Made Overseas: Kung Fu Hustle (2004)

Most of you have probably seen Kung Fu Hustle.  Multiple times, even.

The Stephen Chow movie was released in Hong Kong in 2004, but made a splash in the US in 2005. Roger Ebert once described this movie “like Jackie Chan and Buster Keaton meet Quentin Tarantino and Bugs Bunny.” And honestly? I probably could just stop this review right here. That’s basically all you need to know. I have no reservations.  The movie is highly recommended.

Which is why I’m going to start this review like the unpleasant CinemaSins guy by ranting on some things I didn’t like.  You know… to make you so mad that you comment on this article.  It’s all a sick game I play, you see, as a spider to this web where I try to attract hot takes for sustenance. Allow me to indulge my inner Richard Roeper, who was apparently not as hot on this movie as his reviewing counterpart.

Also, “indulge my inner Richard Roeper” is not something I ever expected to be typing in my life.

The transformation of Stephen Chow’s character, for example, whose name was… uh… let me pull up Wikipedia here… wait, his name was Sing?  Really?  Did they ever mention that in the movie? I’m just going to call him Stephen Chow.  So Chow starts off the movie as a conman who wants to be a part of the murderous Axe Gang.  Boo!  His actions end up getting a lot of good people killed.  So he’s not quite on good footing with me at the start.  His only redeeming value seem to be that, once upon a time, he rescued a mute girl named… uh… let me quickly switch Safari windows here… Fong?  OK.  He once rescued a mute girl named Fong from a bunch of bullies. She has a lollipop based crush on him, which gives him some humanity.

By the end of the movie he — SPOILER ALERT! — hits a bad guy on the head and we’re supposed to cheer for him now.  To be fair, a lot of this movie is a parody of tropes often seen in kung fu movies.  I believe Chow intentionally makes this character make-over as absurdly abrupt as possible.  Characters comment that he is “The One”, and with his skills he could probably make an incredible stuntman.  So yeah, I get what they were going for.  It doesn’t make Stephen Chow easier to root for, though, as he’s really not that far removed from being a slime ball.

And while I’m on my soapbox, slaughtering sacred cows and mixing metaphors, I can’t say I was too on board with Stephen Chow’s silly homage to Looney Tunes. Now, this movie is not above making overt connections between the silliness of wire-fu and cartoon slapstick. I liked a fight, for example, where one of the combatants attacks his enemies by barely missing the ground when falling after getting his lights punched out. It’s the “drunken style” fight style but done slightly more unrealistically.

But the part where Stephen Chow and the landlady, played by the scene-stealing actress and stuntwoman Yuen Qui, start spinning their legs like the Coyote chasing the Road Runner just was a step too far me. The CG is bad, and the humor is far too broad. It doesn’t quite fit into the milieu crafted by Kung Fu Hustle, where death and terror is real. If a character can just slam into a billboard and maybe sorta peel themselves offscreen, then how is it that other characters are being maimed, mutilated, and murdered?

After all, Kung Fu Hustle combines both terror and silliness in one surprisingly coherent package… the opening scene being it’s perfect distillation. The trailers make liberal use of footage where well-dressed men in suits and top hats dance while twirling axes axes. It’s fun and silly in that West Side Story way.

What the trailers don’t show you is the preceding scene. The Axe Gang, led by Brother Sum (Danny Chan Kwok-kwan), corner a couple on the abandoned streets of Hong Kong. The man is the leader of the Crocodile Gang, who’s just roughed up the local police commissioner for arresting his wife. Suddenly, he’s surrounded by men in top hats, some who were former members of his own gang. He tries to run. Brother Sum’s henchman throws and axe, which cuts off the man’s leg at the knees. The leader of the Crocodile Gang pleads for his life. Brother Sum is unmoved, and he hacks viciously at his victim. He then turns to the wife, who is now crying. He motions for her to go, saying that he doesn’t kill women. As she turns, Sum garbs a shotgun and blasts her in the back. It’s all rather terrifying.

And then… the bluesy music kicks up and the dance number starts.

The whole movie is full of these discordant moments. One moment you’ll get a thrilling action sequence where waves of men in black suits are thrown through the air like Agent Smith in the Matrix movies. No… better than the Agent Smith scenes in the Matrix movies. The next, you’re watching in horror as a cat gets cut in half. This movie will make you laugh with all its pratfalls, but it will haunt you as well.

It also does a keen job at world building.  The Axe Gang may thing that they’re the big dogs in Shanghai.  However, they’re a little like the Empire from Star Wars.  Their power struggles are but window dressing in the real war between the Jedi and Sith… or in the case of Kung Fu Hustle, kung fu masters who are trying to prove how much stronger they are than their rivals.  The Axe Gang finds the hard way when Stephen Chow feigns lighting a signal, and a local capo tries to extort the residents of Pig Sty Alley.  When he gets not response, he douses a woman and child with gas and is about to light them on fire… and this being a Stephen Chow movie, that is a very, very good possibility he’s going to go through with it.  A young child is murdered at the beginning of Journey to the West, for God’s sake!

