Do the Hustle
Gravity and the basic laws of physics are, as it turns out, overrated. Tex Avery and Chuck Jones knew this and based entire animated universes upon the suggestion. Joe Dante has, on occasion (Gremlins 2: The New Batch, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, his episode from the ill-fated Twilight Zone movie), taken inspiration from it. Jackie Chan has even built a career out of trying to outright defy the laws themselves, with ever diminishing results. But Hong Kong triple-hyphenate superstar (writer-director-star) Stephen Chow has taken Avery, Jones and the whole Warners cartoon sensibility and translated it into a live-action universe where gravity and physics are not only overrated, they’re practically afterthoughts. His previous smash hit, Shaolin Soccer, posited a world designed to make Pele look like a third-stringer, where martial arts and soccer could coexist to create kicks hard enough to turn balls into flaming tigers that could strip a goalie of his uniform, and the field of its turf, upon chest impact. Soccer became the all-time box-office champ in Asia upon its release there, but in America it was acquired, then subsequently butchered by Miramax and shelved for two years. When the Weinsteins finally did present it last spring, after several announced dates that were all eventually reneged upon, the release resembled less a flaming tiger kick than an ineffectual dribble, and the public was spectacularly indifferent—perhaps partially because those who really wanted to see it had already done so by obtaining DVDs of the uncut original version from video stores and Internet sites specializing in Asian cinema.
If television and print advertising is any indicator, Sony Pictures Classics is working pretty tirelessly to ensure that the same fate does not befall Chow’s latest, the delirious action-comedy masterpiece Kung Fu Hustle. The movie takes place in a fantasy hybrid Hong Kong that seems to exist in the 20’s, the ‘70s and the present day all at the same time, and that’s fitting for Chow’s approach—Kung Fu Hustle is a parody of the stories, conventions and excesses of martial arts films, which gained popularity in the ‘60s and ‘70s and often took place in the early part of the 20th century, but it’s also respectful of those conventions and excesses—it’s like a zippy, manic condensation of every martial arts movie ever made, simultaneously a giddy commentary on those movies and a brilliant and genuine example of the genre.
Chow’s evocatively imagined Hong Kong, vibrantly photographed by veteran cinematographer Poon Hang-Sang (A Chinese Ghost Story), is dominated by the tuxedo-clad Axe Gang, murderers with a tendency to break into well-choreographed bursts of energetic dance after bloody encounters with police and various citizenry. The Axe Gang, however, focus their criminal intimidation only on areas of the city whose relative wealth makes it worth the trouble—the run-down complex of shops and apartments known as Pig Sty Alley would, therefore, seem beneath their murderous attention. However, when Chow and his obese sidekick (Shaolin Soccer's Lam Tze-Chung) stumble into Pig Sty Alley and try to pass themselves off as Axes, demanding favors and respect, they quickly discover that several of the Alley’s shopkeepers and residents, and even its monstrous, curler-laden landlady (veteran martial arts performer Yuen Qiu, returning to the screen after a 28-year absence—she rescued James Bond from a deadly dojo in The Man with the Golden Gun), are retired martial arts masters trying to live out their lives in quiet poverty and obscurity who don’t take well to intimidation tactics from obvious impostors.
I'm gonna wash that gang right outta my hair: Yuen Qiu in Kung Fu Hustle
The ensuing ruckus catches the attention of the Axe Gang, who unleash a barrage of attacks from various hired killers upon the Alley in an attempt to preemptively quash this potentially powerful force of resistance. Chow casts the denizens of Pig Sty Alley with an eye toward actual retired martial arts masters, like Yuen Qiu, and there’s considerable poignancy, comedy and power to be derived from loading up a kung fu movie with heroes who look, at least to audiences for whom the likes of Vin Diesel and the Rock are action movie models, decidedly unheroic. This casting extends to the movie’s centerpiece villain, the Beast (played by retired fighter and action choreographer Leung Siu-Lung), a homicidal maniac sprung from a frog-laden, deliberately Lecter-esque asylum dungeon who appears somewhat unprepossessing in his tattered hospital gown and green plastic zori, but who turns out to be the most resilient, terrifying and surprising villain of them all.
Chow is one of the only filmmakers working now whose use of computer-generated imagery doesn’t drive me up a tree. He’s not using the technology to augment what’s possible, in the manner of a Bad Boys 2 or a XXX, to try and convince the viewer’s eye that what it’s experiencing is some form of heightened realism when at the same time everything the effects are being configured to do serves as a constant reminder of the limits of actual stunt coordination and camera placement. Big Hollywood machines like these prime the viewer to “ooh” and “ahh” on cue while the very excess of the staging and choreography emphasizes the essential phoniness, the impossibility of the imagery, and therefore ends up distracting from the story rather than enhancing it. Chow, on the other hand, adeptly mixes real fighting skills with the various wire and editing tricks of martial arts movies past, and then stretches the boundaries of what’s possible not by demanding that you believe it with your mind, but that you accept the elasticity of the physics within the world he’s created with your eyes.
There’s a hilarious high-speed foot chase that deliberately evokes the Road Runner cartoons; an eerily brilliant sequence involving assassins who pluck out deadly high frequencies on stringed instruments that cut through the air and take the form of rampaging beasts; and individual fight sequences that are dizzyingly, beautifully staged, sending bodies exploding through walls and out the other side to somehow land on their feet, fists clenched, ready for more. During almost every moment of Kung Fu Hustle there’s something going on that either defies description or belief, but you’re never prompted to go “Gee, how’d they do that?” Instead, the movie sucks you into the eye of its hallucinatory hurricane and leaves you barely enough breath to gasp with delight and laugh like hell, which you will do. By the time a character casually takes on some of the throaty characteristics of your average anuran amphibian in order to prepare for battle, you’ve already seen so many amazing feats and eye-popping flights of fancy that you simply gasp, giggle, embrace the action and thank your lucky stars for the director’s wild and apparently boundless imagination.
Exhaustive in its cinematic references and in its reverence for the martial arts genre, yet somehow never exhausting to watch, Kung Fu Hustle feels all at once like the apex of the possibilities within a heartfelt parody/tribute, a slapstick Hong Kong answer to Kill Bill, and a love letter not only to some of the genre’s greatest performers, but to its audiences as well. And if it’s as big a hit in the United States as Sony Pictures Classics hopes it will be (it opens in very wide release theatrically today), it may also be the last purely Hong Kong movie Stephen Chow makes before crossing the Pacific on his inevitable journey to America. I can’t imagine a movie as unabashedly, wonderfully weird as Kung Fu Hustle ever getting green-lit through the paranoid Hollywood system, but a sensibility as potent as Chow’s might very well still be more interesting watered-down than the endless formulaic action trash and tepid TV remakes regularly offered by studios today. Here’s hoping he takes the lessons, bitter and sweet, learned by countrymen Jackie Chan, John Woo and others to heart and can sidestep some of the pitfalls that awaited them in the American movie business. Movies like Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle suggest that Chow may be able to bend like a reed in the Hollywood winds (and twist like a pretzel, and stretch like taffy, and snap back like a rubber band) better than most.
(For those inclined to check out pre-Soccer Chow, my friend and rabid Hong Kong aficionado the Mysterious Adrian Betamax suggests the following titles: From Beijing With Love, Chinese Odyssey 1 and 2, King of Beggars and God of Gamblers III. These titles, and others the M.A.B. has not yet seen, are available through Netflix.)