Kung Fu Hustle

Dir: Stephen Chow
2004
I just missed Kung Fu Hustle when I was in Taiwan last November
–it was set to open two weeks after I left, but what a pleasure to see that it was in the line-up at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. Apparently, S.B. marked the second American screening outside of Sundance (not counting those who have found a bootleg copy in Chinatown). Director, star, and comic genius Stephen Chow has been working on this since 2002, which is a long time compared to his productive height in the early ’90s, where they would knock off four Chow vehicles a year (and nearly all good).
“Kung Fu Hustle” makes Chow’s previous film “Shaolin Soccer” feel like a transitional piece. There was plenty of CG in that film, but now we see that Chow was working towards realizing a sort of human cartoon, where live action meets Tex Avery. Of course, The Mask also attempted this, but the boundaries between the Avery-like Mask character and the “real” world were set. The world of “Kung Fu Hustle” is completely different.
What fans of Chow might have a problem with is the lack of him for great chunks of the picture–his character appears off and on in the first half. He plays a useless street “tough” trying to get into the infamous Ax Gang, while the gang itself tries to put the heat on a innocent looking neigborhood/tenement which is secretly home to a group of kung fu masters. The centerpiece here is the landlord/landlady couple who run the tenement: the landlady (Yuen Qiu) has superspeed and the “Lion’s Roar” and the husband (once Chow regular Wah Yuen, who hasn’t been in one of his films since “Fists of Fury II”) who knows a very bendy style of kung fu. Apart from Wah and Chi Chung Lam (the fat guy from Shaolin Soccer), there’s very few familiar faces, and a great many are first time actors, a method Chow employed in his previous film.
Chow’s character makes a transition from being a wannabe gangster with blocked chi to a superhuman good-guy with chi a’plenty, and this comes later in the proceedings. The feeling is somewhat like when a stand-up comedian goes from his regular job to be an announcer for other, younger comedians under his mantle.
Is the film good, though? Oh yes, very much, with plenty of eye candy, deft camerawork (Chow knows how to shoot a fight scene), and effects that don’t drown out the rest of the film, making sure to keep the human element centered. Is the film one of his bests? No way, for there’s very little of him. But is this film unlike anything Chow has ever made, and is this film unlike anything most audiences have ever seen? Undoubtedly.

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