Chow's latest boasts highly irreverent spirit

by Christopher Mah | 4/25/05 5:00am

If you've seen the trailer for Stephen Chow's "Kung Fu Hustle," it probably left you shaking your head in confusion, thinking to yourself, "What the hell is this?" Watching the actual movie does little to answer that question. Selling itself on Roger Ebert's endorsement ("Imagine a film in which Jackie Chan and Buster Keaton meet Quentin Tarantino and Bugs Bunny"), "Hustle" is a blur of flying hatchets, bizarre dance numbers, cartoon effects and lots of blood and gore. Despite being difficult to describe, the result is refreshingly hip and wildly entertaining.

Set in a 1940s Chinese slum aptly named Pigsty Alley, "Hustle" follows an incompetent, petty man named Sing (Chow) who aspires to join the ranks of the infamous Axe Gang, a ruthless mob of hatchet-wielding thugs. Due to Sing's carelessness, Pigsty Alley becomes a battleground between the Axe Gang and the ostensibly helpless residents.

However, the town holds several predictable aces up their sleeves -- a restaurant owner, a tailor and a poor laborer who all happen to be former Kung Fu masters. These three kick some serious Axe, prompting head gangster Brother Sum to recruit China's deadliest assassins to take them down. Meanwhile, Sing and his buddy set out to prove that they have what it takes to be Axes. The two plots converge and hilarity improbably ensues.

Chow is in many ways Hong Kong's Quentin Tarantino, a director who relies heavily on aesthetic fireworks, smart dialogue and an ironic sense of self-referentiality. Like Chow's previous film "Shaolin Soccer," "Hustle" is delightfully irreverent to the point of being absurd, but it is thankfully conscious of its own absurdity.

The film has all the makings of live animation, employing the digital technologies that gave "The Mask" its cartoon-like feel while also incorporating the fantastical, more aesthetic special effects that were popularized by recent successes "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Hero." The film's musical score also adds to its cartoon-like quality, employing Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance" and Sarasate's "Zigunerweisen" as backdrops to a street rumble and a ridiculous chase scene, respectively.

All these elements, along with a healthy dose of anachronistic pop cultural references, lend "Kung Fu Hustle" a decidedly postmodern irony. It pokes fun at everything from Irving Berlin to Spider-Man and plays with the hackneyed "Matrix" spoofs that have become almost obligatory in martial arts comedies.

"Hustle" is a sort of "Eastern Western" that is full of memorable (if unlikely) heroes and villains -- a sleazy landlord and his heartless wife, a barber who can't keep his pants up, a gay tailor with superhuman strength and an elderly man dubbed "The Beast" who just happens to be China's deadliest assassin. Most memorable of all, however, is the Axe Gang, an amalgamation of the Crazy 88s in "Kill Bill," the knife-hurling assassins in "House of Flying Daggers" and the Sharks from "West Side Story" (right down to the full-scale dance number following their first slaughter).

The humor in the movie is effective because it refuses to take itself seriously. At several points in the film, Chow has the opportunity to resort to sentimentalism but ignores it in favor of a well-timed laugh. For instance, in one scene, Sing botches a robbery attempt and has an emotional epiphany that is suddenly interrupted when his sidekick jumps up to chase a passing ice cream truck.

There is a basic moral to the story -- that "being ordinary is a blessing" -- and perhaps even a bit of social commentary, but Chow avoids any serious attempt at didacticism that would detract from the film's pure silliness. This is derived from a style of Chow's that Hong Kong critics have tagged "Mo Lei Tau," literally "without a care-head." Chow liberally wields this carefree style, teasing out the larger themes of life -- good versus evil, war, peace and mortality -- before subsequently trivializing them as the butt of a crude joke.

"Kung Fu Hustle" is an entertaining, original and extremely funny movie. Unfortunately, like so many other foreign films, it will probably slip under the mainstream radar and have to settle for an enthusiastic cult following. Chow pulls out all of the cinematic stops, creatively drawing from many different sources -- martial arts, Westerns, Broadway musicals, gangster movies, and cartoons -- and parodying them, proving himself to be a playful comedian, a decent actor, an imaginative director and a master of mockery.

Even fans of brilliant "serious directors" Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou will appreciate the riotous alternative that Chow offers. It is ultimately a lowbrow film that pokes fun at lowbrow pop culture. Yet what it lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in laughs many times over.