Kung Fu Hustle (2004)

Kung Fu Hustle: 2004, dir. Stephen Chow. Seen at Alamo Village (May 5).
Now, Kung Fu Hustle was not disappointing. I don’t think I read a single negative review of this movie beforehand. Admittedly, I tend to read reviews on small weblogs rather than mainstream newspapers or magazines, so my sample of reviewers may have been skewed in some way. But I was looking forward to a lively, funny film and Kung Fu Hustle exceeded my expectations.
Kung Fu Hustle was a gigantic hit in Hong Kong, where it was filmed, although it didn’t do as well in the US. Perhaps American audiences didn’t know what they were getting into. My sister thought it was going to be a straightforward kung-fu action movie, wasn’t all that thrilled that her boyfriend and my brother dragged her to see it, and then loved it. My mom was surprised to hear that I talked my boyfriend into going, rather than the other way around. I don’t think people realized that Kung Fu Hustle is a comedy.

Kung Fu Hustle balances comedy and action in just the way I like. I enjoyed it in the same way I enjoyed seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark in a theater a week later.
The plot of Kung Fu Hustle is pretty easy to follow. The Axe Gang is terrorizing Shanghai in the 1940s. Two guys who look like Axe Gang members stroll into the poorest neighborhood in town and run into a group of people who will not be intimidated. Somehow the real Axe Gang gets drawn into the mix and vows to defeat the mysterious fighters who are defending the little neighborhood.
One difficulty I did have with this movie is that it took me awhile to figure out the main characters, and where the focus of the movie would be. I think this is because I hadn’t seen any of Stephen Chow’s movies before. If I had, I would probably have recognized him in the role of Sing, the con artist who wants to join the Axe Gang, and that would have made things a bit clearer.
The neighborhood characters are delightful, particularly the Landlady and her husband the Landlord. Oh, I loved the Landlady. Wasn’t I the one who complained that we don’t have enough strong, ass-kicking women in films these days? Now we have the Landlady. She is unforgettable.
Sometimes the movie’s symbolism verges on what ought to be cliched and trite, like the business with the lollipop, but somehow it works.
Kung Fu Hustle makes references to a lot of other movies, but not in an annoyingly obvious way. The scene in which the Landlady pursues Sing is right out of an old Roadrunner cartoon. And the two assassins in suits, hats, and sunglasses who tell the gang boss that actually, they’re musicians … did anyone else hear “Are you the police?” “No, ma’am, we’re musicians” in their head like I did?
The fight scenes are choreographed beautifully. I am not a big expert on kung-fu or fight movies of any kind, but I was impressed. This is a good reason to see the movie in a theater rather than on DVD—the big fight sequences are amazing on a big screen.
Most of the violence in the movie has more of a cartoon effect than a realistic one—I didn’t see a lot of blood and gore spurting everywhere (although I heard that a few bloody shots were removed from the US release). Definitely a change from, say, the first Kill Bill movie.
I put Shaolin Soccer in my rental queue, and am hoping to see it soon. I’d like to see some more of Stephen Chow’s movies.
Meanwhile, if Kung Fu Hustle is still playing in a theater near you, and you haven’t seen it yet, go. It is great fun. It may be the funniest, most entertaining new release I have seen so far this year. I wish that it could somehow stay in theaters during the summer months, because I would love to see it again sometime in July, when it’s blazing hot outside and I want to sit in an ice-cold theater and be entertained and amused. Will I be able to find a summer movie that good in June or July? I hope so.

2 thoughts on “Kung Fu Hustle (2004)”

  1. I loved it! Saw it on mother’s day.
    Let’s see — Tarantino meets Road Runner meets Jackie Chan meets West Side Story? What am I leaving out?

  2. Kung Fu Hustle is hilarious! I especially loved the landlady. Did you know that she is an ex-Bond Girl?
    But as ass-kicking women go, I found it fascinating in a meta-critical sorta way that the most fearsome power in the movie is…. a woman’s voice.

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