April 22, 2005

Kung Fu Hustle

Directed by Stephen Chow Starring Chow and Yuen Qiu

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The legendary Bruce Lee first brought chopsocky to worldwide masses, and then came braindead vehicles for Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Dolph Lundgren, et al. that ruined appetites for the genre and consigned it to the fringe. But Hong Kong's movie industry has kept the tradition commercially viable in the region by tricking it up with speed and effects, as well as boasting charismatic stars such as Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Although color-coordinated wuxia pian opuses from Zhang Yimou and Ang Lee have since made martial arts palatable for discriminating subtitle readers in the Western hemisphere, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon initially met with a tepid reception from Asian audiences. They favour fast-as-lightning sensory assaults as exemplified by Stephen Chow's reign atop all-time H.K. box-office records.

Chow isn't even a black-belt grasshopper. In fact, he has invited comparisons to Jim Carrey for his eagerness to do anything for laughs. On the heels of Crouching Tiger and Bend It Like Beckham, Chow's North American theatrical debut Shaolin Soccer could have been a mega crossover hit. But Miramax sat it on the shelf for two years, dubbed and un-dubbed it, then butchered it by re-editing and chopping off 30 minutes before its release last year. Fortunately, the writer/director's Kung Fu Hustle arrives here unscathed. He stars as his usual smalltime loser, in this instance caught in a turf war in pre-revolutionary China between axe-wielding gangsters and unassuming villagers. Everybody turns out to be a kung-fu master, fighting off frightening opponents with expert timing.

Even though its title seems to evoke Carl Douglas, Van McCoy and David Carradine, the film is actually a hybrid of Jackie Chan, Chuck Jones and Quentin Tarantino. Chan's mischievous slapstick is its most obvious influence. The cartoonish humour is straight out of Looney Toons, especially the Wile E.Coyote/Roadrunner-esque footrace. Parodying Gangs of New York, The Shining, The Matrix and Spider-Man while paying homage to Bruce Lee/Shaw Bros./Golden Harvest classics, Chow's nerdy enthusiasm for cinema is comparable to Tarantino's. Yuen Wo-ping and Sammo Hung (star of television's now-cancelled Martial Law) choreograph action sequences here. And like Kill Bill and Goodbye, Dragon Inn, Kung Fu Hustle resurrects some screen legends from decades of hiatus or obscurity. While the film is mostly silly and senseless fun, Chow's earnest affection for martial-arts films of yesteryear inspires awe.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.