Judge Eric Profancik likes talking about his ass.
The charge, my ass!
I am not what you would consider a cineaste of Asian films. I've seen but a few in the theater, and I own even fewer on DVD. As a result, I couldn't begin to tell you anything about the genre, let alone be able to easily discern films from Japan versus China versus Hong Kong. Putting that into context for this film, outside of the fact that I know Stephen Chow directed and wrote Kung Fu Hustle (or Gong Fu), the only other morsel of knowledge I have about his other thirty-plus films is that Shaolin Soccer is a cult fave and had some release problems here in the States.
Ignorance is bliss.
Facts of the Case
The less you know about Kung Fu Hustle the better. Just sit back and enjoy the show. If you fit the bill and haven't seen it before, then don't watch the trailer, don't read the packaging, and don't watch the animated menus. Go in blind and let it all be fresh, exciting, and new. But for those of you who must have some idea of the film's plot…
In southern China in the 1940s, the Axe Gang ruled and terrorized the land. Their malicious grip invaded every nook and cranny, and only those who lived in extreme poverty escaped their notice—for they had nothing the gang wanted. Sing (Stephen Chow) and his friend Bone have wandered into Pig Sty Alley to prey upon its poor residents. They purport to be members of the Axe Gang, but they are not; they are trying to make a name for themselves in order to gain entry into the fold. The residents quickly uncover their ruse, and a confrontation between the gang and the residents is about to unfold.
Let's get the obvious out of the way: Yes, there are allusions, homage, and gestures to the great Looney Tunes cartoons. Everyone talks about that aspect of Kung Fu Hustle, making one expect the entire film is nothing more than a live cartoon. That is not the case. In just a few scenes it's live-action Looney Tunes; for the rest of the film, it's what you've come to expect from wire-fu. So when people say this movie is "The Matrix meets Looney Tunes," that is a bit of an exaggeration.
Yet Kung Fu Hustle is an exaggeration. It doesn't take itself seriously, and it pushes the boundaries of martial arts. Outrageous moves, death-defying abilities, and much zaniness resonate throughout the film: someone is kicked and he (yes, just men) flies across the courtyard; someone gets punched and his (yes, just men again) chest momentarily caves in. Nothing here is to be taken seriously, and that's not a problem. The abundance of exaggeration gives the movie a fresh and invigorating ebb and flow, and I ended up having a fantastic time watching this goofy story unfold. Because I didn't know the first thing of what to expect (outside of the Looney Tunes part), I was surprised at almost every turn. I had no idea people would do what they did and how situations would develop. It was just a whole lot of fun.
As a martial arts film—as an exaggerated martial arts film—you might be wondering if the action is any good. Yes, it is. While the Looney Tunes type fighting is a bit silly at times, the purer kung fu—if wire fu can count as pure—is rough and energetic. The master himself, Yuen Wo Ping, choreographed many of the fights. In fact, some of the sequences are breathtakingly new and inventive. We have yet to see all the possibilities afforded to us by this noble genre.
The heart of my enjoyment stems from the characters. I don't recall the last time I've seen such interesting and new people in a film. From butt-crack boy to fat woman to Donut, I was pleasantly surprised by each journey—though some are far more interesting than others. Without question, my two favorite people are Landlady (a.k.a. fat woman) and Landlord. From their looks to their story arcs, I was riveted during each scene they were in. Landlady's meanness combined with Landlord's lechery help set the stage for a couple that you soon won't forget. I'd go on further, but that would betray my intent for you to go into this movie blind.
But I do have to go on about just one more item related to the leader of the Axe Gang, Brother Sum. He has an odd personality quirk that shows up at the beginning of the film; it's there to show us that he's not your everyday psychopath, but one with a sense of style. Sum enjoys dancing, so he does a little jig before and after he kills a couple of people. Shortly thereafter, we find him leading a bunch of gang members in a big dance number. Why is this sequence there? What does it have to do with the movie? It's there to show us Sum can and will do whatever he wants. It's different, unexpected, and completely out-of-sync with a martial arts film. I love it.
One other item of note is the barrage of references to other films. I only picked up on the American references, but I would have to assume Chow did the same for Asian cinema. They often happen so fast you're not sure you caught them all, but fans of The Matrix will definitely tip their hats to Chow's version of the burly brawl. I don't think they needed to do the Spider-Man bit more than once, though.
