Kung Fu Hustle
Opening Friday at Green Hills 16
First things first: believe the hype. Even if you arrive at Stephen Chow's new film prepared to laugh your ass off (you will), you may nevertheless find yourself blindsided by Kung Fu Hustle's formal mastery, utterly impeccable comic timing, and total commitment to old-school martial arts cinema (despite its satirical exaggeration). Easily one of the best comedies of recent years, Hustle is a tender, madcap riff on Shaw Brothers chopsocky, but it's also capacious enough to incorporate elements of The Shining, Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner cartoons, even Popeye-era Altman.
After an introductory dance sequence that's part Warriors, part West Side Story, Chow brings us to the 1940s Shanghai village of Pigsty, a multi-tiered spatial creation reminiscent of early Jerry Lewis. Chow plays wannabe gangster and all-round loser Sing. He and his sidekick (Chi Chung Lam) try to insinuate themselves into the vicious yet rhythmically coordinated Ax Gang, who tyrannize Pigsty. But the impoverished residents are quietly plotting an uprising.
Chow and his sidekick are minor players, similar to the way Jacques Tati's M. Hulot recedes into the overall comic tapestry of Playtime. In this respect, Sony Classics' ad campaign is a tad deceptive, since it implicitly positions Chow as the next Jackie Chan. While Chow the director slathers himself over the screen, he's not that much more present as a character than, say, Qiu Yuen's foul-tempered landlady and her grandmotherly halo of curlers. Throughout the film, unlikely supporting players reveal themselves to be secret kung fu masters. Chow's willingness to shuttle his most peripheral characters to the forefront delivers shocking comedic surprises, as well as bespeaking a thoroughgoing generosity.
Like many kung fu body operas, Hustle is not really a film about plot. It is carefully structured, but in an episodic, one-thing-led-to-another-but-in-retrospect-I'm-not-sure-how kind of way. It runs on pure kinesis, a whirligig of misdirection and outlandish ass-kicking. But Chow's most impressive formal achievement is his exacting, innovative use of CGI. 2001's Shaolin Soccer signaled this new direction for Chow, whose earlier films hinged more on fast-paced verbal-nonsense comedy. (Several are available for rental domestically, God of Cookery being the finest and funniest. Netflix it pronto.)
But Soccer, while possessing its own formal integrity as a performance-enhanced, metaphysical Bad News Bears, was just a warm-up. Kung Fu Hustle uses CGI to explode and intensify Chow's action sequences, creating live-action animations that remain grounded in the marvels of what real, athletic bodies can do. Certainly, there's more going on here than virtuosic martial arts; Hustle is a shaggy cinematic mutt compared to the stringent purity of a stunt-based film like Ong-bak. Nevertheless, Chow strikes a balance between human plasticity and cartoony squash-and-stretch. The fighting is classical, and the graphics just blast it through a megaphonejust as Chow's command of the medium amplifies his many inspired gags into outright hilarity. By any measure, Kung Fu Hustle is a major artistic triumph.
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