Movie Review: Les invisibles (2012)

20101916Gay and wide open

In this magnificent documentary, Sébastien Lifshitz asks eight people to tell us about their lives. None of them is an art director, fashion designer, actor or journalist. None of them lives in Paris’s gay Marais nor haunts its exclusive gyms to maintain the fit body of a guy in his thirties. They are men and women aged between 70 and 80, who are single or happily living in couples, talking on their own or with their partners, about their lives as homosexuals. We know very little about them – their family names, for example, remain unknown to us.

We learn that one is a sheep farmer, while another couple owns a small goat’s cheese company. Most of them seem to have a special link with nature, far removed from the urban cliché of famous gay people as is reflected in the media. Some of them have experienced militancy in revolutionary gay movements in the 1970s, such as the FHAR (Front Homosexuel d’Action Révolutionnaire) or the GLH (Groupe de Libération Homosexuelle), but not all – if they have, they tell us about this time in a very calm and serene fashion. Of course, they sometimes talk about their experiences of discrimination that they have experienced within their families and relatives, but they have managed to make their way despite this – it does not seem to have ruined either their sexual or emotional lives.

Just as the legalization of gay weddings is a hot topic in France at the moment, sparking passionate media debates and huge demonstrations, Lifshitz’s film seems to underline how irrelevant this question might be. Paradoxically appearing deeply activist, the strength of the film resides in the fact that it underlines the banality that these men and women’s lives share with their ‘straight’ counterparts’. It also serves to remind us how close the women’s liberation and gay liberation movements have been – while displaying a quiet naturalism that is full of humour, comprising beautiful skies, sensual and sensitive shots of nature, close-ups and a family meal scene that rivals Maurice Pialat’s famous one in Loulou (1980), Lifshitz makes us wonder about the differences, if any, between these people and our own grandparents – Les invisibles could easily have shared its title with another film released earlier this year: Amour (2012).

115 mins. In French.

Belle de Jour (1967)

Not quite the ‘happy hooker’

Earlier critics of this surprisingly accessible piece by Luis Buñuel have been guilty of referring to the film as a whole as ‘sexy’, even ‘erotic’ and to the quite lovely Catherine Deneuve as ‘an icy beauty’, ‘frigid’ or a ‘steely beauty’.

It may be just me but I think they miss the target in a spectacular fashion on all counts. That Ms Deneuve makes the title role her own is not in question, nor is the fact that a good portion of the film is set in a Parisian bordello. The point that many seem to have bypassed is the reasons why having her walk around in some quite jaw-dropping costumes is essential to the narrative.

Deneuve plays Séverine, wife of a wealthy and upwardly mobile Parisian surgeon, Pierre Serizy (Jean Sorel). She has very little to occupy her days, save for walking round looking great – something she seems to pull off with some aplomb. Séverine is not, however, a happy lady. Her waking and sleeping hours are tormented, or perhaps even titillated by strong, stark fantasies of sexual degradation and submission. She moves about town like a swan – poised and graceful above the water, but paddling really quickly to stay afloat. Buñuel does a remarkable job of making these fantasies alluring, mysterious and at the same time, disturbing. For a film made nearly 45 years ago, it’s a wonder it ever got made, let alone released.

Perhaps the reason for her fantasies lies with her sexless marriage, or perhaps that same marriage is responsible for them? It is quite likely something else. There are a few brief, fleeting shots of Séverine as a little girl; careful, fleeting glimpses, almost as if we see her out of the corner of our eye. Meek and innocent, she stands before men we never see, suggesting terrible acts that have shaped her view of men. Buñuel’s lightness of touch here is outstanding, especially when you consider that delicacy is most definitely not his usual modus operandi. Ultimately, she sits trapped in a relationship with a man who is rich, successful and caring. This may not be everyone’s idea of entrapment but sometimes golden handcuffs can bind as tight as leather. She loves him but she can’t express it physically, as if she resents his power over her. Matters are not helped by her girlfriend’s beau, Henri (Michel Piccoli) who makes it very clear that he would be only to happy to relieve her of the burden of her chastity, something Séverine finds unappealing.

