You have to admire actor/director Stephen Chow for producing such gloriously entertaining and visually pleasing cinema. I like to think of him as the Jackie Chan for a new generation. I’m not discrediting Chan with this statement, he will always be a master at what he does – Chaplin-esque physical martial arts comedy. Both are entertainers of the highest caliber, they just have different approaches to their craft.
The first time I saw Stephen Chow was in 2003s Shaolin Soccer. I remember hearing about the movie months before its release in this country and as soon as I spotted it in my video store I snapped it up. With a strange blend of love story, kung fu movie and the world’s most beloved sport, Shaolin Soccer was an eye opening watch. It may have been a little rough around the edges but overall it combined great characters, martial artistry and computer-generated graphics into a fun and agreeable mix.
Set in 1930’s China, Kung Fu Hustle (original title, Gong fu) tells the story of Sing (Stephen chow) an ordinary street thug who just wants to be a gangster. The gang to be in is the Axe Gang, headed up by Brother Sum (Chan Kwok Kwan), who rule their territory with intimidation and violence (usually involving the axes from which the gang takes its name). In an attempt to swindle the residents of a tiny community out of some money Sing and his none-too-willing partner pose as members of this gang only to be exposed by the community of Pig Sty Alley. When the real axe gang get involved in the fray – offering genuine membership to Sing and his partner for their services – Pig Sty Alley is revealed as a safe haven for several retired kung fu masters. The Axe gang get their butts kicked and, naturally, vow revenge on the townspeople. They enlist Sing and his partner to assassinate the Landlady (played brilliantly by Yuen Qiu). But, as Sing’s repeated assassination attempts continue to fail it becomes obvious that his destiny might lie on another path.
It’s over the top, ridiculous in areas (there’s a chase sequence right out of a Looney Tunes cartoon) and definitely nonsensical in certain parts but Kung Fu Hustle is pure screwball cinema bliss. Having been involved in Hong Kong cinema for years Stephen Chow uses “Mo Lei Tau” or a nonsense style of filmmaking extensively. Wikipedia.org defines this style as using, “nonsensical parodies, juxtaposition of contrasts, and sudden surprises in spoken dialogue and action.” Kung Fu Hustle draws on several different film styles, character types and plot devices, mashes them all up and produces a film that is one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen all year.
Where Jackie Chan has stuck solely with a physically-based filmmaking approach (usually doing all his own stunt work) and only recently venturing into the realm of CGI (computer generated graphics) with films like The Medallion, Stephen Chow embraces both of these styles. Some people will call it messy and unstructured but for me it works just fine.
There was always a sense of, “What’s going to happen next?” when I was watching this film and this is where the movie is its strongest. Surprise. Stephen Chow knows how to entertain and keep his audience sitting straight up in their seats, anticipating more.
Kung Fu Hustle does, unfortunately, suffer from some shoddy CGI. It isn’t terrible but again, and I know I harp on and on about this, it takes you out of the film world – even if it is just for a split second – and you begin to question the believability of what you’re seeing. The film also ends a bit too neatly. You know what’s going to happen, but when it does there is no build up or progression, it just happens. I was slightly irritated that the final reveal – involving Sing and his destiny – wasn’t crafted a bit more skillfully.
That said, I look forward to Stephen Chow’s transition into mainstream Hollywood circles. It may not happen soon, and until then I hope his earlier efforts make their way to this country. Kung Fu Hustle is superb entertainment.