Kung Fu Hustle (2004)

Posted by on Dec 30, 2011 in Let's Get Ready to Rumble | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: Lots and lots of cartoonish violence.

The poster for Kung Fu Hustle says everything you need to know. A man, who from the title we can guess to be a martial artist, holds a lollipop in one hand and a hatchet in the other, against a background of huge explosions. Stephen Chow’s best film thus far has tons of iconic fighting and action, a strong sense of childlike innocence, and an excellent sense of humor.

If you’re not familiar with Chow, he’s Hong Kong’s answer to Mel Gibson or Aamir Khan, a one-man crew who acts as director, producer, star, and writer on most of his films. In terms of style, however, Chow is best compared to Quentin Tarantino, who likewise has a knack for paying homage to the media of his childhood.

His films delightfully take little to no plot explanation. In this case, he uses the template of a revisionist 40s gangster flick, where the most powerful troupe is the sharp-suited Axe Gang. Chow plays Sing, a plain dude who poses as a member of the Axe Gang for personal advancement. When he mouths off and picks a fight in Pig Sty Alley, it starts an epic battle between the poor little burb and the entire Axe Gang. But thousands of the gang’s members are bested by a few kung fu masters disguised as commoners, so the gang vows to find the world’s greatest assassins and destroy the town. The classic finalé is a battle of clichés: black versus white, young versus old.

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The three masters of Pig Sty Alley (and many of the actors in the film, for that matter) are Chow’s childhood heroes. The landlord is played by Yuen Wah, a veteran of 70s film in Hong Kong and the stunt double of Bruce Lee. The landlord’s wife, an out-of-shape smoker and all-star bitch, is played by Yuen Qiu (The Man with the Golden Gun). The third master in the town is a tailor played by Chiu Chi Ling, who has appeared in more than 70 kung fu flicks alongside Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Chow Yun Fat. Each has a specific skill or penchant, much like superheroes.

The most deadly master in the world, known as “The Beast,” is played by Leung Siu Lung, commonly referred to as the “Third Dragon” (Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan being the other two). Famed directors Zhang Yibai and Feng Xiaogang make cameo appearances.

Chow’s character seems out of Hustle3place – not nearly as interesting as these unbelievable talents. But given an emotional backstory that kids can identify with and some long-lost parents, Chow gets much more interesting (wink wink). Like in CJ7 and Shaolin Soccer (whose success moved this film forward), Chow once again plays a member of the poor, working class, who lives out a strange rags-to-riches story (in this case failing as a villain and becoming a hero instead).

The most refreshing thing about Chow’s movies is the casting of the “rarely seen nor heard.” He flaunts these characters as heroes, defying the traditional presentation of gender, social class, age, weight, and sexuality. It’s absolutely fantastic – especially for kids to see. If a plain old town like Pig Sty Alley has heroes who are chubby mothers, homosexual tailors, or the tattered and unemployed, then just about anyone can be a hero.

Of course, the thing that makes Kung Fu Hustle famous is the kung fu. Chow impeccably combines the action heroes of the 70s with the new kung fu movement marked by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. The incredible choreography made possible by wires and CGI was expertly planned by Sammo Hung and Yuen Woo-ping, two veterans with iconic filmmaking under their belts as far back as the 60s and as recent as The Matrix.

Now I understand that some parents  are hesitant to screen violent live-action films for their children. I understand. I mean, who am I to tell you what to do?  But if you are one of them, please reserve instant judgment of this film simply because it has “kung fu” in the title. If ever there was a case for kids safely watching violence, it is with Kung Fu Hustle. It is comic. It is moral. It is tamer than Looney Tunes. I promise.

But if you want to keep your kids from imitating what’s on the screen, good luck. If I saw this when I was 10, my brother and I would be in bare feet and robes reenacting the fight scenes daily … or at least until we turned on Ghostbusters.

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