Kung Fu Hustle Review

Having reinvigorated the sports movie to his own oddball, cartoon-ish means with Shaolin Soccer, Stephen Chow now sets about doing likewise for the gangster flick with Kung Fu Hustle. Judging by the poster for Top Hat which we see adorning a cinema wall, the film is supposedly set in the mid-thirties, but then it’s a heavily stylised affair which bears little resemblance to real life as we know it. Simplistic, prone to sentimentality, yet also incredibly brutal when it wants to be, not to mention CG-enhanced, this is hardly a film to sit alongside The Sopranos or The Killing of a Chinese Bookie as a realistic look at mob culture.

Yet this shouldn’t be considered a criticism more a means of understanding where Chow is coming from. He’s not really interested in making a gangster film per se, just in using the genre as a means of providing a narrative – it’s tale of the escalating violence between the infamous Axe Gang and an impoverished settlement on the edge of town could only work otherwise if it had been re-imagined as a Western. In other words, Kung Fu Hustle most certainly would not work in the present day.

That said, it’s also true that Chow isn’t disrespecting the genre of diving into it without foreknowledge. There’s always been a stylised edge to the gangster film – from Scorsese’s underworld epics through to Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy and Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone - and this is something which he’s clearly latched onto. Indeed, the latter two examples would appear to be key reference points considering the overt sense of design and choreography which distinguishes his efforts here. And yet Kung Fu Hustle’s simplicity also seems miles away from the form. There’s little in the way of the moralistic tone to be found in Warner Bros’ flicks, for example, rather Chow adopts an approach which is best described as Chaplin-esque.

Compare Kung Fu Hustle to Chaplin’s Easy Street, made in 1917, and this becomes abundantly clear. In the place of the silent comedian’s caricatured locale from which his film takes its name, Chow offers us “Pig Sty Alley”; populating both places are people who are essentially good and are therefore preyed upon by the local villains; the police have absolutely no control over the situation; and at the centre of all this we have the ambiguous of Chaplin or Chow, who’s good on the inside but will join whichever side allows him to have the easiest ride.

Yet Easy Street was barely a half-hour in length, whereas Kung Fu Hustle almost quadruples that. Certainly, this provided Chaplin with more than enough room for his finely honed combination of slapstick and sentimentality, but is it all too much for Chow? After all, we’re never in any doubt as to where his film is going and as such it all grows a little tiresome. But then we never really watch one of Chow’s efforts for the storytelling, whilst his confidence as a filmmaker has clearly grown over the years. What we have then is a film in which pretty much anything goes allowing for any inherent flimsiness to be easily overlooked. There’s the slapstick and sentiment à la Chaplin (in fact the subplot, if it can be described as such, involving the mute girl and the lollipop could also be read as a variation on Virginia Cherrill’s blind flower girl in City Lights), the really quite shocking brutality which I’ve already mentioned, plenty of sheer stupidity (the gag about the red underwear is just plain odd – there simply is no other term for it), a quick dream sequence paying homage to The Shining, and a gleefully knowing piss take of The Matrix.

And this latter one is important as it is the action dimension which will, of course, be Kung Fu Hustle’s selling point. Taking his cue from the Wachowski brothers’ various CG-enhanced fight scenes (not to mention a bunch of nonsense about being “The One”), Chow goes to the next logical step and turns it into a pure cartoon. Indeed, watching this film you come to realise just how facile The Mask was; it may have aped the various tics of a Tex Avery ’toon, but the sardonic, irreverent energy was nowhere to be seen. Here, however, we have the closest cinema has gotten thus far to a live action Looney Tune, though the sheer volume of CG-enhancement means that we should probably consider it as animation anyhow.

Of course, these are just labels and therefore ultimately irrelevant. What’s important is the level of invention and ingenuity which Chow brings. Whilst Ong-Bak proudly proclaims itself as being 100% genuine in its fight scenes – the martial arts equivalent of neo-realism? - Kung Fu Hustle throws itself into the ridiculous, the over the top and the fantastical. And yet Chow also knows when not to overplay his hand. He doesn’t throw everything at us with the first opportunity, but paces things out so that the film continually builds. Indeed, if you’re gobsmacked within the first half hour, then your jaw is likely to be on the floor by its conclusion.

The Disc

A new release getting issued by a major company, Kung Fu Hustle looks and sounds expectedly fine on its UK release. Presented anamorphically at a ratio of 2.35:1, we get the film taken from a pristine print and transferred with no discernible problems. Importantly, the colours look particular fine, especially during the more stylised moments such as the purple tinged nightclub scene, whilst the darker scenes are also impressively handled. As for the soundtrack, the disc offers the film in its original Cantonese plus English and Spanish dubs all in Dolby Digital 5.1. Concentrating on the former, the mix we get here is hugely impressive. Of course, Kung Fu Hustle is the kind of film to make extensive use of all of the given channels, but the more cartoon-ish do come through remarkably well. Moreover, technical flaws are non-existent, making for a fine viewing experience and one that is perhaps as good as DTS could offer.

The extras are identical to those found on the Region 1. As such we get Chow delivering an engaging commentary with various co-stars as well as a nicely in-depth interview in which he places Kung Fu Hustle within the context of his career and Hong Kong cinema as a whole. Elsewhere, we get two deleted scenes - one which is an alternative to one found in the final cut, whilst the other offers a slight extension – and ten minutes worth of outtakes which are pretty much as expected. The remaining pieces are your standard extras offerings: an international poster gallery (which oddly doesn’t include the one used to promote the film in the UK), a whole host of TV spots, and some cross-promotional trailers for other Sony releases.

All extras come with optional subtitles in English, Spanish and Dutch.

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