Kicks and Giggles

Those who monitor popular cinema don't have a super-abundance of positive developments to report these days. The once great highway of mass entertainment has been a pretty lonely road—which may be why the puff of Steamboy or the arrival of Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle looms so large against the horizon. The 42-year-old Chow is the reigning king of Hong Kong comedy as well as the industry's most bankable star. As a writer-director, he's also something of an auteur. Kung Fu Hustle split last year's Hong Kong Film Awards with Wong Kar-wai's 2046, and as cheerfully cheese dog as the Chow opus appears, it's no less personal than 2046—and perhaps even more so.

A martial arts film that's gloriously nonsensical and kickass deflationary (the Chinese title is simply Kung Fu), Kung Fu Hustle is most obviously autobiographical in referencing—largely through its casting—the Bruce Lee-era movies of Chow's adolescence. The mode, however, is not nostalgic. Kung Fu Hustle misses few opportunities to parody China's (and Sony Classics') current Crouching Flying Heroizing cinema of quality, not to mention The Matrix and Gangs of New York. Indeed, Kung Fu Hustle's major set suggests a Five Points knockoff—Chow has also said that this vast tenement, known as Pig Sty Alley, is like one in which he grew up. As in a kid's fantasy, the place becomes a cosmic battleground. The catalyst is Chow's role-playing. The typically underdog Chow character—a sneak thief with dreams of glory—pretends to be a member of the dread Axe Gang in order to shake down a local barber. The ploy not only backfires but precipitates a full-scale invasion of Pig Sty Alley by a horde of hatchet-wielding, top-hat-wearing dandies.

No less than Jerry Lewis, Chow will do nearly anything for a laugh—as his booger jokes demonstrate. His comic persona was largely built on deadpan motormouth ranting, and Kung Fu Hustle applies the same principle to action. No special effect is too primitive nor sight gag too old. The movie plays with accelerated action as much as any since the advent of sound. Chow also dotes on CGI mutations, subjecting body shapes, weather patterns, and space itself to a variety of eccentric shifts. Meanwhile, the characters vent their proscenium-bending complaints: “It's tiring being tough!” “How come every time you get hurt you recover so fast?”

For much of the movie, Chow is flung around, haplessly absorbing punishment from a number of unlikely sources. In one gag, he leads a bullying middle-aged lady on a high-speed footrace through the countryside, tracking her progress by using the knives sticking out of his body as a rearview mirror. But then he realizes his destiny—namely making this particular psychodrama—and becomes a martial arts genius. (This fate was determined when, as a child, he bought the Scroll of the Golden Palm—kind of a sacred comic book—from a derelict peddler.)

Once the denizens of Pig Sty Alley likewise turn out to be secret kung fu masters, the tenement's shabby courtyard becomes the arena for the application of sticks, spears, and menacing hex gestures. Teeth fly and screams shatter bricks. The indescribable assortment of space-warping, shape-shifting, gravity-juggling shenanigans are worthy of the Elder splash panels in early Mad or the digital effects in Michael Snow's Corpus Callosum. In the last battle, Chow is dropkicked into the sky, where he terrifies the birds and sees the face of a cloud-formed Buddha before returning to earth as a deadly missile.

The fights were choreographed by master Yuen Wo Ping and, escalating from straightforward kick-punch-and-parry through aerial acrobatics to delirious CGI freestyle, they are as spectacular as they are laughable. Chow manages to have his cake and eat it too: Kung Fu Hustle is a kung fu parody that's also a terrific kung fu movie.


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