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Kung Fu Hustle: a film review

Kung Fu Hustle is one of the most original, genre-blending films martial arts films to come from China in our time. It is ambitious, fun, creatively shot, and backed by an emotional story which is right between “too melodramatic” and “too thin.” Some things may be lost in translation if you don’t know about being a kid in Hong Kong or folklore of the culture; but even then, this adds a magic and mysticism in a way that may peak your curiosity or at least kindly request the audience’s respect and suspension of disbelief. The American Gangster film hommage in the opening sequence circa 1940s is great, but also blends Hong Kong culture and make it something unique. That’s the best word for the whole movie: Unique.

This film was released in 2004 and given an R-rating: somewhat silly considering the cartoon nature of the film, the total absence of sex, and the limited blood. Though implied, you never see someone murdered and there is almost no undesirable language. The rating is not totally insulting and irrational; it came down to violence, which there is a lot of, but I’m glad they released it how they did and didn’t go for the PG-13 rating. It would have negatively affected the film in the way of story and content, though perhaps they hurt themselves to begin with—by releasing a cartoony, action movie clearly pointed at teenagers while developing it as an “R”. It would be the equivalent of releasing a Pooh Bear movie, clearly for little kids, then being surprised it doesn’t do well because you got a PG-13 from the MPAA instead of a PG rating because you had Christopher Robin cursing at Pooh for getting lost in the woods and gives Pooh a bloody nose. Don’t forget this though: we’re stricter in the USA with ratings, and surely other countries didn’t give it a “must be seventeen without guardian” rating. Take it with a grain of salt.

Let’s get back on point now. Kung Fu Hustle was a weird film to most Americans and, frankly, we didn’t respond well to it at the start. Maybe that was because it only opened on seven screens nationwide on its opening weekend. That’s right. Seven. It was only with the success of the first Kill Bill movie by Quentin Tarantino that Kung Fu Hustle got some viewership. Though the rest of the world had this movie in December of 2004 and January of 2005, the USA wouldn’t get its opening weekend until the Spring of 2005. Sometimes, smaller films take more time to flourish. Eventually, however, the film did get to over 2,000 theaters nationwide and made 17 million dollars by the summer in the USA alone; but it was a long shaky road, and like all films, had no guarantees. Any foreign films, especially niche, cult-like ones like these, are lucky to have done as well as they did. Again, thank Tarantino, and I don’t think that is an unfair statement. At the time, people were going “gaga” for that sword-wielding revenge flick starring Uma Thurman.

Directed by, written by, and starring Stephen Chow, this man accomplished greatness with this big budget picture, but only in the sense of personal accomplishment. It earned just over $200,000 in its opening weekend in the USA, but made a much better amount in the Philippines, the UK, Germany, and the rest of the world.

Kung Fu Hustle is original as hell and is, indeed, a cult film. Stephen Chow paid homage to Bruce Lee serials and does what few films can do that try to blend genres: do it right. There is love, genuine comedy, beautiful slow-motion action that fits perfectly here where other action films force it, and the colors, props, and environments are detailed and expressive.

If you’re over 50, you’re not going to like this film. If you’re in your 30s or 40s and remember the 70s and 80s martial arts wave, you just might dig it and “get it”. This isn’t a film you watch every month, but it’s worth having in your collection because there is nothing else like it. Even the cover of the DVD release calls it “Kill Bill meets Looney Tunes” which, while accurate at parts, undersells the film in my opinion and simplifies it too much. Then again, short blurbs from someone you don’t care about quoted on the cover box are often far too brief to encapsulate any film’s tone or premise.

The film is packed with sweeping wide angle lens shots. The camera rarely stops moving and allows the film and the audience to flow together. This phonetic energy creates a mood that most of the best directors use: frequent cameras in motion, however slight. Even the smallest, faintest tracking shots add something interesting, even if you are not consciously aware of it. They do this a lot in big 90s action fiulms when people are talking in an important meeting. Just think about the opening breakfast scene in Resevoir Dogs, but not so obvious. The action is choreographed masterfully and when the camera does stop moving or is a static shot, it is almost always done in the name of art. The whole film was well-thought out and nothing you will see in this film is just randomly thrown in. They wanted to tell a story and entertain, and every shot was clearly weighed for its pros and cons during pre-production storyboarding – even before a single frame was shot.

You have to go into this movie anticipating a certain type or irreverence; a certain tongue-in-cheek, slapstick kind of vibe. This is not a brutal rated-R action film. This is not Die Hard or Chinese Connection. This film doesn’t take itself too seriously. But at parts, when it is time to be serious, it seems to really work, is sincere and balances out the film – giving it that very original feel that, culturally, Americans don’t see in most films today.

From the back story flashbacks, to the tenants, to the landlord and landlady, this film’s cast goes over the top in what characters it presents and what martial arts make physical sense. But again, it’s a movie. Anything Stephen Chow hadn’t seen yet in a movie, he went for it. Things that had been done, he got his team to do even bigger. The excellent fight choreography by legendary Yuen Woo-Ping is also responsible for the fight scenes of Kill Bill vol. 1, Fearless, The Matrix, Hero. No wonder it’s great. But the editing team deserves a pat on the back as well; with a bad editor that chops action sequences too frantically, you’ll get a choppy blur of un-rhythmic garbage and unintelligible shit, like most of the confusing action scenes in the Transformers franchise.

On a final note, some of the Computer Graphic Imaging (CGI) has not aged well, but given that this is not supposed to be a serious Matrix movie or Lord of the Rings film, somehow the weakness in the CGI is not only forgivable, but charming. It reminds me of a time where they still couldn’t do everything with a computer and still had to use some kind of ingenuity and creativity.

The film is part Tarantino, part Dragonball Z, part Looney Tunes, part Matrix, and part Bruce Lee. Enjoy the quirky humor of this underrated cult gem.


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Filed under Marital Arts, Movie Reviews