Chinese martial arts films are a charmingly odd affair when you look at them from a few angles. Images of silk-clad wushu masters flying from treetop to treetop with the flick of their toes; swordplay so fast and fluid you’d think it was all CGI; wispy mysticism and all manner of supernatural acrobatics abound. It’s an endearing, almost mind-cleansing activity to watch the effortless fluidity and choreography of China’s bygone legends.
Now take all of that charm and beauty, put it in a cupboard with a tub of slapstick, a hatchet, a really angry cartoon cat, and Stephen Chow. What will somehow come out is Kung Fu Hustle: everything you’re used to seeing in an artsy kung fu flick, but so full of comedy, character, slippers ,and relatable nonsense that it carves a niche of its own.
What is Kung Fu Hustle?
Kung Fu Hustle is, to many a fan of Stephen Chow’s works, a “sequel” of sorts to the acclaimed 2001 sports comedy, Shaolin Soccer. Purely because both start with some sort of martial arts terminology, and both star (and are directed by) Stephen Chow. Kung Fu Hustle is a 2004 (holy shit we’re all old) wuxia gangster comedy starring a bunch of other Chinese folk who you probably don’t know.
Set in 1930’s Shanghai, the film follows protagonist Sing (Stephen Chow) and his rotund accomplice, Bone, as they try to shake down one of the few places that gang violence and corruption hasn’t touched: Pig Sty Alley. That plan goes horribly wrong thanks to one inspirational landlady who is all of our mothers basically. Sing then claims he’s part of the notorious and influential Axe Gang, who literally walk around with axes in their pants, only to find the actual Axe Gang at the scene after Sing does something stupid, as he is wont to do. What transpires from that point on is a flurry of kicks, punches, slams, pain, suffering, screams, and ungodly amounts of laughter from start to finish.
What Makes Kung Fu Hustle Special?
I’ve noticed one supremely distinct difference between comedy in the west and in the east: effort. I’m sure I could have used a much fancier word, but what I mean with effort is that one side tries a bit too hard to force laughter out of you, whereas the other has comedy so ingrained, almost soaked into its foundation, that it doesn’t have to really try to make you giggle. Can you guess which side Kung Fu Hustle falls under?
The comedy, although slapstick in nature for the most part, is the same brand of “life is miserable but wow this guy’s dumb” shits and giggles that we’re used to around these parts. I’ll never be interested enough to figure out why I find a middle-aged woman with a slipper flamboyantly smacking the gel off of a guy’s hair to be funny, but it is. What I can figure out is that the humour, whether baked into the dialogue or straight up presented to you in a skit, hits harder than most anything I’ve seen from an American / European filmmaker. It’s easy, organic, relatable, and it meshes well with the subject matter it’s a part of. A film that somehow manages to make ancient tradition and strict physical prowess as hilarious as it is genuinely interesting is one to be respected (and watched).
The characters are all a treat to behold; you have Sing being the miserable everyman idiot that we all desperately try to maintain being. You have the Landlady, who is just the embodiment of middle-aged anger and discontent with incompetence everywhere (kind of like me), and her creepy, dickish husband who has more charm than I have hair (a lot). You have the Axe Gang’s superior Brother Sum and his adviser, the former barely says more than three lines throughout the movie, but together with the latter, they’re a sad state of affairs to laugh at as well. Even the random one-off characters like gangster in the very intro or the barber of Pig Sty have more comedic weight in them alone in scenes spanning no more than a few seconds, than in most films in their entirety nowadays. Genuinely well-written characters, dialogue that fits the bill for what the Chow had in mind, and acting that matches it all in vigour are what drive this film to be as iconic as it is.
Remembering that this is a Kung Fu flick first and foremost, you’d have to wonder how well-executed the practical and CGI effects are set up. The majority of the films (impressive) effects were a mix of CGI and wire work, all choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping, the same guy who did similar work on the sets of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix. Considering this whole film took only five months to finish, and two thirds of that duration was just the fight scenes, I’d say it turned out pretty damn well. I mean it’s not the best use of CGI or effects in general compared to most other entries, but this isn’t most other entries. Kung Fu Hustle managed to make $102 million on a $20 million budget. Considering most films nowadays take about half a billion to produce, and end up bombing harder than Hiroshima, it’s no wonder why Kung Fu Hustle manages to stay in most folks’ eyes as one of the best films in history.
One last thing I’ll comment on in this attempt at a recommendation is the music. Composed by Raymond Wong and performed by the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, it’s a booming, theatrical, and ear-tickling affair. There’s a massive contrast between the tracks that play when dastardly evil thing happen with the Axe Gang, and the bustling scenery of Pig Sty Alley. It reaches its full climax, however, in any one of the gorgeous fight scenes. It manages to make scenes that are already too much to handle at times even more wild. Not to mention it all generally sounds pleasant, especially on a long commute to work.
That’s a Lot of Praise
There’s definitely more to be said when it comes to Kung Fu Hustle. Suffice it to say (from my side at least) that it’s a must-watch for everybody, especially the miserable among you. I guarantee you that no matter how battle-scarred or emotionally void your friends and/or family might be, they will crack a smile and maybe even giggle a few times watching this smorgasbord of kung fu wizardry. Watch it in Chinese with English/Arabic subtitles.