Bored with the Parisian bourgeois lifestyle, and presumably the elegant and stylish wardrobe by Yves Saint Laurent, she is intrigued to hear a friend’s story of a brothel down town, where business is still good despite the official banning of such places. She hesitates and procrastinates for a while, then finally makes it to the door of Anaïs, (Geneviève Page) the madame who will eventually change her life. Initially shy and with great reservations she slowly becomes used to the life of a prostitute. Her marital commitments require her to be at home by 5 o’clock in the evening, so she is christened Belle de Jour – a play on Belle de Nuit, an old French euphemism for a hooker.

Seemingly energized by the experience, her confidence grows and she is prepared to do some things with clients that the other girls won’t even consider. There is the mysterious Japanese man with a mysterious box – the contents of which the girls find abhorrent, but not even this fazes Séverine.

With the control she gets from having what men want, and the abandon to detach herself from the physical act of sex as pleasure, rather more like a tool to do a job, her personality shines and she even encourages her husband into bed, safe in the knowledge that it is love for him, not business. Their relationship grows closer and he starts to talk about having children – an unsettling proposition for Séverine. Everything seemed to be going her way but the prospect of kids, an obsessive client who follows her home and a visit from an old regular of the brothel all conspire to snatch this away from her.

Buñuel took to his first colour film outing with great zeal and made a very good job of it. Even back in the dark days when colours were primary and crude, he seemed to get his crew to rein it in and produce a more rounded look to the palette.  The scene transition from reality to fantasy and back builds over time and reaches a quite cloying crescendo. The fantasy scenes visit themselves upon the viewer in a jarring fashion, startling in their execution and the finesse of the ending is unspoiled by the fact that Buñuel himself has feely admitted he has no idea what it’s about.

After all the raving about Buñuel and Deneuve, a special mention needs to go to Jean Sorel. He seems so insignificant and ineffectual that you may wonder why he’s there at all. It is, in fact, a testament to the script and particularly to his acting skills that the film works as well as it does. Mild, unassuming and often confused, his soft words and casual but non-threatening French chauvinism are the perfect backdrop on which to paint the damaged beauty of Belle and her somewhat disturbing sexual fantasies.

Those watching this for the erotica will not only be bitterly disappointed but will miss the point of it all. With great power comes great responsibility, as Belle finds out. In seeking resolution and redemption from her own sad past, she unlocks yet another facet of the complicated sexual relationships between men and women. Erotica it isn’t, and frigid, she ain’t. To understand Belle is to enjoy this quite wonderful piece of French film-making.

A sequel, Belle toujours (2006), followed – read Picturenose’s review here.

101 mins. In French, Spanish and Mongolian.

Last Tango in Paris (1972)

Spread ’em

Last Tango in Paris (1972) is perhaps the most talked-about film in cinema history, thanks mainly to a certain scene involving a dairy product. So, what more could I add that hasn’t been said already? OK, here goes…

Bernardo Bertolucci (writer-director) and Marlon Brando (star) stand accused of altering the face of an art form (Pauline Kael did so). Last Tango in Paris was banned in many countries, including the director’s homeland (Italy) as well as Spain and Canada. In England, the anal sex scene had to be shortened – I see this film as a natural progression following the defeat of chief prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones in the UK censorship case (1960) against D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

France was one of the few countries not to take any censorship action against the film, and I wonder if the French public’s appreciation of the lower instincts of libido and appetite for pornography was satiated to a degree that it wasn’t with Lawrence’s. Hmmm. Mistaking pornography for art, it seems, is a national dilemma for our French friends.

The film cost $1.5 million to make and made $100 million at the box office. It became an all-time art-house classic and confirmed Bertolucci’s genius status. It was released in 1972, soon after his highly acclaimed film The Conformist (1970), and he went on to make the best film ever in 1990, The Sheltering Sky, (see my previous review), just after he had made the award-laden The Last Emperor (1988).

