With the surprise announcement that a sequel to 2004’s Kung Fu Hustle is confirmed and underway, now is the perfect time to either rewatch this larger than life comedy, or experience axe wielding gangsters flung in all directions for the first time.
Written and directed by Stephen Chow, Kung Fu Hustle represents a style that Chow has cultivated for years. Much like Jackie Chan’s movies are a recognisable brand, fans of Chow know that any release of his is likely to feature cartoonish over the top humour, linguistic trickery, and massive doses of style.
Most of Chow’s films haven’t made it out of China (check out King of Beggars or The God of Cookery if you can), but after Shaolin Soccer proved an international hit, Kung Fu Hustle upped the budget and broadened the appeal.
Set mostly in a slum outside Shanghai called Pigsty Alley during the 1940s, down and out Sing (Chow) and his ineffective muscle Bone (Lam Chi-chung) kick off a cataclysmic series of events after masquerading as members of the ruthless Axe Gang in order to get a free haircut.
Once the real Axe Gang get involved, only to get beaten back by some kung fu masters in hiding, the escalating retaliatory violence threatens to demolish everything around them.
Chow specialises in gloriously exaggerated fight scenes that put moments like the Smith Clones Battle in The Matrix Reloaded to shame. These are married with wonderfully framed shots, energetic editing and swelling traditional Chinese music to create a whole host of scenes that won’t leave you.
From beating down generic thugs, to the lethal use of a guzheng long stringed instrument, to an ever increasing selection of kung fu master techniques (Lion’s Roar? Yes please!), Kung Fu Hustle excels at constantly one upping the threat.
What is left behind in this spectacle is any attempt at character depth or growth. Chow’s character in Shaolin Soccer was amusingly naïve and upbeat, whereas Sing is a scummy man constantly picking fights he can’t win.
Through flashbacks we learn how he came to be that way, but the token use of a symbol of his innocence (a large lolly owned by a mute girl he tried to save) is dropped in and out during the quiet moments to little effect.
Chow may be the de facto protagonist, but is used mechanically to link events together up until his final fight scene hurrah (but oh what a hurrah it is)!
Also, 2004 wasn’t that long ago and yet the gay stereotypes used rankle as off colour. One could point out that such portrayal of homosexual men as highly effeminate and limp-wristed (or with a backside permanently hanging out, as with one character) has been pervasively common in East Asian cinema, yet this doesn’t stop such content from being unsavoury.
The best you could say is that Kung Fu Hustle trades in cartoonish tropes (including a scene literally inspired from Wile E Coyote and Roadrunner) and the gay characters are not alone in such treatment.
Is Kung Fu Hustle Worth Watching?
With the slipper on the other foot, Kung Fu Hustle creates some stand out iconic characters as well.
Landlady (Yuen Qiu) is an immediate vision, with her hair never leaving rollers and a cigarette permanently hanging out the side of her mouth.
Our gaggle of embattled denizens include: the Blues Brothers-esque ‘Harpists’ (who occupy one of many high points during the ‘musical’ fight scene); the sneering and foul teethed Axe Gang boss, Brother Sum (Danny Chan Kwok-kwan); and the lecherous but slippery Landlord (Yuen Wah) from whom most assaults just roll off.
And just when it seems like the Axe Gang is running out of steam, the appearance of The Beast (Leung Siu-lung) marks an even darker note in the blackly comic tone. That his appearance is heralded with symbolic rivers of blood (in a clear nod to The Shining) successfully raises the stakes and the destructive force of the fights.
Chow gives himself most of the snappy dialogue and some hilarious pratfall moments, but even he struggles to make headway in the film he has written stuffed such as it is with so many nuts.
Kung Fu Hustle remains an utterly wonderful fist of entertainment, marred somewhat by unnecessary stereotyping at points. What it lacks in clear through line plotting or character depth Chow more than makes up for with sheer spectacle.
Enhanced liberally with CGI throughout (barely a piece of furniture is left without a gangster being thrown through it!) and scored with a glorious soundtrack that lifts every moment, Kung Fu Hustle is a movie to blast away the cobwebs. Hold up your palm, and beckon it on in.
Words by Mike Record