Vanity, they name is Stephen Chow. Perhaps nothing more true and at the same time more false can be said about the dashing, roguish Chinese director in regards to 2004’s Kung Fu Hustle, a film where Chow both runs the show and stars as the out-of-sight protagonist. The contradiction between placing greater emphasis on the extraordinary cast while also plotting to ultimately remake himself in the image of the legendary Bruce Lee is incredibly puzzling: Is Chow self-aggrandizing or should he be lauded for sitting himself out for many of his film’s more crucial moments?
Maybe the more important question is: Who cares? Or perhaps: Can’t it be both?
There’s no way that anyone could make the case that Chow isn’t being at least a little self-indulgent; Lee is probably the single greatest cinematic martial arts hero of all time, an icon and an idol to many (though he is not, in point of fact, Chow’s personal martial arts hero; more on that later). Here, Chow doesn’t simply get to play in the same sandbox as Lee, he intentionally gives himself the Lee makeover. Moreover, it’s pretty effective; if nothing else is to be said, Chow certainly looks the part by the time his big fight scene rolls around, and while he’s not as adept at martial arts as Lee he holds his own with impressive ease. But at the same time, how do you successfully accuse Chow of flaunting and preening when he’s in the movie for less time total than some of the film’s bit players?
Among others Chow’s lessened presence may be something of a distraction. I concede that this is somewhat understandable; he is, ostensibly, the star, as well as the director. He’s also the most recognizable face in Kung Fu Hustle‘s crowded cast, at least for those who aren’t familiar with his works and don’t immediately recognize the faces of Danny Chan, Tin Kai-Man, and Lam Chi-Chung. Seeing him flit in and out of the action, disappearing for scenes at a time, feels not-right until one considers that Chow’s story spans more than just the arc of incompetent career criminal Sing. Sing doesn’t drive the whole plot; he’s not meant to. Chow is in fact supposed to be an observer in his own movie for the greater portion of its run time, and if it’s a bit jarring at first it ends up working out in spades by the time the climax has arrived.
It’s 1940s Shanghai, and gang activity has become so widespread that only the poor find their homes safe from the activities of marauding thugs. Sing and Bone, a completely inept pair of wannabe gangsters, decide to exploit the fear instilled by the actions of gangs like the Axe Gang (the most fearsome gang of them all, aptly named for their favored weapon and surprisingly well-choreographed) by attempting to rob and swindle the citizens of Pig Sty Alley, an impoverished bastion of peace that happens to harbor a handful of martial arts masters hiding out and living as normal folk. When Sing’s idiocy brings Pig Sty Alley to the attention of the Axe Gang, a grudge match ignites between the power hungry mob boss Brother Sum (Danny Chan) and the beleaguered people of the slum– and the kung fu champions who live among them.
Sound ridiculous? You ain’t seen nothing yet. If you’re familiar with Chow’s other entries in kung fu slapstick cinema, most notably 2001’s Shaolin Soccer, then you probably have a reasonable idea of what to expect. Chow, of course, is all too willing to completely obliterate your expectations of the lengths of his imagination and love for the genre. To go into great detail regarding the sheer inspired lunacy he imbues Kung Fu Hustle with would be to ruin the fun of watching the movie in the first place, but if soccer balls becoming field-devouring hurricanes is your kind of thing then the promise of Looney Tunes-derived chase sequences and killer musical instruments should be tantalizing indeed.
Chow knows his kung fu source material better than many. The aforementioned instruments are just one of many details and ideas that reach decades back through not just kung fu cinema but also to wuxia literature; references to Jin Yong’s Condor trilogy, for example, are littered throughout the film. But the influence of the movies Chow grew up with are more strongly felt, and we of Western cultures will probably be more in tune with the nods to films such as Way of the Dragon more than anything else. Most of all, Chow knows his kung fu icons and he both populates the cast of his film with them and engineers homages to them through costume and dress. Similar to the kung fu novels the film derives inspiration from, many of the names on the cast may be unfamiliar to American audiences. But to Chow, they’re true legends, particularly Leung Siu-lung– reportedly, the director’s childhood martial arts hero– who makes his first turn as a villain here as the Beast. (Amusingly, the reverse is true for Yuen Wah, an actor, stuntman, and all-around workhorse typically pegged as a villain who here plays one of the heroes.)
If the insistence on casting the martial arts heroes and villains of old in leading roles in Kung Fu Hustle feels as indulgent as Chow’s deliberate adoption of Bruce Lee’s image in the film’s climax, then maybe it is. But it also works beautifully in context with the film’s recurring theme of retired warriors coming out of hiding to do battle once more, for good or for ill. For many of these actors, this is their first film in close to a decade (and in some cases, more), which feels incredibly appropriate for their roles and for the movie’s conceit.
Ultimately, in between the film’s comedy beats and surrounding its sense of heart, Kung Fu Hustle is truly driven by the love for kung fu running through its veins. While things reach patently and deliciously absurd heights (literally) as the movie progresses, there’s a lot of very, very impressive technical stunt work and choreography being pulled off here. When the actors are the ones propelling the action (there’s liberal application of CGI here, but it’s rarely if ever distracting thanks to the efforts of Hong Kong computer graphics company Centro Digital Pictures Limited, with whom Chow previously worked on Shaolin Soccer), movements are crisp and precise, and thanks to both Chow’s sense of geography and of physicality, as well as the talents of choreographer Sammo Hung (yet another legendary figure in Chinese film), our perception of the movements being performed is never skewed or tainted.
Kung Fu Hustle is an absolute treat– a rare movie that blatantly wears its influences on it sleeve without bothering to hide them, but does so with the needed flair to make its inherently referential nature feel organic. Chow is one of the few directors working today that can balance humor with action, and considering how over-the-top his humor goes this is a respectable feat. Then again, his action, too, is completely excessive in its exaggeration, and maybe this is why they mesh so well together. Whatever the case may be, with Kung Fu Hustle Chow continued proving his standing as one of the best showmen working today.