Kung Fu Hustle
Kung Fu Hustle (Director: Stephen Chow)
Or: Gong fu. Chow has been described as the "Chinese Jim Carrey" or something to that effect. He's most-known here for Shaolin Soccer.
I've seen all sorts of raves for this, and it's easy to see why. The movie is filled with silliness and it could be described as yet another live-action cartoon. But once again, this year, I've left a theatre sort of feeling like something was missing.
The "story" is that there's a gang called "The Axe Gang" that pretty much reigns in all the wealthy areas of 1940's Shanghai, and they don't bother the "Pig Sty District," the setting of our story. But there's a man with a dream of becoming an Axe Gang member, Sing (Chow), who wanders into the town pretending to be a badass and a member of the gang. This district is basically run by Landlady (Qiu Yuen) and Landlord (Wah Yuen), and it appears that everyone who lives here is some sort of kung fu wizard. This leads to the first couple of good jokes, as Sing fruitlessly picks people out of the crowd he thinks he can fight, and with the movie using some cheesy effects that work on a nicely silly level, finds out no one in the town is weak. Actions lead to the actual Axe Gang being forced to go into the slums, and once they get their asses handed to them, a war is started.
This is where the minimal plot gets interesting, when the Axe Gang hires some pretty cool fighters to go into the town and try to eliminate the Pig Sty residents. There's a two-fisted fighting team that uses some sort of guitar where the musical notes form swords, warriors, punches, etc. Then there's a guy who seems completely indestructible. Landlady and Landlord have many special attacks of their own, and it leads to some more silliness and fun action. Meanwhile, Sing starts his path towards becoming a master, keeps trying to find his way into the gang, but later finds a transformation that changes all of that. The path taken starts echoing Spider-Man, The Matrix, and other films.
Don't get me wrong, there's much to enjoy in this. Sing is a classic delusional character, someone who would fit right into a Wes Anderson picture. The over-the-top gags are a welcome sight to see, reminiscent of Airplane! at times, and it gets fused with some cool kung fu action. The problem is that it's sort of a messy film. The leading characters are really Landlady and Landlord, but we're sort of expected to follow Sing as the main character and witness his rise from pauper to master. His story is the link to all the action, but everything that involves him is sort of contrived, even if there are some funny moments that come out of it. It's kind of hard to quibble, but I think that's what left me a little cold when I saw it. That, and sometimes the movie can't sustain it's mood. It's mostly silly, but sometimes you're not sure what it's supposed to be. Are the "serious" scenes actually funny ones in disguise? It was hard to tell in some patches, and a lot of that may have to do with the fact that it's Mandarin translated to mere English words on the screen--some of the intent may have been lost.
Anyway, it's a movie that you can go to and enjoy. One of those "Relax on a Saturday afternoon" flicks.