Pulp Appeal: Kung-Fu Hustle
KUNG FU HUSTLE, directed, produced, written and starring Stephen Chow, is perhaps the most over-the-top, troperific, batshit insane kung fu movie to not strictly be a parody. It features dancing criminal gangs, old kung fu masters hiding out in slums, evil kung fu masters hanging out in insane asylums, musical assassins, over the top action, and even a sequence straight out of a Looney Tunes short.
Set in 1940s Shanghai, the city is controlled by gangs, none more feared than the notorious Axe Gang. Sing is a low-level crook trying to get in good with the gang, and through his attempts to get in good with the criminals, he ends up creating an escalating conflict between the Axe Gang and the impoverished residents of Pig Sty Alley… which just so happens to be the home of a number of powerful martial artists, not the least of which is the two landlords… played by Wah Yuen and Qiu Yuen. The escalation is such that the Axe Gang ends up recruiting the Beast, a feared master who hangs out in an asylum because he feels there are no other challenges to be had.
Sing’s motivation is that he attempted a good deed earlier in life, and ended up literally being pissed on for his efforts. As a result, he decided that being a bad guy was the only way to get through life.
For as much as it is a comedy film, the action sequences are fantastic to watch even as they indulge in clearly supernatural feats. As well, the character of Sing goes through a tremendous character arc, fueled in part by being beat to within an inch of his life multiple times. Granted, that is what ends up clearing his chi to become a grandmaster of kung fu, but it is heavily implied that he wouldn’t have survived if he wasn’t a natural genius of kung fu to begin with. Chow is willing to let tragedy fuel the comedic aspects, and he refuses to let the story take itself too seriously all the time as he throws in comedic jabs even in the middle of otherwise serious scenes (such as when the three kung fu masters say good-bye to each other).
The movie overall is an excellent treasure trove of how comedy can be fused to an action movie while keeping meaningful stakes. For example, Sing wants to become part of the Axe Gang, but to do so he must prove himself. To be fair, all of his actions put him in a worse position. The Landlord and Landlady want to enjoy a (relatively) peaceful existence in obscurity, but that is threatened when the Axe Gang tries to make inroads into Pig Sty Alley. The Beast wants to prove himself as a kung fu master and wants a worthy opponent. All of these desires end up coming in conflict with each other, and it is these tensions that end up driving the plot of the movie as a whole.
So if you missed this one, or its been a while, its well worth checking out again. And while there have long been rumors of a sequel, well, the original will have to tide you over until it (maybe) eventually happens.