Tell them [my teeth are] real in the movie. In reality, it’s fake.
— Kwok Kuen Chan, commentary, Kung Fu Hustle
Sometimes it’s better to be unique.
— Stephen Chow, commentary, Kung Fu Hustle
“I like the idea of showing his true nature through dancing. I like it. Not many people would associate that [Triad affiliation] with dancing.” Director Stephen Chow introduces his delightfully hybrid Kung Fu Hustle. “Begin with violence and dance.” He speaks here (in Cantonese, with English subtitles), with actors Lam Tze Chung, Tin Kai Man, and Chan Kwok Kwun, laughing and encouraging one another as they recall details of the production. The combination of dancing and violence is enhanced by still other generic conventions, from cartoons to comedy to romance to melodrama, from Bruce Lee to the Shaw Brothers to Looney Tunes.
All this revolves around Sing (Chow), a young man is called on to defend a community, and in so doing, this mugger becomes the hero he was destined to be. Most delightfully, 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 shift in filmmaking, a gloriously kung-fu-movie- loving pastiche of conventions and reorientations. The film’s release to DVD happily allows for repeat viewings of the fights and wirework, brilliantly choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping and Sammo Hung. It also includes a couple of deleted scenes, outtakes, an interview with Chow by Asian Cult Cinema‘s Ric Meyers, and “Behind the Scenes of Kung Fu Hustle,” a tv special that features information on stunts, CGI, and music, and descriptions of the particular delights of characterization and physical invention.
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 is introduced with that dance number (which is charmingly “abstract,” as Chow notes). This cuts to a martial arts showdown that establishes the dominance of the Axe Gang, the action so hectic and ferocious (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, quite able to stop not only the newbies, but also the hardcore, top-hatted-and-tuxed gang members.
Living among them is a crew of hardcore kung fu masters — each with his or her own style, part classic and part antic. The movie’s mix of action and comedy 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. When the Axe Gang arrives — literally shadowed by a large dark cloud that moves with them — the Pig Sty Alley fighters show themselves. The tailor (Chiu Chi Ling), the coolie (Xing Yu), and baker Donut (Dong Zhi Hua, of whom the commentators note, “His stick skill is the real stuff”) are all pleased 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, who describes her character as “a very fierce woman who is very tyrannical”). They’re introduced as supporting-character stereotypes, the man a cheat and the woman a curlers-wearing, cigarette-smoking bully (“Rent is no laughing matter, fairy!” she yells at a cringing lessee). But 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 school 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 minions against the town) fails, he pauses in his opium-smoking to call in a series of eerie-to-unruly reinforcements, including 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. “I remember thinking how abstract this scene was,” says Chow on the commentary track. “I had no idea how to describe it. How to kill and how to fight.”
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. 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 dynamic, the conventions familiar and twisted, and Chow finds a way to pull all these disparate bits together, in a kung fu movie about kung fu movies.