Fortunately for this poor family, three kung fu masters had secretly taken up residence in the Alley. A laborer named Coolie (Xing Yu, and damn you AutoCorrect this is the fifth time tying his name and I did not want it to read “Ling You”) shows up first, knocking around Axe Gang with his blazing kicks. Next, the meek Tailor (Chiu Chi-ling) knocks down a curtain rod and slide his fists into some rings to deliver some heavy metal beatings. Finally, the baker named Donut (Dong Zhihua) knocks a few more heads with an arsenal of bamboo rods. Most of the kung fu masters in this film are, shall we say, either eligible or approaching the age for membership in the AARP. I imagine this movie, like most recent Jackie Chan films, has a strong appeal to viewers of a certain age who want to see some grandparents lay the smackdown of a bunch of young whippersnappers.

You smash that punk in the face good, Chiu Chi-ling!

Also appealing to viewers of a certain age: Pig Sty Alley itself. it was on my fifth viewing of this movie that I realized I had a certain nostalgia for the grimy, grungy world of Pig Sty Alley. I know it’s supposed to be the lowest level of poverty, so low that the Axe Gang doesn’t even bother dealing with the residents because they have no money to give. There’s no water, the landlord are awful, and walls are made of cold, ugly concrete. But, dang, I still sorta love it. Maybe it’s because once upon a time, I did live there… maybe not in an apartment community but rather in crowded, tightly packed housing in the rural Philippines. I wonder if perhaps Chinese viewers felt the same tinge of nostalgia as well, remembering a world before many of these slums got torn down to make way for the modern metropolises of steel and glass.

Though I’m guessing a lot of my love for Pig Sty Alley is for the residents themselves. Sure, there’s the hidden kung fu masters and the mouthy landlady. There’s also a guy who can’t pull his pants up and scoops up water from the puddles so he can shampoo his hair. Also the town flirt who slathers way too much make-up on her face. And various guys who are way too tall or are way too stacked. The last ones are a visual gag, but they help paint Pig Sty Alley as a lively community where oddballs from all walks of life hang out with each other on a regular basis. I want to live there.

The Axe Gang can’t stand a bruised ego or the thought that there are people in Pig Sty Alley more powerful than them. They hire kung fu masters of their own to snuff out their enemies, permanently.  The movie goes full-on Dragonball Z, with new fighters bringing in skills that have less to do with hitting and more to do with either summoning ghost blades or puffing out their throats using their scary bullfrog powers.

First, a pair of blind musicians are brought in, who defeat their enemies through the power of plunky string instruments.  While the earlier Pig Sty Alley battle is a joyous celebration of chaos and jump-kicking, this fight is more eerie and cerebral.  Next comes The Beast (Bruce Leung Siu-lung), a devious kung fu master who can stop bullets with his fingers.  It’s a massive ramp up of powers, basically turning these guys into superhumans who can punch giant hand-sized holes buildings.

Is it silly? Is it awesome? As they say around these parts, it can be two things.

The movie is so reference heavy that it would Peter Griffin’s head spin.  There are call-outs to both Eastern and Western pop culture moments, from Spider-Man to the Blues Brothers to The Shining to Infernal Affairs to Way of the Dragon to wuxia novels.  Cataloguing all of them would cause IMDb to develop its own gravitational field.  Move over, Michael Bolton: this Stephen Chow guy is a cinephile.  I did wonder how many of the Western references would go over the heads of Chinese audiences.  Probably the same percentage as the Chinese references going over my head. You got to admire this movie for its relentless two-front “I get that reference” attack.

Not that culture shock dulled the effectiveness of this movie. It’s fun, it’s memorable, and it resonated with audiences. Even the deaths don’t sting that much in the end. You almost expect there to be a curtain call, where everyone, even the dead characters, come back one last time to take a bow and wave at the audience. The artifice is intentional and pronounced and not unwelcome.

Kung Fu Hustle was a huge hit on release in 2004.  It was the highest grossing Hong Kong movie, beating Chow’s own 2001 movie, Shaolin Soccer.  (A movie referenced here, too, with Chow stomping on a soccer ball when he makes his entrance.) It would remain that way all the way to 2011 when it was beat by You Are The Apple of My Eye.

Kung Fu Hustle is currently available for streaming on Hulu.

NEXT:  It’s a tale as old as time as we finally leave my familiar stomping grounds in Asia. We look at Beauty and the Beast.

No, not that one.

Not that one either.

The one with Lea Seydoux.