A film review by Craig J. Koban


2005, R, 99 mins.

Sing: Stephen Chow / Landlady: Yuen Qiu / The Beast: Leung Siu Lung / Doughnut: Dong Zhi Hua / Tailor: Chiu Chi Ling / Brother Sum: Chan Kwok Kwan / Fong: Huang Sheng Yi / Sing's Sidekick: Lam Tze Chung

Directed by Stephen Chow /  Written by Chow, Tsang Kan Cheong, Lola Huo and Chan Man Keung

Some films are dreadful experiences.  Why?  Well, because many seem to subscribe to some sort of twisted membership to a cinematic club that occupies the lowest common denominator of intelligence and wit.  These kind of films - and they are out there -  are relentlessly dumb and seem ignorantly so.  For example, the recent stink bomb that is STEALTH seems perched on a peculiar plane of existence in terms of not really being too self-aware of how inane it really is.   There is nothing worse in this world than a dim–witted film that has no clue of how asinine it is. 

Then there are the films of Stephen Chow and after seeing only two of them, like last year’s SHAOLIN SOCCER and his newest feature – KUNG FU HUSTLE – I am proud to admit that they are among the silliest, superbly over-the top, and stupendously stupid films that I have seen recently.  However, I mean all of that with all due sincerity and respect.  These films do not shamelessly and boorishly embrace their imbecilic nature; rather, they celebrate and champion their sheer implausibility, which is maybe why they are such enjoyable romps.   

I personally thought that I had seen everything that the movies had to offer me, and then I saw Chow’s SHAOLIN SOCCER, a movie that, in a previous review, I recall calling “a masterpiece of buffoonery and overall goofiness.”  Yes, the film was a paint-by-numbers exercise in the genre of the underdog sports picture that was unrelentingly predictable.  Yet, there is something that segregated it from all other sports pictures that came before it. .  The players in SHAOLIN possessed super human skills and abilities that David Beckham himself would never, ever hope to obtain.  The players not only fused kung fu teachings and principles to improve their game, but they also exhibited the keen ability to defy the laws of gravity and physics in ways that would have made Neo and Morpheus blush.  One player was able to kick the ball so hard that he created a fire streak behind it due the incredible velocity, which subsequently left a small meteor-like crater in the ground.   Okay, got to admit, I've never seen that in a film before. 

I guess that is why I was so overwhelmingly favourable in my review of SHAOLIN and Chow’s approach in that film.  It was his willingness to offer up knockdown hilarious slap stick antics that would have made the Three Stooges proud with the conventions of the kung fu action picture, the sports picture, the romantic comedy, the…oh…I could go on and on.  Most films suffer from multiple personality disorder in terms of what they want to be.  Chow’s films are like Swiss Army Knives – they offer up everything you could possible want in a film and then surprises you with something else.  His films are undeniably childish and preposterous, but there is an enormous amount of energy, kinetic visual flair, exuberance, outlandish imagination and wit, and a level of intense and impenetrable logic and audacity that other films never achieve.  Chow’s SHAOLIN was a capricious and zany film and I appreciated its spirit in being different.  That film’s eagerness and readiness to be outrageously daft made me sort of love in ways I would have never otherwise predicted. 

Chow’s newest film – KUNG FU HUSTLE – is yet another foray into the wacky and unapologetically moronic kung-fu action comedy that only he can do so well.  I personally have never remembered a martial arts film that did not have laughs buried beneath its mayhem, and KUNG FU HUSTLE impeccably understands this assertion.  The film is not grounded in any form of reality that I am aware of, and part of its cheerful and undemanding vitality and sense of overall fun is primarily in its complete inability to explain anything.  Much like in SHAOLIN SOCCER, human beings are able to hurtle themselves at inhuman speeds, launch themselves into the air, and perform chaotic and kinetic kung fu maneuvers that Jackie Chan on his best day would not be able to attempt.  Is it just me, or is there something just so ethereal and enjoyable about seeing a middle-aged woman in curlers and a foppish dress that is able to run as fast as The Flash and dispense with dozens of adversaries? 

All of those nihilistic and picky snobs out there will diminish Chow’s films as being unrealistic and beyond implausible.  These people miss the point altogether, not to mention that it is equally short-sighted to ignore the level of skill it must have taken Chow and company to pull off the film’s outrageous action scenes.  Just because the film's artifice is apparent in every frame that should not in any way diminish Chow’s gifts as an escapist film quarterback.  Yes, it’s plainly obvious that he uses every old and new trick in the book, from hooks and wires to even modestly competent CGI technology.  Yet, it’s not the film’s methods that one should applaud, but rather the intense level of self-awareness it exudes.  Both the audience and the makers are all in on the gags and tricks, and that’s what is so fun about watching Chow’s work.  He seems willing to do anything to get a large laugh out of us.  His persistence of vision, competence, and feverous desire to do just that is commendable. 

