'Kung Fu Hustle': The Grin Reaper

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 22, 2005

"Kung Fu Hustle" is one of the most buzzed-about comedies to come out this year, but for some reason -- the weather? The idiots in the next row talking all the way through the movie? -- its charms eluded me.

Admittedly the actor and director Stephen Chow has created a larky, energetic homage not just to his own genre but also to all movies, everywhere and throughout time. But for all its stylishness, verve and moments of visual poetry, the relentlessly punishing slapstick and overall cruel tone left me cold. Obviously, given the reaction of my fellow critics, not to mention viewers at a recent screening, "Kung Fu Hustle's" delirious, doggedly self-conscious humor is infectious. Whether it is enduring, or deserves to be, is another matter entirely.

Chow opens his movie with a charming tracking shot that quickly turns into a witty homage to the "Pink Panther" films. From that bravura prologue, "Kung Fu Hustle" goes to affectionately spoofing the international canon, from gangster pictures and westerns to Busby Berkeley musicals and, of course, Chow's beloved Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan flicks.

The action in "Kung Fu Hustle," which is set in 1940s Shanghai, revolves around a small-time crook named Sing (Chow), who desperately wants to join the legendary criminal syndicate the Axe Gang. Sing, along with a corpulent sidekick played by Lam Tze Chung, decides to prove himself in the city's toughest neighborhood, Pig Sty Alley. But first he'll have to do business with that community's unofficial leader, a ruthless landlady played by former James Bond starlet Qiu Yuen, who has acquired 30 pounds, a parabolic frown and a firmly lipped cigarette.

That's only the very busy beginning of a story in which every other character is a kung fu master schooled in ever more arcane fighting techniques. Chow has a great deal of fun at the expense of the chop-socky films he's been making for the past 20 years, and the inside jokes and constant action in "Kung Fu Hustle" will appeal mostly to fans of that hugely popular genre. But movie geeks in general will appreciate Chow's often amusing nods, from Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" (which is mercilessly skewered here) to Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion classic "Jason and the Argonauts."

It's appropriate that Chow would nod toward the godfather of special effects, since "Kung Fu Hustle" features nearly every special effect in the book. Indeed, Chow takes so many visual liberties with his characters that "Kung Fu Hustle" resembles a "Road Runner" cartoon as often as it does a live-action film. But as over-the-top as the movie often is, the director takes surprising care to create meticulous sets for his human Wile E. Coyotes. From the Axe Gang's dapper top hats to some lovely, lyrical scenes involving a beautiful ice cream vendor, Chow composes his scenes with an uncommon sense of detail, color and crisp symmetry (and the 1940s-era signage is a particularly delightful touch).

But primarily, "Kung Fu Hustle" is about the martial arts sequences, which have been expertly choreographed by Hong Kong veterans Yuen Wo Ping and Sammo Hung, but which, if you're not already enamored of the genre, will seem to go on and on. A three-way fight involving some unlikely kung fu masters is well executed, as is a sublime sequence in which a man playing a Japanese harp hurls forth an army of murderous ghosts (that passage is foreshadowed by an amusing bit of business involving a kitten). But by the time "Kung Fu Hustle" reaches its grand climax, you're either into it all the way or you're not quite sure why you should care about this unpleasant group of characters. As is made coarsely clear in Chow's last scene -- which he injects with a gratuitously gross sight gag -- he needs to learn to leave bad enough alone.

Kung Fu Hustle (95 minutes, in Cantonese and Mandarin with subtitles, at area theaters) is rated R for sequences of strong, stylized action and violence.

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