Stephen Chow has been heralded as Asia’s next big thing. With nearly 60 films under his belt and the box office receipts to back him up, the writer-director-action star is poised to invade the West with his inventive mix of cartoonish nonsense and martial arts spectacle. His 2001 film Shaolin Soccer was the most successful movie in Hong Kong’s history — combining dizzying physicality, flamboyant CGI effects and a jokey plot that would feel at home in any of the Police Academy flicks. It was stupid, silly and incredibly entertaining.
His latest, Kung Fu Hustle, is a deliriously manic (sometimes surreal) send-up of martial arts films that boasts so many visual puns, gags and effects that it’s hard not to get caught up in the sheer wackiness of it all. If you can imagine a film that crosses Enter the Dragon with Raising Arizona by way of The Matrix, you might get an inkling of what we’re talking about here.
Sing (Chow), a bumbling but affable tramp, attempts to con the poor folks of Pig Sty Alley into paying him protection money by pretending to be a member of the infamous Axe Gang. Much like his heroes, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, Chow’s lovable loser quickly gets in over his head. His scheme not only fails, it attracts the attention of the real Axe Gang who soon discover that this bedraggled ghetto is actually home to a cadre of retired kung fu masters (all played by real-life retired kung fu masters). Sing finds himself caught in an over-the-top turf war of his own making.
Like Jackie Chan, Chow knows how to effectively blend action and comedy to keep things both entertaining and thrilling. His direction bounces between ridiculously showy and uniquely brilliant. Kung Fu Hustle’s first 10 minutes, a violent showdown between rival gang members that turns into a Broadway-style dance number, is pure movie magic. It’s so exciting and audacious that the rest of film has a hard time following (though not for lack of trying).
The film is a series of mostly entertaining fight scenes, all paying homage to martial arts films of the past. Each confrontation is more elaborate and absurd than the one that preceded it, culminating in a duel that sends our hero into the stratosphere, where he gazes upon the face of Buddha himself before leveling his opponent with a concrete-smashing blow. Chow infuses his rock ’em, sock ’em action with pop-culture flights of fancy that reference everything from Road Runner cartoons to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
Unlike Asian action stars Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li, Chow isn’t trained in martial arts. As a result, his films lack the kind of physical showmanship that can take your breath away. In an attempt to compensate for this, he indulges in elaborate computer effects, extravagant wire-fu (the film’s fight scenes were choreographed by Matrix veteran Woo Ping-Yuen) and lopsided camera angles. Occasionally, however, he pushes things too far and too hard. Like a kid with a new toy, he overuses the technology, drawing attention away from what little story there is.
Fans of the martial arts canon will delight, however, with the appearance of so many unsung chop-socky luminaries. Yuen Wah, one of the great Shaolin villains of the ’70s, plays a henpecked but valiantly lethal landlord. Yuen Qiu, a female kung fu star who retired in 1975, is hilarious as his kick-ass cigarette-chomping wife. Leung Siu Lung, another high-kicking hero of the ’70s, chews the scenery as the insanely evil Beast. All three are terrific and Chow knows when to get out of the way and let them strut their stuff. There are many other cameos and appearances, and the film offers plenty of insider gags and references to genre devotees.
Over the last 10 years Americans have been opening themselves up to Asian cinema and, in particular, martial arts films. Kung Fu Hustle, however, is quite different from films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. With its shamelessly comedic impulses and giddy visual style it plays like a souped-up version of Jackie Chan’s early work. Chow’s influences are as Western as they are Asian, which argues for its international appeal. But it remains to be seen whether he can cross over with his unique style and vision intact, or whether he will have to be watered-down like Chan to appeal to a broader (i.e. American) audience.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.