Film

Kung Fu Hustle (2004)

Cynthia Fuchs

The movie's delightful mix of action and makes these fight scenes little stories all their own.


Kung Fu Hustle

Director: Stephen Chow
Cast: Stephen Chow, Lam Tze Chung, Yuen Wah, Yuen Qiu, Chan Kwok Kwan, Tin Kai Man
Distributor: Sony
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
First date: 2004
US Release Date: 2005-04-08 (Limited release)
Amazon affiliate

The first thing you see in this rock'em-sock'em kung fu picture is a butterfly. Lilting toward earth against a delicate blue sky, it offers a few brief -- very brief -- moments of quiet. And then the mayhem starts.

While the butterfly is striking for its seeming fragility, its buffeting by sheer breezes, it is also a familiar emblem of transformation. And that is exactly what Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle is all about. On one level, this transformation seems regular enough: a young man, Sing (Chow), is called on to defend a community, and in so doing, he becomes the hero he was destined to be, the butterfly born of the proverbial caterpillar. But on another, the transformation is meta, concerning a shift in understanding and appreciation of that most chop-socky genre, kung fu movies. Sing's transition from boy to man, gangster-wannabe to full-on master ("The One") occasions a speedy, entertaining, wholly convoluted and often quite brilliant run through genres and conventions ranging from Bruce Lee to Looney Tunes.

Set in Canton, China in the 1940s, Kung Fu Hustle begins with a scene of outsized corruption and violence, establishing the near-hopeless world that Sing will change even as it changes him. An initial city-street face-off between rival gangs establishes the dominance of the Axe Gang -- the action so hectic and ferocious (the film's fights and wirework are choreographed by the brilliant Yuen Wo Ping and Sammo Hung) that you fully appreciate their reputation by the time you meet Sing, who wants to become a member. He wants this so badly that he and his running buddy (Lam Tze Chung) pose as members in order to harass Pig Sty Alley, a small community, into paying up big time. They hope to impress the head of the Axe Gang, but the townspeople prove remarkably resilient, to the point that they are harboring, even unbeknownst to themselves, a crew of hardcore kung fu masters -- each with his or her own style, part classic and part antic.

The movie's delightful mix of action and comedy -- cartoonish, Jackie-Channish, fantastic -- makes these fight scenes little stories all their own, as if each kick or leap was an adjective or a verb, in precise and thrilling relation to the one before. The newly aroused Pig Sty Alley fighters are the tailor (Chiu Chi Ling), the coolie (Xing Yu), and baker Donut (Dong Zhi Hua), all pleased enough to discover one another that in between battles with the bad guys, they test one another, because, of course, that's what they do: fight.

Also enlisted are the lascivious Landlord (Yuen Wah) and his money-mongering wife, the Landlady (Yuen Qiu, returning to the screen after almost 30 years). Introduced as supporting-character stereotypes, they soon become part of Sing's emergence process, helping him to achieve his various ends -- to defend the town, find himself, and of course, defeat the bully Axe Gangers. Landlady's skills include the Lion's Roar, whereby she opens her mouth and lets loose, blowing down everything in front of her ("That fat lady can really sing, and she deserves to die," reads the translation of Sing's initial reaction). When she takes off after him, chasing him down the road away from Pig Sty Alley, they run as if in a Roadrunner cartoon, their legs churning into dusty circles, as they pass vehicles and zoom out of frame. And for all her fierceness, when Landlady works in tandem with her husband, they form a stunning and loving pair of fighters, old schoolish and raucous at the same time.

Their opponent, the smooth and smug Axe Gang leader, Brother Sum (Chan Kwok-kwan), is predictably ruthless, but his efforts to hang on to his power are anything but typical. When his initial effort (sending an army of black-suited minions against the town) fails, he calls in eerie reinforcements, a pair of harp players (Jia Kang Xi and Fung Hak On), whose music turns into physical forces, hurtling through the air to pierce enemies' bodies with all manner of pain.

At last Brother Sum calls on the most insidious, awesome kung fu killer on the planet, the Beast (Leung Siu Lung), so terrible that he's been incarcerated for years ("I've killed so many," he mutters, "Just truing to find a worthy adversary"). The Beast's style (Toad Style) creates a neat aesthetic tension with Sing's (Buddha Palm Kung Fu), and their conflict takes up much of the film's final hour. Sing, who has come on board by now with the Pig Sty Alley denizens, including the Landlady, must battle the Beast. But can he muster the courage and focus to win?

Such a question is, of course, the precursor to climax in all such genre films. Nodding to the Shaw Brothers, Bruce Lee, and other artists who have come before, Kung Fu Hustle is something of a grab bag of fighting styles and narrative threads (including Sing's longstanding affection for a mute girl he knew as a child, now grown up and selling candies on the street, Fong [Eva Huang Sheng-yi]). It might appear freewheeling, but the film's combinations of spoofs and homages are well wrought, sometimes cunning. The stunts and physical jokes are brutal, the conventions alternately tired and twisted, and Chow finds a way to pull all these disparate bits together, in a kung fu movie about kung fu movies.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image