Written by, directed by and starring: Stephen Chow
With: Wah Yuen, Qiu Yuen, Kwok Kuen Chan, Siu Lung Leung, Dong Zhi Hua, Chiu Chi Ling, Xing Yu and many more
Stephen Chow's becoming a bit of a phenomenon in cinema. His last film, Shaolin Soccer, was the most successful film ever to be made in Hong Kong. You may have seen a clip from it, as a video capture of one of the characters parking her car using kung fu was doing the rounds as a file with a name like PMT Parking or some such.
Kung Fu Hustle has already surpassed the takings of his earlier film, and after seeing it I can understand why. So what's the plot? Well, not that it's particularly important, the dreaded Axe Gang hold sway over the entire city - only the unspeakably poor and unsavoury district of Pig Sty Alley has been left alone, because they haven't got anything worth taking. Then Stephen Chow's character arrives with his best mate, trying to work a con in which they are masquerading as members of the Axe Gang. Needless to say it doesn't work, and the real Axe Gang start paying attention. Not good for Pig Sty Alley, and even less good for our two con-men, who find themselves in the middle of a rapidly escalating conflict.
Now, I've seen many Hong Kong films before, but I've never seen anything like this. Even though the cast reads like a who's who of 1970's kung fu cinema, the fight scenes often owe more to Tex Avery's manic cartoons than they do to Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee. There are several sly digs at western film classics, and the Matrix films in particular come in for a lot of abuse: the backstory about the origins of Stephen Chow's character involve a meeting with a scruffy beggar who sells him a kung fu manual at an exorbitant price - and the beggar is Yuen Woo Ping, who (as I'm sure you know) choreographed the Matrix fights for the Wachowski brothers. At one point there is a complete and extended mickeytake of the Burly Brawl from Matrix Reloaded which had me howling with laughter. Saying more would just spoil things. Other film references? Well, the landlord and landlady of Pig Sty Alley sometimes look like they've come straight out of a Pedro Almedovar film, there's a striking sequence that ought to have Stanley Kubrick's lawyers sitting up and taking notice, there are many nods to Quentin Tarantino throughout the film, and there's even a Chinese take on Danny Ackroyd's "No ma'am. We're musicians" line from the Blues Brothers.
As a director, Chow is very gifted; I particularly liked a nice piece of foreshadowing in the opening title. The film starts off very dark in tone, and after five minutes you're just as afraid of the Axe Gang as everyone else - so when the rest of the film happens you're just as amazed as the bad guys are.
There are some wonderfully loopy moments. For example: at one point a character is dying, and delivers his final warning. As he does so you suddenly realise he's speaking in English. "Why aren't you speaking Chinese?" the person with him asks. At another point, the landlady delivers the bizarre line "What's with the red underpants?" to one of the Pig Sty's tenants who has become soaked in water and is suffering from somewhat transparent clothing. Then there are several instances where characters reveal what at first sight looks like mighty martial arts skills - only for someone else to slap them round the head or beat them up, and one sequence ending with an advertising hoarding looks like it came straight out of a Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote cartoon. My only criticism would be that the section of the film involving the two kung fu musicians drops the film back into a much darker mood. While this was fine at the beginning for the reason I've already noted, at a later point if feels misplaced and heavy handed. The sequence also takes a very different, almost allegorical approach to the action and you're left with the feeling that this was a scene that was cut and pasted from a different movie altogether. However, the resolution of the scene sets up further high jinks and the more jovial attitude soon returns.
The film uses far more computer graphics imagery than I'm used to in Hong Kong movies, and although its first use is to provide the rather gruesome sight of one of the bad guys losing a leg, it's used well in subsequent scenes to enhance the mostly cartoon style of the fights. It also helps to make the film look very good indeed, although even without all the CGI the cinematography is first rate.
So this is another five star review, not just for the fact that there's some seriously kick-ass kung fu going on in there, but also for the fact that there's a strong sense of humour running through (most of) the whole thing. Highly recommended, and I can't wait to see what Mr Chow turns his hand to next.
Chris's rating: Five Stars