Stephen Chow has always dabbled with kung fu influences in his previous movies but with KUNG FU HUSTLE he literally squashes the narrative pretense with his foot and leaps wholeheartedly into a Looney Tunes-inspired martial arts comedy that draws heavily on classic kung fu movies of yesteryear.
The lunacy begins with a story set in a pre-revolutionary, Southern Chinese city where the Axe Gang has just taken over the territory under the leadership of the hip-swinging and cold-blooded Brother Sum (Chan Kwok-kwan). Happily slipping under their radar is a poor tenement community run by the mouthy Landlady (Yuen Qiu) and her philandering husband (Yuen Wah). That status changes when the petty criminal Sing (Stephen Chow) arrives on the scene with his large but mostly harmless companion (Lam Tze-chung).
In a failed attempt to hustle this small community of feisty folks, Sing inadvertently draws the attention of the Axe Gang with a literal bang. This sets the course for a battle between the community and the gang, forcing three kung fu heroes to come to their defense. This only escalates the conflict further as Brother Sum calls in professionals in the form of two killer harpists.
Ultimately beaten by the Landlord and Landlady, who emerge as martial arts masters themselves, Brother Sum enlists the aid of the opportunistic Sing who possesses a knack for picking locks, to free a notorious martial artist from prison named the Beast (Bruce Leung). The stage is set for a fierce fight between kung fu masters, just as Sing is forced to choose sides and accept his fate as a kung fu dynamo.
Stephen Chow had been refining his comedy formula for years when SHAOLIN SOCCER finally afforded him his first international breakthrough. Obviously well aware of this, Chow expands on just about everything that made SHAOLIN SOCCER such a hit, while paring down more extraneous bits like the romantic relationship and dialogue-heavy puns that generally fail to travel as well outside of Hong Kong. Nipping both issues in the bud is Chow’s leading lady, who not only has a very small part in the movie, but is also mute.
At the fore are screwball comedy antics heightened to extreme levels by fantasy CGI, married with Chow’s usual assortment of oddball characters and the fantastic kung fu choreography of Yuen Woo-ping and Sammo Hung. Sammo choreographed the first major fight scene before departing the production due to illness. Yuen took over for the remaining shoot.
SHAOLIN SOCCER was by far Chow’s funniest effort to date and it’s debatable whether or not KUNG FU HUSTLE matches this standard, let alone surpasses it. It is indeed a funny movie and more tightly directed but probably not as consistently funny as its predecessor.
There are a number of laugh-out-loud highlights that see Chow at his very best. This includes Sing’s failed assassination attempt on the Landlady and just about any scene where Chow lets his characters fully breathe. Perhaps the best example is a scene where the Landlady scolds her tenants for initially fighting back against the Axe Gang. Simply watching characters like the effeminate Tailor (Chiu Chi-ling) wearing red underpants and Rabbit-Tooth Jane interact with the Landlady is funny in of itself. But even when the film stretches a bit for laughs, as when Sing struggles to find a wimpy opponent among the tenants to fight with, it’s still amusing.
One of the movie’s greatest strengths is its smart parody of the martial arts movie genre, something that fans of the genre should appreciate more than your average viewer. First off is the casting of a number of notable kung fu movie stars. Stephen Chow has always had a knack for casting unique and funny actors that fit his movies like a glove, regardless of their popularity or lack thereof.
Chow, who has always adored all things Bruce Lee, smartly cast one of Hong Kong’s greatest stuntmen, Yuen Wah, as the Landlord. Once a nimble stuntman, Yuen Wah doubled for Bruce Lee in FIST OF FURY and ENTER THE DRAGON, and went on to display his acrobatic brilliance in many martial arts films before gaining some fame as a character actor in the ’80s and playing odd characters in movies like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung’s DRAGONS FOREVER.
In an even greater example of casting genius, Yuen Wah is paired perfectly with Yuen Qiu, one of the few successful stuntwomen in Hong Kong movie history. The two bear the same last name only because it is the name they took from the Chinese opera school they both studied at, the same school that produced Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. Sony erroneously throws “introducing Yuen Qiu” into their credits, when in fact she had simply retired from show business for a number of years after working on numerous kung fu movies as stuntwoman and actress. However, this role is unlike any she has had before and it’s appropriate that she should earn a nomination for Best Actress at the 2005 Hong Kong Film Awards.
