REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For Digital First Media
As part of their Midnight Madness series, the Roxy Theater will be showing “Kung Fu Hustle” this weekend.
“Kung Fu Hustle” is an irreverent mix of martial arts mayhem and hilarious pranks. A follow up to Stephen Chow Sing-chi’s “Shaolin Soccer,” the film represents a tour de force for the versatile co-producer/co-writer/director/actor.
Not without a certain nostalgic yearning, “Kung Fu Hustle” recreates the pre-Mao China of the 1940’s. The film opens in a provincial police station, where a terrible beating is taking place behind closed doors. We do not witness the actual beating. Instead, we are left to imagine the identity of the victim and what is being done to elicit the blood curdling screams. Defying our expectations, it is the prefect of police, who has been on the receiving end of the assault. The head of the Crocodile Gang (veteran chopsocky helmer, Feng Xiaogang) has brazenly entered the police headquarters and administered a savage beating to the head honcho. As the head of the Crocodile Gang and his minions exit the police station, the group is hacked to death by the even more ferocious Ax Gang.
Clearly, warring gangs, rather than the nominal civil authorities, control this Society. The grim tone is broken, when the tuxedo clad Ax Gang members do a comical dance number. This portends the deft fashion in which the film repeatedly alternates between the sanguine and the overtly absurd.
Pig’s Sty Alley is a tenement apartment complex, run by a seemingly frail landlord (Yuen Wah) and his wife, (Yuen Qiu), a stentorian shrew with a cigarette perpetually dangling from her mouth. Pig’s Sty Alley is so impoverished that the gangs virtually ignore it. Then one day, two strangers, skinny Sing (Chow) and his corpulent sidekick (Lam Tze-chung), wander into the area and pose as members of the Ax Gang. When they attempt to extort money from the seemingly defenseless neighbors, the wannabe gangsters are repelled.
Seeking to save face, the real Ax Gang attacks Pig’s Sty Alley. They meet resistance in the form of three unlikely kung fu masters, a tailor (Chiu Chi Ling) known for his Iron Fist; a coolie (Xing Yu) who has mastered the Twelve Kick: and fast-food chef, Doughnut (Dong Zhi Hua) with a Hexagonal Staff. This sets off an escalating chain of violence, with Ax Gang Boss, Brother Sum (Chan Kwok-kwan), hiring a litany of legendary fighters to seek revenge against the upstarts of Pig’s Sty Alley. This includes two harp players and an assassin named, The Beast (Leung Siu-lung), who has recently been released from a mental asylum.
The imaginative screenplay pays homage to the genre, embracing the traditions of the Shaw Brother’s kung fu vehicles. At the same time, it cleverly parodies Occidental appropriations of the genre, most notably “The Matrix” and “Kill Bill” sagas. The stunning fight choreography by Yuen Wo-ping and Sammo Hung, is augmented by state of the art C.G.I. Rather than feign verisimilitude, the special effects celebrate the outrageous. Fighters routinely perform impossible feats, bodies go flying through brick walls, and the laws of physics are blithely violated as in cartoons.
The tech package is outstanding. Cinematographer, Poon Hang-sang; production designer, Oliver Wong; editor, Angie Lam; visual effects supervisor, Frankie Chung; costume designer, Shirley Chan; and particularly composer, Raymond Wong, all deserve kudos.
Aficionados of martial arts flicks will savor not only the fight scenes, but some of this vehicle’s reverential touches. The loudmouthed landlady, Yuen Qiu, is a retired veteran of Honk Kong films, who portrayed a Bond girl in “The Man With a Golden Gun.” In the movie’s denouement, the beggar, who has been selling Master of the Buddha Palm handbooks is revealed as Yuen Wo-ping, the film’s principal fight coordinator.
A superb, well paced amalgam of genuine Kung Fu, special effects, and laugh out loud gags, this film is destined to become a cult classic. It has already shattered box office records in Hong Kong as the biggest grossing native-made film in history. Whether or not you like this genre, “Kung Fu Hustle” will prove eminently entertaining.
*** ½ R (for sequences of strong stylized action and violence) 99 minutes in Cantonese and Mandarin with English subtitles
“Kung Fu Hustle” will play at the Roxy Theater as part of their Midnight Madness Series on Friday, April 10 and Saturday, April 11 at midnight. For further information, visit http://filmadelphia.org/roxy.
Film critic Nathan Lerner sees more than 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.