Last Tango in Paris is a story of a middle-aged American hotelier Paul (Brando) who, devastated by the apparent suicide of his estranged wife, embarks on an anonymous sexual affair with a young girl (whom he accidently meets while looking for an apartment) called Jeanne, perhaps as in Jeanne D’Arc (another fruitcake) (Maria Schneider).

Bertolucci wanted a perverted Lolita for the part of Jeanne – after Dominique Sanda and Catherine Deneuve both fell pregnant, he cast the unknown Schneider, who was 20 at the time and showed incredible sensitivity for someone with curly hair. Bertolucci got exactly what he wanted from the young woman – a vixen, a she-devil, a tantalizing temptress capable of emotional murder. She was a ‘child woman’. In her own words: “Growing older is a crime.” The carefully concocted loss of innocence is almost tangible while the couple play out their cruel, torrid, juvenile games during acts of sex.

The perceived exploitation of the young girl by Paul introduced a new dimension to the word depravity. The ‘fille on fire’ concept was born, which was a radical and uncomfortable departure from the femme fatale notion, which prompted prickly moral questions of the film’s male audience.

Bertolucci chose Brando to play Paul after seeing a Francis Bacon painting “of a man in great despair who had the air of total disillusionment”. The role was initially offered to Brigitte Bardot’s lover Jean-Louis Trintignant (The Conformist) who refused it. It is difficult to imagine the role being played by anyone other than the consummate master Brando – his dark, brooding, menacing, deeply melancholy performance, acted out in his unique so called improvised fashion, makes Last Tango.

With the bereavement process easing and some peace of mind returning, Paul realises that shagging someone without knowing their name isn’t perhaps the best of ideas, but also realises that he has fallen in love with this ‘child woman’. He takes her to a tango bar with the aim of introducing some kind of normality in their relationship.

Tango makes good people, or perhaps not in this particular case. Having acquired what she thought she wanted, ie a first name and a declaration of love, Jeanne panics and flees back to her apartment. Paul pursues, proclaiming his death-defying love for her. Death, as it turns out, is just the ticket – Brando’s pained, perplexed look of surprise is a cinematic classic moment; when after shouting out all the words that he thought she wanted to hear, Jeanne pulls out a gun from a drawer and shoots him. Paul dies from the wounds after placing his chewing gum under a rail.

Having been accused of misogyny in my review of The Sheltering Sky, I better end there. Over to you, ladies.

129 mins. (250 mins original cut.) In English and French.

Aurora (2010)

The waiting game

You may have trouble keeping your attention fixed on this ponderous (though occasionally powerful) Romanian study of ‘everyday life’ – writer-director Cristi Puiu (Moartea domnului Lazarescu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) (2005)), with Aurora (2010), takes us into a world that is reminiscent of the works of Harold Pinter, in terms of its pacing, pauses and, for the most part, seeming lack of meaningful dialogue.

The taciturn Viorel (Puiu) goes to work, gets into a rather awkward conversation concerning paying back money he has borrowed from a colleague. Then, we see him on wasteland, seemingly spying on people. Later, he shoots a man down. Then, again sometime later, he trudges back through the muddy, abandoned caravan site.

And that’s about it, but, given that the film lasts some three hours, it’s fair to say that I really haven’t given too much away in the above description, as Puiu’s film is all about waiting and, well, more waiting. It is frequently very unclear as to Viorel’s motivations for his actions. Something is certainly gnawing at him, and his constant vagueness does generate a certain fascination as to his predicament, but whether such interest can be maintained for the film’s length is another matter entirely.

Following the seemingly cold-blooded murder committed by Viorel, it is fair to say that both dialogue and consequently the on-screen action acquire a more tangible feel, building to a conclusion that can only be described as absurd which is, again, very much like Pinter’s combination of moods.

But, however well-intentioned Puiu’s film may be, and whatever justifications the director may give for its extended running length, the lack of pace, dialogue and narrative clarifications will leave many dismissing Aurora as by and large pointless, and that’s a pity, because there is clearly intelligence at work here – it just becomes swamped by the director’s apparent ambition to make a point by revealing little, or nothing.

