Kung Fu Hustle Review
With a mainstream western audiences unable to get enough of the Hong Kong martial arts techniques expanded on in movies such as The Matrix Trilogy and Kill Bill, the long delayed release in the west of Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer at least had the advantage of hitting cinemas around the same time that real Asian films like Zhang Yimou’s Hero and House Of Flying Daggers were assimilating those Hollywood special effects and techniques back into traditional action films and achieving similar mainstream acceptance and acclaim. The time was therefore ripe and the expectation high for the film Stephen Chow had been working on over the last three years, his biggest action-comedy blockbuster to date and the most successful Hong Kong film ever – Kung Fu Hustle.
Kung Fu Hustle is set in Shanghai in the late 1930s, the city’s heyday era of glamour and gangster triads. There’s a new gang in town - the Axe Gang are a formidable presence and even the police keep well out of their way. Only the poorest districts are free from the influence of their big-time crime operations, leaving small time crooks like Sing (Stephen Chow) and Bone (Lam Tze Chung) to try and get away with a few small-fry scams. Sing is determined to be a bad guy since life has taught him that good guys get nowhere and arrives in Pig Sty Alley pretending to be part of the Axe Gang. Sing and Bone however find they find they have picked the wrong district and get their asses soundly kicked. However the commotion draws the unwelcome attention of some real Axe Gang members and before long, the alley has the whole mob down on top of them.
With Kung Fu Hustle, Stephen Chow certainly ups the ante in martial arts movie action, with some brilliant and imaginative fight sequences and rather more professional-looking special effects than those employed in Shaolin Soccer. The film on its own also succeeds in topping each preceding sequence, building on what starts out as a street mob ruckus and developing into a battle between mythological characters and the great Beast. Much of the reason for this success is down to the striking and imaginative use of CGI graphics, which work well, but are not just confined to the fight scenes. But by the time we get to the final battle sequence however, there has been so much use of CGI effects that the impact is lessened considerably, particularly - as we have seen from a similar sequence where Neo battles the faceless hordes of men in black in The Matrix Reloaded - when the lead character’s invincibility is never in question. Much more effective are the earlier old-school fight sequences, choreographed by Sammo Hung and Yuen Wo Ping (don’t even bother making an action movie unless you are going to employ one of these guys – and hey, even better if you can get both!) which are much more exciting and innovative.
Just as successful and key to the making the film much more human, are all the wonderfully funny characters, brilliantly drawn and characterised - right down to the secondary roles and cameo appearances – and every one of them makes an impression. Unfortunately, much of the inherent humour in these characters is often sidestepped in favour of Looney Tunes-style cartoon sequences, which are well done, but in a film already groaning under the weight of CGI they feel overused and less effective than traditional comedy slapstick. What I really missed in the film though was Stephen Chow himself – little more than a basically decent good-for-nothing, Sing is underdeveloped and not on the screen as much as I would have liked, since he provides many of the films funniest moments. The romantic back story of his encounter with a mute girl from his past who reminds him of his childhood failure but will be the key to his salvation, is underdeveloped and does feel somewhat lost among all the big set-piece action sequences. It’s a pity, because with the right balance - which I believe Shaolin Soccer achieved – the film’s blend of humour, romance and imaginative bone-crunching violence, could have been much more effective.
Kung Fu Hustle is released on Region 1 DVD by Sony Picture Classics, and they have done a very nice job with the film indeed. It should be noted however that this is a slightly cleaned-up version of the film, edited by Sony for US theatrical release, toning down the use of blood and some of the scatological humour in the film. While messing about with the director’s version of the film cannot be condoned, it doesn’t appear to have that much of an impact on the tone of the film.
Sony have given the film a lovely transfer to DVD. It’s clean and colourful capturing the different tones and lighting employed, handling the neon glows of night-club interiors and stylised night-time exteriors well, with a good level of detail and depth. It’s perhaps a touch on the soft side and edges can seem occasionally over-defined to compensate, but if edge enhancement is used, it’s done subtly. Nitpicking aside, this is a fine picture, handsomely transferred, with no real sign of digital artefacts.
The audio track is also fine and complements the picture well. The Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 track doesn’t have quite the body or depth of a DTS mix that this film is crying out for, but it is more than adequate. An English dub in Dolby Digital 5.1 is also included.
English subtitles are presented in a yellow font and are mostly confined to one-line below in the letterboxed border below the anamorphic 2.40:1 image. When it stretches to two lines, this intrudes into the picture frame.
The disc comes with a full set of extra feaures – all on one disc! The Director and Cast Commentary is most entertaining and also very informative about shooting conditions and cast backgrounds. A TV Special – Behind the Scenes of Kung Fu Hustle (41:55) is hosted in an entertaining manner by Lam Tze Chung (Bone) and Chan Kwok Kwan (Brother Sum). Some of the stated ambitions for the film are rather lofty in the interviews, (with aspirations to achieving world peace through showing the good that lies within everyone) but it’s mostly a fun look at casting, use of special effects, action choreography, music with some behind the scenes footage. Two Deleted Scenes are included, one an alternate take of the ‘Pig Sty Community Meeting’ (2:10) (which according to the commentary had to be re-shot when the director discovered that Yuan Wo Ping had killed off his three fighting heroes), and an extended sequence from the ‘Meeting Brother Sum’ Night Club scene (1:59). Ric Meyers Interview with Stephen Chow (27:55) introduces Stephen Chow and explains the HK action movie references for viewers unfamiliar with the genre. With Stephen’s limited English, it certainly achieves its aim of keeping things simple, but also imparts some interesting information. An Outtakes & Bloopers (4:46) reel is of limited interest, as these things usually are. A full set of 15 TV Spots present the film’s action and comedy in bite-size chunks. The International Poster Exploration Gallery features 16 terrible poster attempts, none of them successfully capturing the tone of the film.
You can make up all the combinations of films you like to try and convey the tone of Kung Fu Hustle, and most reviews try – the “Kill Bill meets Looney Tunes” being the most obvious one that western audiences would relate to. Personally, I would have settled for My Sassy Girl meets Dragonball Z for the comedy-romance and the super-powered characters who continually exceed earthly limitations to reach new heights of fighting - but the film never quite achieves the requisite balance between the comedy and the violent, cartoon action the way that Tamil cinema seems to do so well in films like Aalavandhan and Dhool. The most notable aspects of Kung Fu Hustle are certainly the action sequences which are imaginative and a lot of fun, but they are also the film’s weakness, taking precedence over the funny characterisation and performances and relegating Stephen Chow’s great comedy routines to the background. Kung Fu Hustle however is still great fun and wonderful entertainment. Sony Pictures, despite some minor edits, present the film well on DVD, with a fine quality transfer and a good set of extra features.