(2004) Directed by Stephen Chow; Written by: Man Keung Chan, Stephen Chow, Xin Huo and Kan-Cheung Tsang; Starring: Stephen Chow, Chi Chung Lam, Wah Yuen, Qiu Yuen and Siu-Lung Leung, Danny Chan and Eva Huang; Available on DVD.
“…for me, kung fu means something more…the spirit of Chinese kung fu. You learn how to fight, then you don’t have to.” – Stephen Chow (from 2005 interview with Ric Meyers)
I decided to kick off Hong Kong Month (Get it? “Kick” off? …Oh, kill me now.) with one of my favorite films from recent years, star/director/co-writer Stephen Chow’s audacious Kung Fu Hustle. Okay, truth be told, Kung Fu Hustle isn’t a pure Hong Kong production, but a Hong Kong-Chinese co-production, filmed in Shanghai, but Chow hails from Hong Kong, and the film has all the trappings of a Hong Kong production, so that’s good enough for me.
In the opening scene, set in 1940s Canton, we’re introduced to the brutal members of the Axe Gang, clad in black suits, huge top hats, and brandishing their signature weapon. They’re led by the sadistic Brother Sum (Danny Chan), who kills a rival gang leader and his girlfriend in front of the ineffectual police department, establishing himself as the undisputed kingpin. Sum meets unexpected resistance, however, from the residents of a local slum known as Pig Sty Alley. He soon realizes he must resort to other methods if he wishes to retain his stranglehold on the city.
Chow plays Sing, a regular schlub who wants to join the Axe Gang at any cost. He’s accompanied by his portly sidekick Bone (Chi Chung Lam), who gamely tries to support Sing and his pathetic attempts to convince others he’s a badass. Unfortunately for Sing, all of his schemes backfire miserably. In one scene, Sing and his companion are beaten up by an accountant on a trolley. In another scene, he tries to assassinate the troublesome landlady (Qiu Yuen) of Pig Sty Alley, but only ends up injuring himself.
Sing seems an unlikely candidate for a protagonist, but you just know at some point he’ll see the light. In a flashback, we witness young Sing being suckered by an ersatz wise man into spending his life savings on a cheap pamphlet that promises to teach him the secret of the legendary Buddhist Palm Technique. Armed with this “knowledge,” along with high-minded ideals of fighting for world peace and defending the innocent, he encounters his first real test, but is trounced by a bully. At that point, Sing figures nice guys finish last. Years later, he runs into the mute girl (Eva Huang) he once tried to protect, and responds to her kindness with cruelty. But despite Sing’s best efforts to convince the world he’s a criminal to be reckoned with, being a bad guy doesn’t really suit him. We soon learn that his destiny lies in a nobler path.
One of the recurrent themes in Kung Fu Hustle is that appearances are often deceptive. The gruff landlady and her lecherous husband are unlikable at first, but grow on you as the film progresses. We learn that she has valid reasons for disliking heroes and heroic deeds. When we first set eyes on the number one killer, known only as The Beast (Siu-Lung Leung), he’s an unassuming, balding, middle-aged man seemingly incapable of hurting a fly. But he quickly proves to a formidable adversary. Another key theme is that someone can transcend his or her station to become something greater. In a particularly prophetic moment, one character sagely observes, “You can’t escape your destiny.”
Kung Fu Hustle includes multiple references to Hong Kong and Hollywood movies. One of the residents of Pig Sty Alley, a tailor who’s also a kung fu master, wields steel rings on his arms, mimicking Gordon Liu in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Chow references his previous film, Shaolin Soccer, as his character unceremoniously stomps on a child’s soccer ball and proclaims “No more soccer” (A not-so-gentle reminder that this won’t simply be a follow up to his previous film). Even if you’re not a kung fu aficionado, you’ll find plenty of references to western flicks as well, including Reservoir Dogs, The Shining, Spider-Man, and perhaps most notable, the Warner Brothers Roadrunner cartoons (which figures in a spirited chase scene).
Among the many joys of the film is the magnificent production design by Oliver Wong. He masterfully evokes another time and place, from neon-drenched streets, to the garish abode of the Axe Gang, to the filthy slum of Pig Sty Alley. The characters come alive, thanks to inspired costumes by Shirley Chan, which alternately reflect the era and provide a fanciful touch. Composer Raymond Wong provides a stirring score to accompany the action and larger-than-life imagery.
Kung Fu Hustle is a love letter to Hong Kong cinema, told with panache and authority by Stephen Chow. Those looking for a straight martial arts film with gritty, realistic fight scenes amidst historically accurate settings will likely be disappointed by this fantastical approach. Filmgoers seeking an experience outside the norm will be rewarded by this exciting, surprisingly touching, and frequently hilarious movie.