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.