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Kung Fu Hustle
Reviewed by Andrew Kozma, © 2005

Format: Movie
By:   Stephen Chow
Genre:   Kung Fu Gangster Romance
Released:   April 21, 2005 (wide release date)
Review Date:   May 03, 2005
Audience Rating:   Rated "R"
RevSF Rating:   9/10 (What Is This?)

Okay, hands up. Who doesn’t want to watch dancing gangsters? (Especially after the stellar success of Cop Rock.) And who doesn’t want to see violence aesthetisized to the point where it becomes so beautifully unreal that it turns disturbing again? Fine, fine, you in the back, go get up against the wall.

The rest of you lucky, daring souls, prepare to be enchanted.

This is a different sort of enchantment: The fairy godmother hasn’t come when you, as a child, were sleeping in your bassinet, and blessed your future, nor will you be surrounded by walls of thorns until your prince(ss) comes to wake you with the smell of popcorn and the quick smack of a beer bottle opening. This enchantment is more disorienting, less comforting, and, though it promises a happy ending, it doesn’t promise people won’t be irretrievably hurt along the way.

Stephen Chow, director and co-writer, stars as Sing, a man who just wants to be bad. Well, specifically, he wants to be bad in terms of being a gang member so he can get the respect, luxury, and women that come with the association. Luckily for us, he’s hapless, as is his sidekick (Chi Chung Lam).

Chow is the star even though he doesn’t appear for the first ten minutes of the movie. After the scene has been set — the city is controlled by ruthless gangs, all except for the areas that are too poor — Sing and his sidekick show up and try to hustle the poor people out of their money, precipitating the chain of events that drives the movie forward, leading to romance, coming of age (if such can be said for someone in his thirties), and lots of lots of lots of violence. Not as much as Sin City, and not as brutal, but shining in most every scene just the same. In fact, there’s a scene that echoes exactly a scene in Sin City — it’s quite possibly a reference to the comic book.

Kung Fu Hustle shares Quentin Tarantino’s manic conglomeration of genres and forms, tricks and styles, from cartoon violence and action to romance to the tropes of gangster films, blended, of course, with everything you’d expect from a film with kung fu in the title. Unlike Tarantino, though, the pieces of Stephen Chow’s movie aren’t smoothly interlaced; they’re more stitched, the seams obvious, the cartoon-like chase scene suddenly grafting itself to the up-and-coming gangster flick. Jarring shifts lead the viewer on; on reflection they really aren’t shifts, but insertions, splices, overlays, where suddenly a song-and-dance number slips into a vicious murder.

And this is five minutes into the film. If the sheer absurdity of the sequence of events onscreen doesn’t make you smile, your funny bone’s hustled. Or bustled. Or maybe just busted; perhaps your funny bone isn’t what you think it is and is simply a traditional serious narrative bone in disguise.

Of course, this is also why I think this movie may not be a break out hit among American audiences — it’s simply so strange. Stranger than the obvious absurdity of Shaolin Soccer, since Hustle isn’t simply a mashing together of two different genres as Shaolin Soccer is. Watching Hustle is entering Stephen Chow’s dream: The elements all fit tonally, but they are connected in ways that are completely unexpected and ungrounded (until later in the film) by what has come before.

For a moment (take a breath) I want to talk about the fight scenes. Yes, yes, it’s a kung fu movie, what did you expect? The fights in this movie are really interesting and fun though, strangely, they aren’t the focus; the combat is like that in Hero, where the fighting is more a storytelling tool to show character interaction than martial-arts porn you’ve been suffering (fast-forwarding?) through a bad movie to see.

There are times when the fighting comes off as Matrixesque, especially in a scene near the end: Think Mr. Smiths. Scenes filled with kung fu masters, especially with master against master, develop good tension, or at least a feeling of rooting for the underdog. Really, however, the movie plays kung fu as a kind of magic, so the amazement that comes from watching masters perform their tricks is beautiful, but in a Neo-avoiding-a-bullet-rain way instead of a Jackie-Chan-oh-my-god-he’s-actually-doing-this way.

And that’s not the only nod, um, steal from The Matrix, or other movies, cartoons, etc. — but that’s secondary in a movie like Kung Fu Hustle, even as the references/homages are secondary to Kill Bill. As one of my friends pointed out, the movie isn’t much for character development or even complicated plot gymnastics. Although you may not figure out exactly what’s happening until the (near) end, every action and every scene fits into place nicely so that while Kung Fu Hustle may be surprising, it is never unexpected. Even the fighting scenes have a rock-paper-scissors feel because we are introduced to people, from the very beginning, who overpower all who came before them (with one notable exception).

But how can you attack a movie for (lack of) character development when five of the major characters are referred to only by their professions, and only five characters are named at all? The female romantic lead is even mute, relegating her role to that of movie prop. As you might expect, the evil characters kill, the good characters die, but the good characters never kill the evil; that, of course, would make them evil. (Remember He-Man pulling Skeletor back over the edge of a cliff? Same logic.) The movie is not an allegory, but it very closely walks the line of a dream/fantasy/fairy tale, with Sing as the protagonist that we can all identify with.

The question is, how did Stephen Chow know we all wanted to run a candy store?

RevSF assistant film editor Andrew Kozma is a kung fu master of the kung pao (some call it funky) chicken.

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