes. There's a lot of computer trickery, but at its' core, there is an understanding and respect of kung fu that makes the action scenes simply outstanding. Yuen Woo-Ping (and Sammo Hung in the early days of Kung Fu Hustle's production) laid a solid foundation, and the actors make the action scenes feel like something whole, unlike the empty shells of half-ass execution we see too often nowadays.
Speaking of the actors, Stephen Chow's past few movies have been moving more from being star-driven vehicles (where he is the focus) to films that emphasisize strong ensembles. In a movie where he is the star, director, writer and producer, Chow actually has relatively little screen time -- but there's nothing wrong with that in my opinion. The characters here are so interesting that we really don't need to have Chow in every scene to keep the viewer engaged. In a day and age when many aging actors from all over the world try to cling onto scraps of their youth by putting themselves into vanity projects, Stephen Chow seems to be moving more into becoming a true director, making sure those around him look as well as he does. Even though it contains the requisite movie parodies, Cantonese puns and toliet humor that Stephen Chow is known for, Kung Fu Hustle feels unlike most every previous effort he has put out and is something which marks a new standard for Hong Kong movies to follow. In a time when most Hong Kong film-makers are more concerned with making a buck than making a good movie, Stephen Chow has actually put his ego to the side and constructed a solid motion picture, rather than the ninety-minute long music videos filled with cute pop stars and product placements disguised as movies far too many Hong Kong films seem to be portraying themselves as of late.
Thankfully, Kung Fu Hustle was a winner at the box office. In a year where most of the local product failed to impress audiences, Hong Kongers made Kung Fu Hustle the top-grossing domestically-produced film of all time, putting the previous champ Shaolin Soccer down a notch. This, in my opinion, at least dispels some of the word going around that Hong Kong cinema is dead. It's not dead; it's just that audiences (both in Hong Kong and internationally) have wisened up and will no longer plunk down cash for just any movie featuring a big star or nifty special effects. Believe me, if Kung Fu Hustle was bad in any way, shape, or form, you would have heard that by now. I'm probably preaching to the choir here, but if you're a fan of Stephen Chow, kung fu flicks, Hong Kong movies, or just good comedy, you owe it to yourself to check out Kung Fu Hustle.