181 mins. In Romanian.

A Jamaâ (The Mosque) 2010

When the film is over…

Gerald Loftus returns with his thoughts on a quality Moroccan offering.

We’ve seen films-within-films before, usually films about making films.  A Jamaâ (The Mosque), a little gem that featured at the 2011 Moroccan National Film Festival, is different.  It’s a sort of ‘post-production’ film – what happens after the film crew leaves a small Moroccan village?

From the director, Daoud Aoulad-Syad, at last November’s Damascus International Film Festival:

“For the filming of my last movie Waiting for Pasolini, sets were built on land leased from local villagers.  Among the sets, a mosque was built on the land of Moha, a villager who also appears in the movie.  At the end of filming, the filming team leaves the village.  Villagers demolish all the sets, except the mosque. This mosque became a real place of prayer for the whole village.  For Moha, this is a real disaster.”

Poor Moha (Abdelhadi Tohrach), salt-of-the-earth farmer.  He just wants his land back, and it seems that he’s the only one around who realizes that the “mosque” is just a prop, literally propped up from behind like any cardboard Western might create an instant church, saloon, or hotel.

Even the imam is fake, but he sees opportunity everywhere: Moha should just get with the plan.  This film has everything – the local official who has the power to make Moha’s life hell; a sleazy political candidate who’s not above buying your vote with a goat; authentic imam in jeans, who says: “The djellabah does not make the imam.”

A physics professor at Rabat University, the director looks a bit like a Moroccan Bob Marley, and plays himself at the outset.  This is a comedy, but the laughs are all subdued, and not without a melancholy tinge.  I will eagerly await Prof. Aoulad-Syad’s next offering.

Aoulad-Syad, interviewed on Radio Médi1, said that the Moroccan National Film Festival’s selection of 19 shorts and 19 feature films is out of an annual Moroccan production of some 100 films.  A very respectable Moroccan showing indeed.

The organizers CCMCentre Cinématographique Marocain – couldn’t have chosen a better venue.  Tangier’s Cinémathèque, a popular cultural attraction in its own right, in the historic Cinéma Rif, has a year-round repertoire of current, classic, and documentary films.  The National Film Festival, in its 12th year, keeps coming back to Tangier.

The turnout, on a rainy, cold Sunday afternoon in January, is testimony to the CCM’s – and the Cinémathèque’s – quality offerings.  It also helped that entry was absolutely free!

This review first appeared on TALIMblog.
In Arabic. 85 mins.

Mine Vaganti (Loose Cannons) (2010)

Family matters

Picturenose welcomes our latest recruit, Laura Batalla.

Italian cinema is in vogue, and the latest film by Ferzan Özpetek (Un giorno perfetto (2008)) proves it. Mine Vaganti (Loose Cannons) (2010) tells the story of a traditional and wealthy family from southern Italy, at the turn of the millennium.

Mine Vaganti is a dramatic comedy that addresses one of the Italo-Turkish director’s favourites topics, namely ‘coming out of the closet’. The Cantone clan’s story starts by facing generational changes at the forefront of the family business while some long-buried secrets start coming to light.

Tommaso (Riccardo Scamarcio), an aspiring writer, returns home from Rome for an important family dinner, at which his father is set to hand over the family pasta company to his two sons. But that night, though Tommaso has decided to reveal his secret to the family, his brother has already done so…

Although similar topics have already been addressed in other Italian movies, such as Io sono l’amore (2009), Mine Vaganti tells the story of the decline of the Cantone family in a bittersweet tone, with a more commercial orientation than the former film. In essence, Mine Vaganti shows, in a smart and casual way, how any (Italian) family might, at any given point, have no choice but to change its point of view concerning contemporary living.

116 mins. In Italian.

Daniel y Ana (Daniel & Ana) (2009)

Animal instincts

Director Michel Franco’s first feature, Daniel y Ana (2010) is a powerfully ‘silent’ movie about brother and sister, Daniel (Dario Yazbek Bernal) and Ana (Marimar Vega).

