Kung Fu Hustle is a genuinely sweet fable wrapped in layer after ridiculous layer of unadulterated kung foolishness.
Filmed on huge sound stages, Kung Fu Hustle is also a grand and beautifully made essay on the history of physical comedy in film with nods to Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Sergio Leone, Bollywood, Warner Bros. cartoons, A Clockwork Orange, the Coen Brothers, Terry Gilliam, The Shining, Shogun, West Side Story, Spider-man, The Silence of the Lambs, every Chinese folk tale ever told, and every 1970s-era martial-arts flick ever shot by the Shaw Brothers. That may sound like an awful lot of homage crammed into a 95-minute movie, but in this campy, action-packed ode to comic-book fatalism, nothing seems excessive or out of place.
Writer/director/star Stephen Chow's understanding of cinematic language and his ability to use audio/visual cliché as a kind of shorthand makes English subtitles unnecessary. If the film were entirely wordless there would be no question as to what was going on, and the laughter would be every bit as pervasive.
Set in a squalid future where a gang of youthful, ax-throwing miscreants rules the streets as well as the halls of justice, Kung Fu Hustle imagines a topsy-turvy world where only the poverty-stricken Pig Sty Alley remains untouched by crime and relatively peaceful. Well, until a pair of bungling would-be criminals (Chow and Lam Tze Chung) show up trying to convince the Sty-dwellers that they are members of the ax-gang, accidentally setting into motion a classic battle between the unexpectedly good and the unimaginably wicked.
As a child, Sing (played by Chow) was conned by a street hustler, who took the youngster's life savings in exchange for a worthless dimestore book about kung fu and some mystical-sounding gobbledygook about how Sing has been chosen as the protector of all mankind. The young Sing's first attempt to do good by saving a little deaf girl's lollypop from older ruffians goes badly, and though he saves the lollypop, he takes a beating and suffers a humiliation so terrible he's determined never to do good again. The lollypop functions as a motif as innocent and sweet as Chaplin's flower in City Lights, which is the obvious inspiration for Kung Fu Hustle's backstory. The second time the fateful lollypop appears now old and crusty there can be little doubt that Sing's latent heroism will reemerge.
Even without Sing, Pig Sty Alley is well-protected by a quintet of unlikely kung fu masters: a gay tailor, a humble noodle maker, a lowly coolie, a skinny landlord, and his shrewish wife. If Kung Fu Hustle has a moral, it's that value lurks in the least-obvious places and that those who don't measure up against the status quo are in no way diminished by their artificially imposed shortcomings.
Yuen Qiu is hysterical as Pig Sty Alley's exceptionally loud muumuu-and slipper-wearing landlady. Qiu is never seen without a cigarette dangling from her lips, and the way she moves it from one side of her mouth to the other without ever touching it with her hands is a masterful exercise in physical comedy the likes of which hasn't been seen since the end of the silent era.
Many critics have already labeled Kung Fu Hustle as a live-action cartoon, which is accurate but only to a degree. While there are many comic elements lifted directly from the Chuck Jones playbook, and there are certainly times when the plot seems to mimic exactly the classic encounters of Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, this isn't some vapid Jim Carrey vehicle with a Mandarin accent. In spite of its animated antecedents, Kung Fu Hustle is more informed by Chaplin's City Lights, Keaton's The General, and Harold Lloyd's famous "glasses character" than it is as Roger Ebert has suggested by Bugs Bunny. For that matter, Chow's visual style owes more to the surrealist painter Rene Magritte, and to Big Lebowski-era Coen Brothers than it does to "Merrie Melodies" or even the tradition of kung fu action movies.
As wrongs are righted through a series of absurd and magical conflicts between the unlikely good guys and the forces of darkness, Kung Fu Hustle becomes a smart, subtle, and artfully produced answer to a rather obnoxious staple of cable television: the 1980s teen romp Revenge of the Nerds. In Chow's universe, all things stylish, glamorous, and expensive are inextricably bound up in villainy, while beauty is hidden behind thick glasses and heroism is only fostered by the school of hard knocks. If Kung Fu Hustle is ultimately an exercise in absurdity, it is also a love song to underdogs and a strong warning to oppressors everywhere: There are a lot of poor, downtrodden people in the world and their kung fu is better than yours. •