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Axes, barbers, landladies and lollipops
A region 2 DVD review of KUNG FU HUSTLE / GONG FU by Slarek
 

"It's no crime to be good at kung fu!"

 

The 2001 Shaolin Soccer firmly established its star/director Stephen Chow as the king of action comedy cinema. Wildly inventive and frequently hilarious, its over-the-top action and barmy special effects were a joy in themselves, while its spirited ribbing of genre conventions almost demanding a rethink on the part of those still taking it seriously. With Jackie Chan's comedic combat swallowed up and diluted by Hollywood and Thailand's Tony Jaa set to become the next big thing in play-it-straight martial arts movies, the way is still clear for Chow to rule the roost. If, of course, he can maintain the dangerously high standards he has set for himself. On the evidence of Kung Fu Hustle, this is not going to be an issue.

In 1940s Shanghai, the city is ruled by the all-powerful Axe Gang, who have crushed all opposition, have the police in their pocket and are extorting money from businesses and residents of every neighbourhood. All except one. With little opportunity for financial gain, the slum district of Pig Sty Alley has be left unmolested, its residents in conflict with no-one but their fiercely stroppy Landlady. Enter the hapless pair of Sing and Bone, who stumble into the slum and attempt to cheat the local barber by pretending to be Axe Gang big shots. When it all goes wrong, Sing accidentally injures a real Axe Gang boss and an army of gangsters descend on Pig Sty Alley, threatening a slaughter unless the culprit is given up. To almost everyone's astonishment they take an almighty beating from three of the locals, who turn out to be kung-fu masters in anonymous retirement. So anonymous, in fact, that they weren't even aware of each other's identities and skills. Beaten but vengeful, the Axe Gang hire two mysterious assassins to dispose of the three fighters, but it turns out they are not Pig Sty Alley's only martial arts masters...

And this is just the start of it. Plot-wise, Kung-Fu Hustle is considerably busier than the martial arts average, with developments in Pig Sty Alley running alongside Sing and Bone's fortunes as hapless Axe Gang apprentices and Sing's theft of goods and money from mute ice-cream seller Fong, not realising that he and she have a bit of a history. When the stories cross over the results are a joy, as when Sing, required to make a killing as a gang initiation, foolishly targets the Landlady and repeatedly pays the price in a series of increasingly funny gags – thrown knives bounce back into his shoulders, rattlesnakes bite his face and he is chased across country at express train speed using the still protruding blades as rear-view mirrors. For Chow, no gag is too outrageous or too visually extravagant, and in this respect he tops even the explosive madness of Shaolin Soccer in a climactic whirl of fists, kicks and flying bodies, one particular blow sending its victim so high that he is able to steady himself on a passing bird before descending.

As with Shaolin Soccer, Chow blends comedy and action as if the two were blood brothers, the insanity of the former allowing him to stretch the latter beyond all credibility in a way that no straight actioner could come close to getting away with. The passing of time and larger budget has polished up the CGI, and genre maestro Yuen Woo-Ping (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Iron Monkey, Wing Chun and the like) choreographs the fights and wire work as if they've been fuel injected with nitrous oxide.

Chow borrows from a wide variety of sources, the generic structural and content influences of 1970s martial arts cinema sometimes playing second fiddle to the physical comedy of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, the sequential pay-offs of Laurel and Hardy, and the cartoons of Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. Like Jones, Chow layers his jokes with a series of punch lines, with a spectacular (CGI-assisted) fall through multiple awnings topped off when a plant-pot falls on the victim's head, then splits and leaves a single flower perched on his noggin. This is expanded as the film progresses, resulting in gag-on-gag sequences that prompted gales of laughter in the cinema and leave you sometimes dizzy in wonder at Chow's comic inventiveness. Elsewhere the influences range from the deliberately referential – the blood-in-the-lift sequence from The Shining – to the altogether less obvious – Jerzy Skolimowski's The Shout, Mike Jittlov's 1980 short The Wizard of Speed and Time and even at one point Nakata Hideo's Dark Water – but there is always the sense that Chow is taking inspiration from his sources and creating something new rather than merely repackaging them. He even references his own Shaolin Soccer by having Sing (played by Chow) enter the film during a kids' football game and reverse expectations by stamping on the ball and barking "No more Soccer!".