Set in a rich neighbourhood in Mexico, we are introduced to the perfect lives of two people who are suddenly jolted into the harsh realities of street life – they are kidnapped, then forced to have sex with each other on camera, in order to save their lives.

After having chosen to live, they manage to get back home and thus to carry on with their lives. Happily?

Well, from this point on we see a silent, yet destructive drama develop. Eventually, Ana seems to get over the shock, decides to see a shrink and to continue planning her marriage – without saying a word of what went on between her and her brother.

On the other hand, Daniel turns in a monster. Refusing to see a psychologist and incapable of following his classes, he is drowning in a return to his base instincts and rapes Ana at home.

Bernal deserves an Oscar, no question – the movie is singularly
shocking, with the silence of Daniel’s transformation almost deafening, and it raises many questions about the fragility of human existence. Worth seeing!

90 mins. In Spanish.

Mascarades (2008)

Pronunciation: Fwḑá
Definition: Chaos

It’s one of my favorite words, a way to smile at the confusion that sometimes swirls around us. Arabic teachers searching for that perfect visual aid to illustrate the fawda that can come to inhabit life in places like Algeria could do no better than show the hilarious opening sequence of Lyes Salem’s Mascarades, released in 2008 in Algeria and shown at the Middle East Studies Association film festival in San Diego.

The MESA screening, with the director/star Lyes Salem providing commentary, was sponsored by TALIM’s mother organization AIMS, the American Institute for Maghrib Studies. Amidst very serious presentations of papers (Revisiting Modernity and Heteronormativity in the Nineteenth-Century Middle East, just to cite one with a $50 name), Mascarades provided welcome comic relief.

Not that Lyes Salem does not take his filmmaking seriously. First of all, his choice of colloquial Algerian Arabic (vice the French that often, unrealistically but more commercially, shows up in otherwise excellent Algerian films vying for European financing and audiences). Such choices are “political”, according to Salem, though Mascarades cannot be said to be overtly political in tone.

There is, however, that running joke of the unseen ‘Colonel’, who provides employment to the principal character Mounir (played by Lyes Salem), and whose convoy of high-powered security SUVs can be rented out for marriage cortèges. Anyone familiar with Algeria, and with the privileges meted out to those in power, will spot this sly wink at the presence of le pouvoir at the village level. It’s just ‘biznes’.

Mounir himself is not above using some $50 (or maybe 500 dinar) phrases. He’s a “horticultural engineer” (using the French ingénieur instead of the Arabic), but his friends know that he means gardener. Mascarades is a good-natured romp through the life of a somewhat dysfunctional but lotsa-fun family, from the six year old son with a soft spot for tortured toads to the narcoleptic bride-to-be sister of Mounir.

Lyes Salem’s description of Algerian humor as self-deprecating is on the mark, and he has said that he’s tired of the repeated depictions of the difficulties of life in Algeria in much of Maghrebi cinema.

For Mascarades, the director has found inspiration from the zany cinema of Emir Kusturica and the incredibly funny story of life in Italy’s shanty towns from 1976, Brutti, sporchi e cattivi, one of the classics of Italian comedy.

Lyes Salem, with such inspiration, is on to a good thing. I look forward to his next films.

94 mins. In Arabic.

Wake in Fright (Outback) (1971)

‘Course, we do have some suicides…’

Boy, I had a hard time assigning a category to this film – director Ted Kotcheff (First Blood (1982)) drops us into the middle of the heat-soaked, desolate ‘Outback’ (which was the film’s alternative title) in Australia at Christmas, along with young bonded school teacher John Grant (Gary Bond). And what are we going to discover about this isolated rural community? You’re thinking Straw Dogs (1971), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Calvaire (2004) already, aren’t you? Well…

Well, no, actually – while this is nevertheless a grim, sweaty and riveting descent into personal hell, it does not concern man’s inhumanity to man. Rather, it is the seemingly endless ‘hospitality’ of the locals, and their notions thereof, that threatens to destroy Grant.

