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Photograph by Tang Chak Sun/courtesy of Sony Pictures

Gangs of Shanghai: Chan Kwok Kwan shows off his Miramax-mockery outfit in 'Kung Fu Hustle.'

Mr. Chow

'Kung Fu Hustle' kicks its way through the history of martial-arts movies

By Richard von Busack

RHAPSODIC ESSAYS are literary children of a lesser god, but I have come to rhapsodize over Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle, not to argue against its vintage 1914-style slapstick, spruced with the most ridiculous computer animation.

Shanghai in the mid-1930s is ruled by an army of evil hatchet men called "The Axe Gang," togged out in morning coats so dangling and stovepipe hats so vast they must be a mockery of Gangs of New York—and in particular of the company that produced it (Miramax's butchery of Chow's shoulda-been hit Shaolin Soccer was a legendary act of suit stupidity).

The head gangster, Sum (Chan Kwok Kwan), bares his mahogany-colored teeth and hatchets a rival and his girlfriend. Following these outrages, he and his Axe Gang celebrate their murders with a dance of pure evil. And the most primitive part of the moviegoers' brainstem shouts out, "Will no one stop these villains?"

Meanwhile, in a Chinese Dogpatch called Pig Slop Alley, a gangster wannabe named Sing (director Chow) and his obese, dozy henchman (Lam Tze Chung) try to raise some protection money. They pose as members of the Axe Gang and get into serious trouble when the real gangsters arrive.

At first glance, this high-rise tenement is peopled with nobodies. However, a noodle maker called Donut (Diong Zhi Hua), a swishy tailor (Chiu Chi Ling) and a stolid porter (Xing Yu) all turn out to be kung fu masters. And so are Pig Slop Alley's sour landlady (Yuen Qiu), and her cake-eater husband (Yuen Wah).

Qiu provides the face of the true landladyism, as if portrayed by Mad magazine in 1958—cig in mouth, curlers in hair, housecoat over nightgown. She is a student of Lion Roar kung fu—lung fu, so to speak. Landlady's greatest weapon is a terrifying voice, which will surprise no one who's ever been late with the rent.

Having had their asses kicked, the members of the Axe Gang spring their ultimate weapon: Hannibal Lecter, or anyway, "the Beast" (Leung Siu Lung), locked away in a dungeon of the Abnormal Pathology Center. The greatest kung fu fighter of all time turns out to be an eerie, weary runt in undershirt and rubber slippers. My dad always said, "In football, I root for the team that's on the offensive." This is exactly the opposite of what you want to do when you're watching a kung fu movie.

As executive producer Bill Borden notes, Kung Fu Hustle is like a one-movie history of the martial-arts movie—the beginning is staged like the Bruce Lee era, the middle is in the style of Jackie Chan and the end is loaded with Matrix-y "It's raining men" effects, with the Axe Gang flying and caroming off the walls.

The film is packed with vintage martial artists. To play the Beast, Lung came out of 20 years of retirement. He was once considered part of a trio with Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee—"the three dragons," they were called by publicists.

Choreographers Yuen Wo Ping (who did the Kill Bill movies) and Sammo Hung are both familiar to those who used to haunt the Towne Theater on Tuesday nights during its Hong Kong series. The movie salutes are inventive. Hero gets a nod in a murderous harp attack. So does The Hulk. And Chow includes a lethal little Wong Kar-Wai parody, where a cheongsam-wearing glamour puss billed as "Rabbit Toothed Jane" listens to an old 78 record, dolls herself up in front of a mirror and smiles to reveal a prosthetic upper bite that's like the ivory of Amanda Peet, Parker Posey and Ione Skye rolled into one.

Kung Fu Hustle is as coarse as burlap underwear. Yet it's a movie that can be understood from Greenland to Tasmania. Chow exemplifies the ridiculous martial-arts genre, called "Mo Lei Tau," which gets laughs as mercilessly as the Three Stooges once did. The R-rating for violence is preposterous, since Kung Fu Hustle speaks so eloquently to the inner 12-year-old.

The movie is probably an insult to people who take fight movies seriously, and it's been described as the baroque stage in kung fu cinema. If that's so, why doesn't it feel like a last gasp?

Chow's phenomenal energy and cartoonish invention seem like the beginning of something, not the end. And he always cuts the sentiment. The last shot shows us the next generation of hero, a child tantalized by kung fu instruction manuals, just as Sing had been once. But the scene's not that poignant: the kid has a load of snot in his nose.

Kung Fu Hustle (R; 95 min.), directed and written by Stephen Chow, photographed by Poon Hang Sang and starring Chow, Yuen Wah and Leung Siu Lung, opens Friday valleywide.

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From the April 20-26, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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