What did we do right as a collective species to deserve Stephen Chow? While I have to be honest and admit I haven’t seen the entirety of his filmography, when I first saw 2001’s Shaolin Soccer I honestly thought my brain was going too explode out the back of my brain with joy. A sublime example of someone of high intelligence making the silliest, dumbest film you can imagine, I honestly thought this movie could only be a one off – and then years later I saw Kung Fu Hustle…
Now, while I freely admit that singing Chow’s praises after seeing only two of his movies would be the same if you claimed to be an eternal fan of Taika Watiti after only ever viewing What We Do In The Shadows and Thor: Ragnarok; Kung Fu Hustle is the director perfecting his style of dumping classic Jackie Chan movies into a fusion reactor, adding a huge dose of Looney Tunes cartoons and stepping back as we worship the beautiful mutant that prat-falls out at our feet.
In 1940’s Shanghai, all criminal activities have been taken over by the bloodthirsty Axe Gang, a brutal group who holds the local neighbourhoods in a grip of fear due to their fixation on Hatchets and some flashy dance moves. However, only the poorest areas manage to escape the tyranny of bossman Brother Sum and this brings us to the peaceful slum of the charmingly named Pigsty Alley, a shithole run by an utterly terrifying landlady and her philandering husband. Into Pigsty Alley comes small time con men Sing and Bone, hoping to pose as Axe Gang members in order to extort protection money from the townsfolk, but due to the fact that they have all the common sense of a baked potato, they inadvertently start a feud between the real Axe Gang and the various kung fu masters who have chosen the slum to live out their lives in peace.
As the feud escalates, Sing sees this as a chance to join the Axe Gang for real, having a strong desire to be bad ever since getting his ass whipped as a child for trying to be heroic, but as Brother Sum insists in bringing in outside martial artists to dispose of the people who have defied him, things begin to get completely out of control and soon he has to resort to getting Sing to break a notorious assassin known only as the Beast out of the local asylum. The Beast, a master of every martial art that exists, has gone insane in the search to find a worthy opponent and finds the challenge too much to resist, but Sing, finally having pangs from his long-dead conscience (he should, he fucking started this whole mess), realises that he should try to put a stop to the hostilities – but how can a two-bit hustler hope to get the attention of the deadliest fighter on earth?
Possibly the most impressive thing about Kung Fu Hustle is that Chow has given us a masterpiece in modern Kung Fu that rightly can stand proudly alongside Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and House Of Flying Daggers despite featuring a scene where someone stubbonly complains about water pressure with their arse crack hanging out in full close up. Flat out refusing to take itself even remotely seriously, it’s a welcome change from the usual, po-faced antics that tended to usually stem from the neo-kung fu flicks at the time and central to this is Chow’s willingness to cast himself as a complete and utter shit. Taking the kind of self deprecating physical comedy of Jackie Chan’s finest moments and adding a further element of ridiculous cartoon violence to his idiot lead, Sing is petty, selfish and horribly overconfident (he’s not even that good a hustler) to the point that any misfortune that befalls him is usually entirely welcome and hugely funny. Possibly in the movie’s stand out comedy sequence, Sing’s aborted attempt to assassinate Qiu Yuen’s monstrous Landlady firstly ends up with him first him and then Bone accidently stabbing him repeatedly before having him savaged by angry snakes. As utterly genius as this scene is, Chow then guns the throttle and goes full on into comic absurdity as the vengeful Landlady, a cigarette drooping eternally from the corner of her permanently sneering mouth, gives chase as Sing flees for his life and both their legs turn into spinning blurs literally like something out of Roadrunner as they tear off down the road.
While some Kung Fu purists may suck in a deep breath of horror at the thought of such obvious visual effects embellishing the action scenes (thugs get literally punched 50 feet into the air), but this is merely a natural progression of what Chow had already accomplished with the madcap genius of Shaolin Soccer. While that previous movie felt like live action anime on ketamine, the director here refines that style slightly to make it’s superpowered kung fu experts and vicious slapstick slightly more easy for a western audience to swallow, creating stand out sequences that elicit laughs and gasps in equal measure.
Joining Chow in this delving into fantastical fisticuffs is a selection of retired martial arts stars such as Bruce (Deadly Hands Of Kung Fu) Leung, Yuen (Dragons Forever) Wah, Chau (Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow) Chi Ling and many others and it gives proceedings the feeling of almost a colourful celebration of the art form.
There’s a point to be made that maybe the CGI could be a little more refined, but that’s to miss the point of the film in general, it’s supposed to be hyper real and cartoonish – this isn’t The Matrix, this is a film where murderous harpists can behead a victim with the sharpness of their notes or someone can scream loud enough to leave their dazed victim wearing nothing but their pants. That being said, even without digital exaggeration, the fights in this movie are unfeasibly solid and even in this world of rubber bones and unkillable Landlords, a punch in the face is still a punch in the face and that shit looks like it hurts.
But all of this would just be weird, obnoxious noise if Chow didn’t inject this world of delusional lunatics and vain idiots with a massive dose of heart that keeps you heavily invested, even when affairs are at their most demented – which, to be honest, could easily be any part of the whole damn movie, glorious such as it is. A massively refreshing experience quite unlike any other, Kung Fu Hustle is a martial arts movie with extra wallop.