But possibly Kung Fu Hustle's most pleasing achievement is its casting of middle-aged kung fu stars of past years in the key heroic and villainous roles, resulting in a film in which youth and ambition prove no substitute for age and experience. Even the mighty Axe Gang are forced to call on elderly would-be assassins in order to stand against the retired fighters of Pig Sty Alley, and although in the climactic fight the elders may defer to the recently awoken abilities of a younger fighter, this is balanced by his until-then unglamorous status as a bumbling idiot. And if the mincing effeminacy of the Tailor's character seems a bit much (and it does), then the revelation of his very considerable fighting skills carries with it a rather nice message about the consequences of passing prejudicial judgment based on appearances alone.

If the three-year gap between Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle seemed like a long one, then it was worth the wait. It's an absolute blast from start to finish, a furiously inventive and energetic live action cartoon, gorgeously cinematic and with the sort of comic timing that the likes of the Farrelly Brothers can only dream of. And as someone who groans at the announcement of sequels, my heart is nonetheless lifted by the news that Kung Fu Hustle 2 is already in pre-production.

sound and vision

Framed 2.40:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this is a splendid transfer – sharpness and contrast are pretty much bang-on and the sometimes stylised lighting and colour scheme is handsomely reproduced.

The 5.1 Cantonese soundtrack is also very nice, with plenty of wallop at the lower frequencies and a good use of surround speakers, with the music in particular coming off well here.

English and Spanish dubs have also been included for the culturally illiterate. As a non-Spanish speaker I can only testify to the crapiness of the English dub. An English descriptive track is also present.

extra features

The Commentary with Stephen Chow, Lam Tze Chung, Tin Kai Man and Chan Kwok Kwun is a lively affair that covers a lot of ground, from the blocking of scenes to the cinematography to the audience reaction, taking in memories of the shoot and a few jokes, and a passing comment on American food ("As you know, it sucks") on the way. It can be quite hard to work out just who is saying what at first, though you do start to tell the voices apart after a while. The commentary is in Chinese with English subtitles.

TV Special – Behind the Scenes of Kung Fu Hustle (41:58) is presented by actors Lam Tze Chung and Chan Kwok Kwun, sometimes a little cheesily, especially when the two are crudely chromakeyed over stills of the film. On the whole, though, this is a fine extra that includes behind-the-scenes and audition footage and segments on a variety of aspects, including the score, the cinematography, the fight choreography and the set designs. Chung and Kwun even demonstrate the difficulty of washing out the hair oil used in the film (known as 'The Unbearable') and, we are assured, in 1940s China.

There are two Deleted ScenesPig Sty Community Meeting (2:10) and Meeting Brother Sum (1.59), both of which are non-anamorphic 2.35:1 and accompanied by the main Axe Gang theme, which was clearly never intended for these sequences.

Ric Meyers' interview with Stephen Chow (27:57) has the author of Great Martial Arts Movies interviewing Chow in English specifically for what looks like the US DVD release. It is conducted in English but, like all of the extras, has optional English, Spanish and Dutch subtitles.

Outtakes and Bloopers (4:47) is non-anamorphic 2.35:1 and also backed by the Axe Gang music and not as funny as you'd expect or hope, but of interest nonetheless.

There are 15 (!) TV Spots ranging from 15 to 62 seconds and are a mixture of Chinese and American promos.

The loftily titled International Poster Exploration Gallery has 16 posters, all reproduced at a decent size.

I don't count the Trailers for Hitch, D.E.B.S. and Layer Cake as they are merely ads for other, unrelated DVDs.

summary

It's no exaggeration to describe Kung Fu Hustle as far and away one of the year's most inventive and entertaining films, a most worthy follow-up to Shaolin Soccer and confirmation that Stephen Chow is still the king of action comedy cinema, creating here a film that effectively shows how lax products in both categories have become in the West. If you haven't seen it yet then, seriously, what have you been doing with your time?

The film's UK region 2 DVD incarnation is very impressive, with first rate picture and sound and some nice extras making this a must-buy.

Kung Fu Hustle
Gong Fu

China/Hong Kong 2004
95 mins
director
Stephen Chow
starring
Stephen Chow
Kwok Kuen Chan
Chi Chung Lam
Qiu Yuen
Wah Yuen
Siu-Lung Leung
Zhi Hua Dong
Chi Ling Chiu
Yu Xing
Sheng Yi Huang

DVD details
region 2
video
2.40:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby surround 5.1
languages
Cantonese
English
Spanish
subtitles
English
Dutch
Portuguese
Spanish
Greek
extras
Director and actors' commentary
Making-of documentary
Interview with Stephen Chow
Outtakes
TV Spots
Posters
distributor
Columbia Tristar
release date
24 October 2005
review posted
26 November 2005

See all of Slarek's reviews