Though Stephen Chow is still active in the movie business, his heydays are well behind him. Hong Kong's king of comedy experienced his international peak during the mid 00s, when he scored two consecutive hits as an actor/director. Kung Fu Hustle [Kung Fu] was no doubt Chow's biggest success (and most ambitious project), sadly interest in his work started to wane soon after. It's been ages since I watched Kung Fu Hustle though, so I was quite eager to revisit Chow's magnum opus, especially after enjoying Shaolin Soccer not too long ago.
Those familiar with Hong Kong (and by extension, Chinese) comedy know that its international appeal is quite limited. It can be pretty crude, lacking subtlety both in tone and execution. While the Western world has become overly conscious of the things that make us unique, Hong Kong has no problem with a dash of racial comedy or some full-on body shaming. While this disparity has only grown since the initial release of Kung Fu, it didn't stand in the way of me enjoying this film. On the contrary, the political correctness of Western comedy is quickly becoming a hindrance.
That said, I'm not too big a fan of Hong Kong comedy either. The delivery is usually a little too exaggerated and the jokes can get pretty shallow and simplistic. Enter Stephen Chow, who undoes all of that with his trademark deadpan delivery and delightful blend of comedy and action. He really is a one-man comedy army, elevating the people around him and coaching them to become better comedy actors. It's why Chow is at his best when he is allowed to operate both in front and behind the camera.
Whereas Shaolin Soccer was a hilarious take on sports films, Kung Fu Hustle has its eyes on crime cinema. The plot follows Sing, a deadbeat trying to get into a local crime syndicate (the Axe Gang) as a way to escape his life of poverty. Sing's inept attempts start a rivalry between the Axe Gang and the people of Pig's Sty Alley, a small, secluded community that tries to get by on its own. What the Axe Gang doesn't know is that a couple of old Shaolin masters are enjoying their retirement from the martial arts world in this little commune, and when challenged they are still quite able to put up a good fight.
A lot of Chow's comedy is visual and for that he needs a healthy dose of CG. The good news is that it's all very functional. Chow doesn't consider CG to be a cheap solution to film making, but treats it as one more tool to add an extra level of comedy to his films. The CG itself is rather low in quality, but as such it isn't really that bothersome. Apart from the CG, Hong Kong's visual identity of the early 90s remained pretty much intact here. Dynamic camera work, crazy camera angles and good use of lighting and color determine the overall look. Save some subpar effects, Kung Fu Hustle is a fine-looking film.
The soundtrack is a pretty forgettable affair though, but that shouldn't really come as a surprise. Generally speaking, Chinese cinema rarely tries to make a difference with its scores, for comedies that percentage is even lower. It's not that Kung Fu Hustle's music is irritating or distracting, it's just not that memorable and it adds very little to the overall atmosphere of the film. Music can be a great trigger for comedy, but this seems to be an area Chow prefers to ignore almost completely. While it feels like a missed opportunity, it doesn't actively hurt the film either.
As for the cast, it is absolutely stellar, though some familiarity with Hong Kong comedy acting is welcomed (as it is often considered somewhat of an acquired taste). There are plenty of familiar faces here, but it's Chow himself who steals everybody's thunder. Chow is no doubt one of the best comedy actors around and his role makes perfect use of his skills, one of the perks of director your own films no doubt. Notable secondary performances from Wah Yuen, Qiu Yuen and Siu-Lung Leung only add to the fun, an endless list of amusing cameos seal the deal.
Kung Fu Hustle does take a while to get up to speed. The intro is a little too long, but once Chow's character is introduced things start to move in the right direction. The mix of comedy and action is at times sublime, providing some lengthy but impressive scenes that offer genuine laughs and spectacular martial arts in equal amounts. While that's a real blast of course, it's also a rather sad reminder that subsequent Chow films haven't been able to match the sheer fun and joy found in this film.
Kung Fu Hustle is a blind recommend for fans of Stephen Chow, but it's also very well suited as an introduction into Chow's oeuvre. If you've never seen his work before, this is the ideal film to get accustomed to his style of comedy. Kung Fu Hustle is the perfect showcase for Chow's trademark mix of silly, over-the-top comedy and deadpan execution. Genuine laughs and crazy martial arts scenes make this one of the most entertaining films around. If you haven't seen this one yet, there's really no good reason not to give it a fair chance.