The film’s tagline says it all:

Have a beer, mate?
Have a fight, mate?
Have a taste of dust and sweat, mate?
There’s nothing else out here.

Grant is hoping to escape from his ‘bonding’ (a teacher-training system that keeps new recruits as near slaves to the educational authorities) and is heading to Sydney for a break over Christmas. He arrives first in the rough mining town of Bundanyabba, only intending to stay overnight before catching his plane next day. But, after checking in to his ‘hotel’, he decides to visit the local bar, just for a swift one, you understand? Oh dear – it’s difficult to get out of buying (or being bought) a round in this town…

As I was saying to my very good friend and regular Picturenose commentator Chris, who recommended this film to me, what is particularly fascinating about Wake in Fright, given its title and seeming set-up, is that there are in fact no ‘villains’ in the film at all. The locals, led by a troubling Donald Pleasence as ‘Doc’ Tydon, who is certainly an alcoholic, possibly a medical practitioner and almost definitely gay, want nothing more than to make Grant one of their own – and, given that he is by and large ‘living’ on their kindness after losing all his money in a local gambling den, his choices are looking increasingly limited. And so he, and we, get to see just how little there really is to the life he has stumbled into…

I also think that the film has a lot to say about personal responsibility and accepting other people, warts and all – while its build-up is relentlessly grim, sweaty and suffocating (including a particularly disturbing kangaroo-cull sequence), its denoument is curiously life-affirming, which comes as a complete surprise following all that Grant and we as viewers have been through.

And its blend of near art-house sensibilities and social documentation drew the film critical praise the world over – and the honour of a Palme d’Or nomination at Cannes in 1971. All deserved, but you will probably want to take a shower after you’ve watched it, so be warned, OK?

114 mins.

Batoru rowaiaru (Battle Royale) (2000)

A question of violence

From the outset, it needs to be pointed out that this film was never banned in the US – a factor that has doubtless caused the production company to shift a shedload of copies. The actual reasons are far more mundane – the distribution deal fell through and the film (and you’ll like this) “failed to meet MPAA standards”. The same MPAA who approve M. Night Shyamalan movies. Anyway, the point is that while this is a movie chock-a-block with visual and imagined violence, it is actually a very neatly observed satire and a coming-of-age movie all in one. It would be easy to assume it was the subject matter and the heightened level of violence that prevented Battle Royale (2000) from being seen legally in the States, but let’s never let the facts get in the way of a good story, eh?

Kinji Fukasaku took the reins as director of the adaptation of the book by Koushun Takami so it’s my guess that with a Japanese director this twisted cautionary tale of control and reaction is pretty much as Takami would have intended it to be portrayed on screen. The date is some time in the 22nd century, and things are rotten in the state of Japan. The students are revolting – and not in the usual, hygiene-related department.

Oppressed by authority and out of control, they are becoming something of a thorn in the side of the ruling party. An emergency act is passed in parliament called the Educational Reform (BR) act.  The act makes it legal to remove students from Japan to a heavily guarded island. It was two years before Guantánamo Bay and Fukasuku couldn’t possibly have known, but it’s very prescient.

Once on the island, there are a few ground rules laid down to the newcomers. They are there to fight to the death in typical battle royale style, with the last man (or woman) standing declared the victor and presumed to have earned the right to rejoin civilized society. They are given a bag of essential items and sent off into the jungle to see who makes it out. Naturally, the whole thing is televised for the enjoyment of the overseer and ‘teacher’ (our old friend Takeshi Kitano) and the baying public. Oh yes – and if they decide not to participate, the collar around their neck will blow their head off.

Battle Royale has been heavily criticized by some as being simplistic, voyeuristic or just too violent. It is all of these things and a lot more besides, but that’s pretty much the point of it. If you want subtle intonations of mood and depth of character, read Camus or Proust. If you want a pacey tale with a lot to say, Battle Royale is for you. It’s not only an exercise in flipping the bird at the voyeurism of the public and the shows that feed their addiction to human misery (although it is very much about that), it’s a direct analogy to the difficulty of leaving a school environment where you more or less know your place and having to enter the dog-eat-dog world of business.

