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Kung Fu Hustle
I still remember the first time I saw Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer. I’d heard a lot about the film from the online community and to my surprise, the video store down the street had a copy on DVD. Though the basic plot boiled down to a replay of The Bad News Bears, I was nonetheless taken aback by the infectious mix of action and humour. I enjoyed the film so much that I ordered a copy from Hong Kong that night and invited friends over to watch the rented copy the next day. Shaolin Soccer was a crowd-pleaser, a movie whose joys were multiplied through group viewing and it became increasingly rewatchable. After Miramax Studios fumbled the American release, I found myself lending the film to an increasing population of fans. Now, Chow has followed suite with the bigger budgeted, multi-Hong Kong Film Award nominated, kick and chop fest, Kung Fu Hustle.

Kung Fu Hustle
Film
Chow stars as Sing, a young, gangster wannabe who wonders into the town of Pig Sty Alley with his obese sidekick. Sing and his friend try to hustle a free hair-cut out of one of the locals, claiming to be ranking members of the feared Axe Gang. When the hustle backfires, the two miscreants find themselves in the middle of a miniature war between the real Axe Gang and Pig Sty Alley’s more, shall we say, capable townsfolk. Sing has started this fight but isn't ready to end it or choose a side yet. Really, Kung Fu Hustle’s plot boils down to little more than this. After the initial characters and locations are set up, the remainder of the film is one outrageous fight sequence after another, each upping the anti about twelve steps past the last. There is also, of course a liberal sprinkling of comedy between and during the epic battles, along with loads of heavy-handed moral struggles.

Though rather threadbare as far as story, Kung Fu Hustle does succeed rather admirably as a work of pure entertainment. The fights are more professionally presented here than they were in Shaolin Soccer, which succeeded more on the level of its audacious humour and concept. This is, no doubt, due to the presence of the master of kung fu choreography, Yuen Wo-Ping. Fresh off Tarantino’s Kill Bill films and the Wachowski’s Matrix sequels, Ping plays homage to himself, from his recent computer aided multi-character fights, to his lo-fi, wire-fu classics. The end result is more of a Vegas floor show than a true narrative run motion picture but that’s to be a bit expected.

Kung Fu Hustle
Kung Fu Hustle has a lot of style. The film opens with a CG created butterfly flying over a giant rock formation that, after a few sweeping digital camera moves, the viewer realises is the film's title. The utterly absurd scale of the title, along with the butterfly itself, is in allusion to the film’s final reel. Everything takes place in a make-believe time frame, that doesn’t really exact 1930s Hong Kong as much as riff on it, and mix it up with the classic cinematic equivalent of America in the 1930s. Picture a slightly less garish Dick Tracy with kung fu. The Axe Gang’s members are a blend of Gangs of New York’s natives and swinging, zoot suit hipsters, and bare a striking resemblance to a certain multiplied agent of the Matrix (homage, in joke, or just coincidence?). Pig Sty Alley looks the most authentic and real of any of the locals, but really, it’s made that way in contrast to the big city and is still in keeping with the general visual style. One of the best things about Kung Fu Hustle’s visuals is that most of the movie takes place on a limited number of theatrical looking sets. It’s almost as if Chow is presenting the most elaborate stage play ever conceived. This, along with the opening dance number, helps push Kung Fu Hustle into the more experimental realm of, well, art.

In fact, there’s a lot to say about the artistic merit of the film. This is not simply a post-modern motion picture, but a kind of comment on popular post modernism in general. I’m sure the influx of movies about movies, along with a virtual ocean of cinematic remakes, had some kind of effect on Chow as a writer and director (keep an eye out for a great Spider Man reference). Unlike Shaolin Soccer, which was just a great concept waiting to be put to a film, Kung Fu Hustle really doesn’t have a single concept behind it. It’s as if this film was too big for one concept, and therein lies its ultimate failure. Kung Fu Hustle is too big for its britches and in the end, only works as an exercise in pure entertainment. When I realised the film was wrapping up and that the climax had already occurred, I couldn’t help but feel as though an important, two and one half hour artistic achievement had been squeezed into a 99 minute “fun movie”.

Kung Fu Hustle
However, even at its seemingly truncated length, there is still a lot to love about this movie. The action is truly magnificent and even tops the Matrix sequels, at the very least in terms of its enthusiasm. The oddball characters are lovable, especial the aging kung fu masters. There is something intrinsically hilarious about middle aged, unattractive people endowed with incredible super powers and martial arts skills. I’d prefer more of Chow’s Abbot and Costello style double talk and Buster Keaton worthy slapstick, but the humour was most definitely worth my time. Upon a second viewing (this time with some friends), some of the visual jokes actually became funnier, which is very rare. And let us not forget the numerous odes to the great Chuck Jones. Sing’s Bugs Bunny style foot stomps had me in stitches every time. This is a flawed film that deserves multiple viewings, preferably with a room full of happy people.

A word of warning; unlike the relatively bloodless Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle can be surprisingly brutal and violent at times. It is subsequently being released in the States with an ‘R’ rating this April. I’d recommend parents take this into account before viewing the film with children.


Video
Like most Hong Kong made DVDs, Kung Fu Hustle looks good but not great. There are some pretty big compression issues, including some pixilation. Dark areas of the frame are often riddled with digital noise. The colour detail is not as smooth as one would prefer either. The movie is mostly filmed in greys and browns but when colours come out, they aren’t as pronounced as they could be. Most of these problems aren’t too noticeable unless you’re really looking for them but when discovered, become annoying. It is hard to complain though, especially when there probably won’t be any better editions available any time soon.

A note on the subtitles for this disc: These are the largest removable subtitles I have ever seen. I tried messing with the settings on my particular player to make them smaller, but to no avail. I’m not sure if this is an issue with all players or only some, but it is somewhat distracting.

Kung Fu Hustle
Audio
Kung Fu Hustle is presented in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1. For this review I listened mostly to the Dolby Digital track, though there was little or no difference between the two. I am happy to say that this is one of the most aggressive and lively surround tracks I’ve heard in a long time. Directional effects are plentiful and actually work.  Everything sounds crystal clear. Watch the opening sequence and listen carefully to the sound direction as the crane-operated camera moves smoothly about the multi-tiered police headquarters. The movie owes a lot to its sound design and during one of the many battles, sound itself becomes a weapon. Crank up the volume and enjoy.

Extras
It’d be nice to see a few features on the making of Kung Fu Hustle but alas, there are none – nor is there a director’s commentary or even a picture gallery. The only “special feature” on the disc is an assortment of American previews for other Columbia/Tri-Star films. This brings up the interesting point; this is a Hong Kong produced, region three DVD and it caters almost exclusively to English-speaking viewers. The box and menus are almost entirely in English, the only Chinese test is found under the language selection menu. I find this strange and wonder who exactly this DVD was made for, the people of China or outside fans of Stephen Chow?

Kung Fu Hustle
Overall
Kung Fu Hustle is by no means a failure. It is not quite the movie I wanted it to be but when fumbled results are this good, it’s pretty hard to be a stick in the mud about expectations. I doubt it’ll ever be the “cult-classic” Shaolin Soccer is destined to be but I’m sure it will be remembered and loved by chop-socky fans the world over anyway. The good news is that on a worldwide scale, this was one of the biggest money-makers last year and it hasn’t even had its American release yet. The more money it makes, the better the chances are that Chow will be given the proper funds to make another, even grander kung fu/slapstick hybrid next year. Now I just need to rent some of his back catalogue and find out what I’ve been missing.

You can buy this title for HK $105.00 from top retailer DDDHouse.


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