The film’s story is pure, unadulterated rubbish, which itself is just a closeline for the film’s vivid and lively moments of chaos.  The film is centered in the 1930’s and takes place in a Shanghai slum called, get this, Pig Sty Alley.  Pig Sty is ruled over by a rather unassuming, yet domineering landlady (Yuen Qiu) who always seems to be in large curlers, slippers, and manages to have a cigarette dangling from her mouth to balance off her overt comic appearance.  Well, this landlady may be a mean woman, but so is the super deadly Axe Gang, aptly named because of their penchant for carrying around axes as weapons all of the time.  This gang seems to leave Pig Sty alone, for the most part, maybe because the Sty has very little to offer them, not to mention that it’s landlady has a scream that can literally blow away segments of a building's façade.   

However, when Sing (Chow) arrives in Pig Sty, all things change.  He pretends to be a member of the evil Axe gang and seems oblivious to the fact that he just may offend the members of the real gang.  Well, he does not even make a decent impostor, maybe because no one finds him the least bit intimidating.  Of course, the real Axe gang shows up and he finds himself in a very precarious position.  Lucky for him, though, Pig Sty is not your typical slum.  It has not one, but two kung fu masters living there.  It becomes clear very quickly that when those SOB’s carrying axes come to take apart Pig Sty, the town residents are a bit more than capable of defending themselves. 

Apparently, the only reason this flimsy war between these two segments of society exists is as a simple excuse for Chow to forge more of his trademark stylized sequences of martial arts pandemonium.   The violence in this film is more euphoric and pleasurable than it is a condemnation.  The film’s action sequences are so deliriously exaggerated that they begin to border on the surreal.  The film, much like SHAOLIN SOCCER, exists as an intense and hypnotically energetic orgy of madcap high jinks and hilarity.  There is something just so fiendishly cartoonish and preposterous about the manner and pace at which the action scenes are thrown at us.  I’ve seen many things in the movies, but this one showed me a few new sights that I have not been privy to.  This is a chop-sockey extravaganza that appropriates the best of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Bubsey Berkeley, and Bruce Lee all in one package.  It’s an audio-visual assault on the senses and there are many times where you’ll scratch your head in absolute puzzlement at what you have just watched.  However, there’s no denying the film’s charm, vivacity, and dynamic imagination. 

Chow is the lead actor in the film and in terms of being a major box office draw in Hong Kong, only Jackie Chan is his superior.  SHAOLIN SOCCER was, at its time, the highest grossing film in that country’s history and now KUNG FU HUSTLE has surpassed it.  HUSTLE is Chow's seventh film as a director, which prompts me to now make a rushed trip to the video store and play catch-up with his past works.  Not only that, but he also has been in 61 other theatrical and TV films…and this guy is only in his early 40’s.  Yet, Chow not only gives a solid slapstick performance in the film and directed it with a sure-fire flare, but he also co-wrote and co-produced it as well.  Much like Chan, Chow is a pleasant and endlessly entertaining chap who knows how to bridge that delicate gap between martial arts action and overtly lowbrow comedy.  Chow has good comic timing, not to mention that he is a superb athlete in his own right.  Not content with allowing his supporters to steal the limelight, his character also is given the opportunity to shine, and genre fans of his should not be disappointed in HUSTLE. 

You are either going to love this film or hate it based on its fantastical descent into illogicality.  However, it’s so easy to dismiss the skills of Chow and take him for granted.  What he does is not inherently easy.  The film is stupid, but it is such a technical tour de force on so many levels that it should inspire our odd reverence.  The film’s look and visuals are irresistibly peppy and exhilarating.  Some have commented on the film’s lack of polish in the visual effects department.  Yet, completely convincing special effects would have countered the film’s laugh quotient.  The effects should be about as grounded as the look of any Road Runner cartoon.  The film is essentially in the spirit of Chuck Jones to a large degree, so why opt for absolute realism in its visual palette? 

KUNG FU HUSTLE is one of the most absurd films I have ever seen.  It is also an incredibly animated, free-spirited, light-hearted, inventive, and witty one to boot.  Since I called SHAOLIN SOCCER a “masterpiece of buffoonery and overall goofiness,” I will proudly declare that KUNG FU HUSTLE continues on with these admirable traits and is an explosion of inspired and ludicrous idiocy and madness.  I think that most viewers, whether huge supporters of the martial art genre or not, will all take something different out of the film.  It will obviously appease genre loyalists while making the lay filmgoer howl at the sight of its riotously funny visuals.  KUNG FU HUSTLE is one of those rapid fire, escapist films that has an imaginative zeal that races by at 100 mph.  It is gloriously dumb and, to its credit, it knows it is. 

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