Maybe it is more relevant to the Japanese youth put under extreme pressure to succeed, but I think it translates adequately to any first-world society. When you’re at school, you’re worth nothing – expendable, almost – but to succeed, you have to be prepared to go the extra mile, even if it means shooting your best friend in the face.

All the kids hijacked into this gore-fest are unwitting and unwilling, and all have personalities, allegiances and something very human and redeeming about them. It’s chilling and yet strangely normal to see how quickly some of them turn from innocents to murderers, and how easy the transition seems for some.

The camera work seems very 1980s – almost technicolor, with great gobs of crimson blood all over the place and the soundtrack is unmemorable (perhaps you need to be Japanese) so I can’t really dwell too much on the pretty bits – there are few to be had, to be honest. If you don’t mind the violence, Battle Royale really is a film worth investing your time in. To be perfectly honest, I’ve seen worse violence and I’ve seen better-made films, but that’s not the heart of this movie. If you watch it and only see violent teenagers, perhaps you’re part of the problem.

122 mins. In Japanese.

Remake alert! Remake alert!

Kung Fu Hustle (2004)

Kung Fu Hustle (2004)Once upon a time in the east

I’ll put my hands up to having a bit of a soft spot for Hong Kong cinema. There must be something about living on an island that’s as high as it is wide and crammed full of people that makes their directors and writers just a little crazy – but definitely in a good way. Kung Fu Hustle (2004) follows another fine but clearly bonkers film from the multi-talented, multi-tasking actor/writer/director Stephen Chow, Shaolin Soccer (Siu Lam Juk Kau) (2001). If you haven’t seen it yet, give yourself a guilty treat and enjoy the insanity.

Like Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle plants its tongue very firmly in its cheek when telling a story and even goes as far as a funny and fitting homage to Bruce Lee in one scene. To appreciate Shaolin Soccer, and to a slightly lesser degree, Kung Fu Hustle in all their stupid glory, you need to imagine you are watching a good old English pantomime. As far as I can tell, this is the only western reference that even comes close to the ribald, slapstick slap-fest this is. Everything is writ large enough to be obvious from the International Space Station and there are few surprises, but if you’ve ever seen an English pantomime, you’ll know that this is not necessarily a precursor to a poor evening’s entertainment.

Set in 1940s Canton, Sing (Stephen Chow) works a few cons with his slightly dim-witted accomplice Donut (Zhi Hua Dong). They pretend they are members of the notorious and feared Axe Gang, whose trademark weapons and tattoos are of, well…they’re axes. This Tong-like gang of ne’er-do-wells stumble across the pair working their magic and the game appears to be up. Having tried and failed to intimidate the populace of the charmingly named Pig Sty Alley, the Axe Gang recruit Sing to help them. Hilarity, as the saying goes, ensues. To say they are not terribly good at the whole gang-banger thing would be understating it horrifically – something shown in disturbing detail when Donut tries to do something as simple as throw a knife.

Worse still for Sing, Donut and the gang is that the shrew-like landlady and the oily, lecherous and feckless landlord – a couple who are constantly bickering and fighting – have a well-kept but useful secret, as do some of the other slum residents.

Naturally, with Chow at the reins and a budget of some $20M, you’d expect there to be a little more, and you’d be right. A couple of back-stories, a love interest and some SFX that manage to be both accurately executed and old-school at the same time all add to the pure joy that is Kung Fu Hustle. The straightforward approach works so much better than many ‘mainstream’ Hollywood vehicles that think they’re funny and simply aren’t, it’s a pity Big Movies Inc. didn’t sit up and take notice of this study in efficiency.

It’s safe to say that there’s nothing terribly remarkable about the story, the sets, the camera or pretty much anything else, but as with the pantomime, if you can suspend disbelief and immerse yourself in the slapstick and over-the-top jokes, you’ll have a ball.

Oh yes you will.

99 mins. In Cantonese and Mandarin.