Writer-director-actor Stephen Chow has been Hong Kong cinema’s reigning cinematic comedian for fifteen years running and Jackie Chan’s most consummate box office rival during that time. As Chan’s star has faded with age (understandable given that his joints and ligaments just turned 51), 42-year old Chow’s has only gotten brighter. Nothing attests to this more than the arrival of Kung Fu Hustle, especially coming on the heels of the extremely successful Shaolin Soccer.
Chow’s career is a remarkable arc, from the host of a children’s television show to anything-for-a-laugh Naked Gun style comedy to masterful cinematic martial arts action wackiness. Chow now indulges less in his early-career scatology and word play and has taken up greater visual invention and wit. The inherent inability to translate the former uniquely Cantonese elements would have left most Western audiences more puzzled than busting a gut, which is a likely explanation for Chow’s late recognition in America’s Hong Kong zeitgeist.
Chow has also become more thematically ambitious with time. His two-part Chinese Odyssey movies (not to be confused with the entertaining Tony Leung-Faye Wong vehicle Chinese Odyssey 2002, which tackled a variation of the “Journey to the West” Monkey King story known to every Chinese child. The second of the Chinese Odyssey films, Cinderella, possessed a surprising sense of poignancy missing from Chow’s previous work.
That poignancy can be found in Kung Fu Hustle in the form of Stephen Chow’s fallen hero, Sing, now an inept aspiring gangster, full of false bravado. As a child, Sing, was given a rudimentary kung fu manual by a homeless man and told he could save the world with his martial arts. While protecting a mute girl from bullies, Sing was beaten down and turned into a human toilet bowl. Finding it doesn’t pay to be good, he tries to join the most dominant force in the underworld, the Axe Gang, hatchet-wielding mobsters dressed in shiny black business suits who sometimes break into dance while on the job.
When one of their members is almost killed in the poor, run-down village of Pig Sty, the Axe Gang come to exact punishment, only to find they have met their match in the most unlikely of places. Wah Yuen (Police Story 3: Super Cop) and Yuen Qiu (The Man with the Golden Gun) are among the retired martial arts masters who put up resistance. So the Axe Gang turns to kung fu harpists, whose sonic twangs cut like razors, and the world’s greatest killer, The Beast (Leung Siu Lung), whose toad-style kung fu clearly homages The Five Deadly Venoms. In the midst of all the turmoil, Sing encounters the mute girl from his childhood, now an ice cream vender (Huang Sheng Yi) who gives him his Jean Valjean act of grace. Alas, Huang’s character remains an undeveloped idealization, but her function of the woman redeeming the man is an archetype that recurs throughout Chow’s filmography.
While spoofing The Matrix and Gangs of New York and aping the mania of Road Runner cartoons, Kung Fu Hustle isn’t Chow’s funniest film (that would either be the first Fight Back to School or Flirting Scholar), but it’s easily his best all-around achievement, meshing a coherent story, character arcs (for once more than just his character’s), and technical depth.