KUNG FU HUSTLE directed by Stephen Chow, with Chow, Yuen Wah, Leung Siu Lung and Yuen Qiu. A Mongrel Media release. 100 minutes. Opens Friday (April 22). For venues and times, see Movies, page 97. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Here's a high-energy kung fu comedy that mixes traditional Hong Kong commercial cinema elements with up-to-the-minute CGI and a very contemporary sensibility.
Of course, mixing elements is a Hong Kong tradition that goes at least as far back as the Shaw Brothers' 60s movies that mixed kung fu, broad comedy, brutal violence and sentimental drama in the blink of an eye. In the 80s, Jackie Chan added guns to the mix with Police Story and Tsui Hark brought in over-the-top wirework fantasy with Zu: Warriors Of The Magic Mountain.
For Western viewers, at least the ones who don't love it at first sight, the flim can be disorienting as it lurches from mode to mode. Stephen Chow has fixed that and knitted his film into a seamless whole by treating the whole thing like a Tex Avery cartoon. He doesn't just end a comedy moment by handing someone some serious pain, the traditional way. No, he drops them three storeys into the dirt with even more pain, then caps it with a clearly fake potted plant to the bean. In one standout sequence, the traditional bullying-woman-and-cowardly-man chase turns into a full-blown Road Runner cartoon.
That cartoon sensibility and, I suspect, a bit of dialogue-smoothing are the only concessions to the international audience. The plot is ancient, a favourite of Lau Kar Leung (Operation Scorpio) - gangsters with exotic killers on staff prey on the helpless poor until heroes emerge.
Yuen Woo-Ping's kung fu choreography ranges from the down 'n' dirty violence and slapstick of his early Buddha's Palm and Miracle Fighters through the CGI wirework fantasy of Deadful Melody and The Matrix. The treatment of the villain's fate takes us all the way back to the black-and-white 50s flicks about Huang Fei-hong.
The comedy shows up during the hard action scenes. The violence, given equal care, pops up in the sentimental drama. Homages abound, but it doesn't matter if you realize that the badass landlady is doing a killer Sammo Hung imitation - it's still a very funny bit.