When you end up buying this disc, you'll be pleased with the quality of the transfers as they are all top notch. The 2.40:1 anamorphic print (also available separately is a butchered full screen version) is clean as a whistle with bold, vibrant colors, sparkling details, rich blacks, and not a flaw in sight. It's almost like standing in Pig Sty Alley watching it all unfold in front of you. With the audio, three options are at your disposal: a Chinese Dolby Digital 5.1 track, an English Dolby Digital 5.1 track, or a French Dolby Digital 2.0 track. Both of the 5.1 mixes are near reference quality with crystal clear dialogue, excellent use of the surrounds, and an aggressive bass line. I didn't hear any distortion in either track. Purists will immediately go for the original audio mix, but as a mere spectator to this genre, I find myself gravitating first to the English dub mixes. In the end, I ended up listening to both mixes, comparing the English subtitles to the English dubbing. For 98% of the film, the two tracks are nearly identical. It appears that this is a great dub, one that adheres to the true dialogue—not to mention that the English voices are very well acted; in fact, I prefer some of the English voices to the native Chinese ones (e.g. The Beast). For that 2% when the tracks didn't match up, it was an odd divergence. Several lines come to mind, but the best example ruins a great in-joke for fans of Stephen Chow. As Sing and Bones are entering Pig Sty Alley for the first time, a few boys are playing soccer. The ball bounces over to Sing who takes it and does some fancy footwork. Impressed, the boys say "Can you teach us?" To which Sing says, in the original Chinese, "No more soccer!"; in the English dub, he says "Sure, he's rule number one." The joke here is to keep in mind Chow's previous film is Shaolin Soccer. Why the change? I don't know. Regardless of this 2% oddity, I think the dub is an excellent alternative option for those who venture outside the realm of "purity."
The DVD features a nice selection of bonus materials, but make sure you have your reading glasses nearby:
• Audio Commentary with Stephen Chow (Sing), Lam Tze Chung (Bones), Chan Kwol Kwan (Brother Sum), and Tin Kai Man (Axe Gang Advisor/Accountant): This English-subtitled track offers a lot of interesting information about the movie. At times serious and others time humorous, this commentary taught me many things. I think fans and newbies alike will enjoy this one.
• TV Special "Behind the Scenes of Kung Fu Hustle" (42 minutes): Another English-dubbed offering hosted by Chung and Kwan, these two campily give an overview of the story, the characters, and other interesting morsels about the film. It only lightly treads on the commentary track.
• Rick Meyers Interview with Stephen Chow (28 minutes): I don't know who Mr. Meyers is—he appears to be someone in the know in the genre—but he interviews Chow (who speaks English) about his films. I found this casual featurette full of even more information.
Rounding out the disc are (two) deleted scenes, outtakes and bloopers (5 minutes), TV spots (seventeen of them!), an (less than interesting) international poster gallery, and a handful of trailers (for Layer Cake and 2046). All in all, I'm pleased with the assortment of features and the fact they don't overlap each other.
Lastly, Sony, please be kind to the fans and let us skip some of the thousands of warnings you are now placing in front of the movies.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I've seen a few complaints about the CGI work done in the movie with some saying that the effects are too obvious, thereby pulling the viewer out of the experience. I'll admit I thought that some of the effects are obvious—but not all of them, some are exceptionally well done—but that shouldn't be held against it. This movie is so over the top and obvious that a few obvious CGI special effects should not ruin the movie experience. With people flying in the air and so forth, I think you can give a bit of latitude to a low-budget Hong Kong martial arts film that doesn't do every effect perfectly.
While borderline special effects didn't bother me, I was slightly perturbed by the secondary romance story. I understand how Sing's past relates to his present, but I felt this part of the story was just tacked on. It was a bit shallow, and it slowed down the overall story.
And I should mention for all the purists—who probably already know this—but this Region One release has been edited. From what I can tell, most of the blood has been digitally removed. Any spray resulting from the fights has been erased, but little spots on clothing and on faces has been left behind. Why do this when the film already is rated R? Such senseless editing is probably the worst aspect of the release.
I hope I have adequately conveyed the pure fun I had from watching Kung Fu Hustle. Such a change of pace from the ordinary has stoked my interest in Asian cinema, and I am going to venture forth and begin to dabble in its vast offerings. Overall, I believe that just about anyone will find the movie highly enjoyable, and I am absolutely recommending this one for purchase. Not only do you get a great, entertaining movie, but you also get an excellent DVD release. Watch this movie!
Kung Fu Hustle is hereby found not guilty of doing the samba.
Case adjourned, my ass!
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary
Review content copyright © 2005 Eric Profancik; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.