To me, Hong Kong cinema is like a hot girl’s underwear drawer. I know that they both contain exotic and thrilling treasures, but nervous trepidation prevents me from exploring them. For every time I’ve given up on a panty raid out of fear that I’d only find granny-pants or that I’d get caught in flagrante dilecto, there’s a Hong Kong action film that I decided not to see because I was afraid that it would be full of plot conventions and pop-culture references that would bewilder my Western mind.
“Kung Fu Hustle,” an award-winning action-comedy import from Hong Kong, helped me get over that fear by teaching me a simple lesson. You’ve got to approach these movies the same way you approach a mission to rifle through some chick’s lingerie: by conjuring up your inner 9-year-old boy.
I don’t mean to give the impression that the movie is as crude as one that a prepubescent boy might make. Indeed, you don’t need to be an expert in cinematic technique to see that “Kung Fu Hustle,” although light-hearted and full of slapstick, is an admirable piece of moviemaking.
Right from the movie’s opening—in which slow, elegantly-lit tracking shots reveal a precinct office full of terrified policemen, a sign that reads “Crime Busters,” and a projectile human body that effectively “busts” the sign—one gets the impression that endless hours of care went into the construction of each sight gag.
Don’t worry about being a Tarantino-esque movie snob and figuring out all the references to the movies of Kurosawa or whatever. Don’t worry about outdoing your friends in East Asian Studies by identifying all the subtle cultural motifs of Pre-Mao cultures of violence or blah blah blah. Just remember what it was like to watch “Looney Tunes” or “Power Rangers”—you laughed when people got hurt in goofy ways, you jumped up and down with excitement when two guys were totally using magic powers against each other, and you ignored the stuff you didn’t understand. And you had the time of your life.
In 1940s Shanghai, lovable vagabond Sing (played by writer/director/star Stephen Chow) accidentally sets off a war between the murderous Axe Gang and the residents of a quaint slum called Pig Sty. The latter are revealed to be not quite as helpless as they seem—an unusual number of them turn out to be Kung Fu masters—and wild fight scenes break out, with more than a little help from computer graphics and wire suspension. Sing, whose delivery is more Bill Murray than Jet Li, is caught in the middle—should he suck up to the bad guys, who he thinks will probably win, or fight for a nobler cause at the risk of getting his arse handed to him?
Within this framework, the movie tends to toggle between two settings: hilariously broad comedy and hypnotically surreal action sequences. The former is what garnered the film’s fame in the East, and such acclaim is deserved. The characters are easily recognizable archetypes—from the tough-as-nails Landlady (Qiu Yuen) and her drunken, bumbling husband (Wah Yuen) to the sadistic, moustache-twirling mastermind (Kwok Kuen Chan)—and every actor milks them for all they’re worth.
Chow himself expertly crafts a character whose adorable inadequacies prevent us from finding him morally reprehensible (his ill-fated attempt to throw knives at the Landlady will leave your ribs sore with giggles). The movie is chock-full of belly-laugh-inducing gags and individuals that require no knowledge of Asian culture to understand. In fact, some jokes—like the way in which fast-running characters develop blurry wheels where their legs should be—seem directly cribbed from American Saturday morning cartoons.
But it is the more serious, action-oriented portions of the movie that are likely to confuse and alienate the average American. For one thing, the battle scenes—choreographed by Hong Kong legend Yuen Wo-Ping—are a curious mix of live-action fighting and intentionally over-the-top special effects.
In the US, we tend to like our action movies to look real. So when a character flies into the clouds, sees a vision of the Buddha, and initiates a magical attack that causes a fifty-foot-wide imprint of his hand to crush his opponent, it’s difficult to take the movie seriously. Also, the fights are often slow and quiet, which throw off the American tendency to associate balls-to-the-wall action with lightspeed moves and witty banter.
However, I found these scenes wickedly enjoyable on a prepubescent level. At that age, you don’t yet understand the bounds between reality and fantasy, comedy and drama, subtlety and nonsense. Everything seems like some strange and awe-inspiring dream. I might be missing some of the cultural or cinematic intricacies, but I still had the time of my life at “Kung Fu Hustle”:. Hell, I’d take it over a girl’s ratty old underthings any day of the week.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars