Chaplin, Allen and now actor, writer, producer and director Stephen Chow can join the select few whose remarkable talent as a performer matches his ability behind the lens; Kung Fu Hustle proves it.
Chow is no stranger to direction. In 1994 Chow co-directed Love on Delivery and since then a number of other self starring projects and many of these projects are considered the best of his acting career. However his skills as a comedian - be it his brash physical comedy (Shaolin Soccer), his manical scenarios (Tricky Brains) or epic historical parodies (A Chinese Oddsey) - have never outshined his talents as a director. Kung Fu Hustle not only reminds us of Chow's terrific comedic timing, it introduces us to his stunning visual eye and exhilarating action direction.
More importantly this addition to Chow's superb filmography finally allows us a means of defining his technique. A master of blending both comedy and visceral action with artistic integrity and traditional melodrama. It has been awhile since a director has been able to take me from quite serious and intense graphic violence to over the top ridiculous spoofing. The contrast of atmosphere and mood throughout the film is incredible and even more incredible is Chow's ability to make it all work. When the scene is funny you appreciate the comedy, when it switches gears to action you are blown away by the terrific sequences, when it switches to melodrama you are on the edge of your seat awaiting character responses, and when they're all fused together you do exactly what Chow is hoping you'll do. You laugh.
So I liked the film, but what is the film exactly. Like most Stephen Chow films while the concept is simple to describe, the execution is far more complex. Kung Fu Hustle tells the story of Sing, a wannabe gangster attempting to join the famous Axe Gang (who during some of the early scenes seem to spoof Gangs of New York - look for a firework visual quote), a legion of black suits responsible for a series of gruesome murders and complete dominance over a 1940s Hong Kong. Sing's reasons for wanting to join the gang are simple: bad guys are cooler. His arrogance causes a war to break out between a poor housing complex that secretly holds a number hidden talents and the murderous axe gang. What starts as a relatively small skirmish (and I mean relatively) explodes into a war of Miike's "Dead or Alive" proportions.
The use of digital effects in this film are extreme. Chow having succumbed to the digital revolutions in Shaolin Soccer, manages once again to use his effects wisely. There are a terrific number of effects shots in this film far more then I've ever seen in a Hong Kong production (save maybe the terrible Wesley's Mysterious File) and while I am disappointed at the lack of practical effects the impressive quality of them more then makes up for it. This film simply does not look like a Hong Kong film. It rivals Hollywood features in every category (set, costumes cinematography), but amazingly enough the CGI is really good! You can notice most of the effects, but that doesn't matter because they are used for laughs and effectively so. Some of the effects not only will have you in stitches, but also in shock and awe at the sheer incredibility of some of the scenes. One scene that sticks out is a terrific spoof of the Road Runner. Its not hilarious, but also a visual feast.
The impressive action is thanks largely to the great choreography talent including both Sammo Hung and Yuen Wo Ping (each working on the film at spate occasions). Yuen Wo Ping manages to take a scene that appears to be rehash of the Burly Brawl (hundreds of suits against one guy) and manages to make it not only fresh, but a thousand times more exciting and intense. These fight sequences demand the attention of any cinephile who claims themselves a fan of marital art cinema. Wachowski's take not, this is how you direct Yuen Wo Ping to this artistic peak.
So everything seems great, right? This has to be Chow's best, right? Actually not everything works and is not at all Chow's best film. It is not his funniest film, but that is because it takes the risk of exploring the action genre. It also relies a bit too much on CGI, and while its use is effective, it can occasionally bring you out of the film. Compared to his other films this film ranks #1 for its visuals and action, but in terms of laughs and writing it cannot surpass the classics. That being said Kung Fu Hustle is absolute blast. See it if you can at the Toronto Film Festival, import it on DVD and catch in theaters when Sony Classics brings it here (in Febuary I believe). It is action comedy at its finest.
Three cheers for Chow Sing Chi!