Next up is Bruce Leung Siu-lung as the Beast. Leung was a kung fu star, mostly in the independent circuit, who had retired years ago. In choosing Leung over countless other former kung fu stars, Chow was apparently most inspired by Leung’s thinning hair. It’s a great choice as he ends up being one of the most unusual and memorable kung fu villains seen in recent years.
Less surprising is to find kung fu stunt actor Fung Hak-on playing one of the evil harpists. Fung often played creepy villains such as a pasty-faced killer tailor in DREADNOUGHT. He has a terrific fight with Chiu Chi-ling, who plays a more chivalrous tailor in this movie.
Chiu Chi-ling is another old school kung fu movie veteran, who had a brief part in another Stephen Chow movie, LEGEND OF THE DRAGON. In this movie, his specialty is in the use of iron rings that he wears on his wrists, but surely he’ll be best remembered for his effeminate prancing as he tearfully cries, “It’s not a crime to know kung fu.”
Also cast is Dong Zhi-hua as stick master Donut, a veteran of some of Chang Cheh’s final kung fu movies. He displays some very impressive staff and spear fighting skills.
Last but not least is an appropriate cameo role by Yuen Woo-ping’s brother, Yuen Cheung-yan, as the Beggar who sells ten-cent kung fu manuals at inflated prices to snot-nosed kids.
KUNG FU HUSTLE is as much about the mythical martial world, aka Jiang hu, as any swordplay movie or novel. It is the way in which Chow presents the story that makes it seem like something else. The idea of kung fu masters hidden in a poor community, a supreme master locking himself away until a worthy adversary appears, and exaggerated abilities like the chi-powered Buddha’s Palm are all manifestations of wuxia storytelling. Vaguely masked as a parody of THE MATRIX, Sing’s quick ascension to kung fu mastery is very much in line with swordplay convention as great kung fu power is often transferred to an initially unskilled hero. But even these wild conventions are stretched to new proportions as Chow tosses in live-action Road Runner chase scenes and a LORD OF THE RINGS-like duel as the harpists’ chi energy takes on the guise of ghostly swordsmen.
Although quite violent at times, nothing is taken seriously. The blasting of a helpless girl in the back with a shotgun segue ways into a dance routine. An action scene that begins with the beheading of a martial artist ends with Yuen Qiu performing a parody of Bruce Lee. By the end, all the violence takes on comic proportions as heads gets spun around and mashed into the floor and Axe Gang members are kicked around like pin balls, complete with sound effects.
In addition to tapping into popular wuxia storytelling, KUNG FU HUSTLE also draws on Chinese history and this is where the art direction and production team shine. A 1940s-style tenement is meticulously recreated for much of the film’s scenes. A city street provides a backdrop for some of the remaining scenes. As fully operational sets were constructed, the camera is able to perform long and elaborate pans, much the way Wes Anderson displayed in films like THE ROYAL TENEBAUMS and THE AQUATIC.
As for music, Raymond Wong scores perhaps the best Hong Kong movie soundtrack ever made. A full orchestra recreates traditional Chinese music that could have often been heard in Chinese swordplay films of the 1930s and ’40s. It’s nicely mixed with modern flourishes to compliment the film.
Comedy aside, KUNG FU HUSTLE delivers some terrific kung fu action. It’s often exaggerated by wirework and computer effects, but it’s always done in an entertaining and impressive fashion. Yuen Woo-ping clearly puts his experience with the MATRIX films to use here. The key element is visual impact. Walls crumble, floor crack and poles splinter as fighters destroy everything in sight. Enhancing this special effects-assisted look is competent screen fighting moves, particularly from the three kung fu heroes as played by Dong Zhi-hua, Chiu Chi-ling and Xing Yu. Yuen Wah also has some great fun performing some goofy Tai Chi moves with the harpists. No amount of their fighting is going to satisfy kung fu purists of course, but this is the most elaborate martial arts action yet seen in a Stephen Chow movie.
Combining highly creative martial arts action with zany characters, wild digital effects and Stephen Chow’s unique brand of slapstick comedy, KUNG FU HUSTLE is a frenzied work of comic and martial arts cinema genius.REVIEW: Kung Fu Hustle (2004),
Genre: Kung Fu • Kung Fu Hustle (2004) • Stephen Chow • Yuen Wah • Yuen Woo-ping