There’s a large group of film enthusiasts who judge a film’s quality on how realistic it is. Does the dialogue sound natural? Is the plot plausible? Never mind how silly a notion it is to compare fiction to real life, these people demand the illusion of reality. If you’re one of these people, this film is not for you.
Kung Fu Hustle makes no attempt at portraying reality (and honestly, how many martial art films do?), but is rather bold, silly, and so over the top that I couldn’t quite decide if it was just dumb or just care free fun. I think the director/screenwriter/actor Stephen Chow knows this perfectly well, and expects the audience laugh and roll their eyes all at the same time. The film wears its absurdity on its sleeve and isn’t ashamed to show the unbelievable. If anything, it’s akin to a Looney Tunes cartoon, where it’s accepted that a coyote falling off a cliff can get squashed by an anvil or that a foul mouthed rabbit can run on air. Now mix in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill and a dash of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and you’ve got one hell of a dish.
The plot centers on a notorious gangsters known as the Axe Gang, who through a couple of wannnabe criminals, have found themselves caught up with the poor inhabitants of a small farm village. When the gang challenges the citizens to a fight, they’re surprised to find that the farmers aren’t as helpless as they seem. Hilarity ensues as an unexpected tailor turns out to be a martial arts warrior, or when the landlady kicks the gang’s best fighters’ assess.
For western audiences, especially those who aren’t familiar with Chinese cinema, I fear their enjoyment of the material may get lost in translation. For example, while the idea of farmers turning out to be skilled fighters might seem like a joke, in reality its an ode to the trope in martial arts cinema for the fighters to come from humble and lowly origins. Or take the gag of a woman cracking her knuckles that is a nod to Bruce Lee’s trademark move. And yet, despite these cultural references, the language of the film is so over the top and universal, it’s hard to imagine anyone with any lick of fun in them not appreciating the absurdity and humor. This is a film that showcases fighters flying through the air, using a sonic scream to defeat foes, and a musician using his instrument to throw swords. Chow makes liberal use of digitally erased wire stunts and CGI to create a visual whiplash. He knows this but he wisely doesn’t try to hide it.
The CGI work feels a little off; it doesn’t quite look realistic and yet isn’t a shit job. It reminded of the CGI in This is the End, in that the visuals were just unrealistic enough to come across as funny. It’s a brilliant choice that filmmakers use to tip their hat to the audience. They’re begging you to go along with the ride..
Strangely enough, there were times when I thought the film was too absurd by half and not clever enough by a penny. As crazy as the choreography is, the fights lack any real awe inspiring moments. They’re so obviously fake that it takes the wonderment out of seeing what martial artists do best. There’s poetry in the violence of a martial arts film that elevates what are essentially action flicks. Kung Fu Hustle shrugs away the beauty of the genre and fully embraces the action aspect. That’s not to say there isn’t well executed choreography to be found; rather, it takes a back seat to the cartoonish aspects.
Whether you’ll enjoy the film depends on how willing you are to go along with the madhouse of slapstick martial arts. An easy litmus test is to ask yourself if you enjoyed the playfulness of Kill Bill. Chances are if you you were a fan of that, you’ll be smiling ear to ear through this one. There’s not enough filmmakers that follow through on silliness while delivering a solid action flick–a shame since the two go so well together–unless you go back all the way to the 80s when American shoot-em ups made no attempt at concealing their absurdity. And there’s no other way to compliment this film than by that comparison.