Kung fu (2004)


(director/writer: Stephen Chow; screenwriter: Tsang Kan Cheong; cinematographer: Hang-Sang Poon; editor: Angie Lam; music: Raymond Wong; cast: Stephen Chow (Sing), Yuen Wah (Landlord), Leung Siu Lung (the Beast), Chiu Chi Ling (Tailor), Xing Yu (Coolie), Chi Chung Lam (Sing’s Sidekick), Huang Sheng Yi (Fong), Yuen Qiu (Landlady), Kwok Kuen Chan (Brother Sum), Dong Zhi Hua (Donut); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Po Chu Chui/Jeffrey Lau/Stephen Chow; Sony Pictures Classics; 2004-Hong Kong-in Mandarin and Cantonese with English subtitles)

“A brilliant kung fu “nonsense style” special effects action/comedy film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

International star and director-writer, the 42-year-old Stephen Chow (“Shaolin Soccer,” his first American film in which Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein’s failure to promote the brilliantly comic/action film led to it being largely ignored), Hong Kong’s most bankable film star, creates a brilliant kung fu “nonsense style” special effects action/comedy film, a homage to Bruce Lee kung fu classics that follows along the lines of the Quentin Tarantino’s maxim of a love of filmmaking over all other considerations. That it succeeds as both a spoof and a real martial arts flick, is no easy task to accomplish. Chow makes this unique style of lunacy do for the action genre what the Marx Brothers did for comedy.

In “Hustle” he casts himself as a loser whose only ambition is to join the notorious Shanghai Axe Gang, a hatchet-toting army of dark-suited hoodlums in top hats (always ready to dance like Fred Astaire in Irving Berlin’s Top Hat) led by the always sneering rotten-toothed Brother Sum (Kwok Kuen Chan). In the tenement slum hamlet known as Pig Sty Alley, Chow is hustling a barber with his overweight and mentally-challenged partner Sidekick (Lam Tze Chung) by pretending to be members of the Axe Gang. Chow refuses to pay the barber for Sidekick’s haircut because he made him look too nice, and instead wants the barber to pay him. The barber demands his payment and the poor neighborhood proves to be filled with ordinary citizen kung fu specialists who are not afraid to die, and they easily thrash the wannabe gangsters who retreat by hurling a firecracker up in the air. This brings the Axe Gang into town when the firecracker lands on the hat of the gang’s leader, and the blame is laid on the feet of the timid appearing locals. But even the real gang gets whacked around by the townies.

The battles escalate as the gang hires professional killers with specialized skills to attack the town in fights that are aided by freewheeling CGI images, aerial acrobatics, kick-punch fights and countless visual gags, and where the nonstop action is fast and furious and not a bit concerned with such usual narrative staples as character development and plot. The humble poor are now led against the professionals by their shrill landlady (Yuen Qiu), who dangles a cigarette from her snarling lips and whose chief weapon is executing the Lion’s Roar–a voice so loud that it makes one quiver with fear. Her hubby, the Landlord (Yuen Wah), also proves to be a master in kung fu even though he’s viewed as a drunk, a womanizer, a free-loader and under the thumb of his overbearing wife.

In the finale, it leads to a true master being discovered as his vital energy signs are reawakened by a beating from the number one nemesis, an untidy, porcine, middle-aged lunatic escapee from the mental asylum dressed in underwear, going by the handle of the Beast (Siu Lung Leung). This enables the unlikely kung fu hero to live out his destiny as prophesized by a hustling derelict street peddler when he was a child, who sold him for $10 a self-help comic book pamphlet entitled the Scroll of the Golden Palm–which changed his plans to study for law or medicine.

“Hustle” offers a classic confrontation between the colorful underdogs and the wretched heavies (the ones you would boo in the days of the silent films), but does it in such an absurd manner that it seems more cartoonish than the cartoons yet still retains the flavor of being a typical live-action flick. It’s a unique cinema experience that is flavored just right for an American audience seeking escapism, and it has the potential to become a growing subgenre of the kung fu market.