‘Everybody was kung fu fighting’

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By Robert Crippin

By Robert Crippin

Hong Kong cinema Renaissance man Steven Chow – a writer, director, actor and martial artist best known in the states for his uniquely entertaining “Shaolin Soccer” – is back with a subtitled version of his Hong Kong hit “Gong Fu,” now known here as “Kung Fu Hustle.”

In it, the 41-year-old Chow plays Sing, a young ne’er-do-well drifter who, along with his rotund sidekick, aspires to join the Axe Gang, the most ruthless criminal organization in 1940’s China. Through their bumbling, they manage to instigate a feud between the gang and a small village, Pig Sty Alley, which just happens to be the residence of a number of retired kung fu masters.

The conflict between parties escalates at an alarming rate, with little room for the audience to breathe as Pig Sty’s masters fend off increasingly deadly challengers. Chow gets right to the point in “Hustle,” and there’s very little filler. Gone are the standard kung fu training sequences, while the hero’s sidekick and love interest, normally fairly important roles, have both been relegated to bit parts – all of which is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s nice to skip the formalities in a movie based solely on action and comedy but, on the other, there’s no room for development. Many of Chow’s characters are remarkably colorful, from the boisterous, chain-smoking landlady to violent and self-absorbed gangsters, but their characterizations are paper-thin.

That may be intentional; Chow takes such great care to contort his players into living Looney Tunes for easy, broadly-reaching laughs that, if the audience cared about any of them, his occasional maliciousness would only distract from the movie’s otherwise lighthearted attitude. The film’s focus is mostly on universally-appealing visual gags, but peppered among them is a number of verbal jokes, some aimed east and some aimed west. I appreciated a lot of the humor, but while watching Chow’s funnier scenes I got the feeling there was some unused potential here and there. I didn’t laugh too often, but I was at least smiling throughout the movie.

For the actual fisticuffs, Chow has thrown over-the-top special effects, cartoon trickery and traditional martial arts in a blender to form a unique style all his own. The cartoony choreography may be a letdown for people expecting something more in the vein of Jackie Chan, but I found it appropriate for the film’s silly tone and hurried pace.

Between the animated hijinks, inconsistent humor and mesh of styles, it wouldn’t be unfair to call the film “uneven” in every regard save its pace, which is always blazingly fast. That sense of brevity, along with the movie’s bizarre and sporadic charms, allows me to recommend it as a pleasant diversion. I thought “Soccer” was better, but “Hustle” has me waiting to see Chow’s next.

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