2005. Dir. Stephen Chow.
When I was eight, my favorite Warner Brothers cartoons involved the Road Runner and Tweety Bird. I cheered as Tweety Bird outsmarted Sylvester the Cat again and again, and as the Road Runner sped past Wile E. Coyote and his ever-malfunctioning Acme contraptions.
Twenty years later, my loyalties have reversed. I now see Tweety and the Road Runner for what they are—manifestations of unfilled desires, taunting us, and annoyingly out of reach. Wile E. Coyote’s hunger saddens me even as I guffaw, because we’ve all felt like him. (Chuck Jones, in just a few thinly drawn lines, gave the coyote a face of such melancholy sorrow that it’s heartbreaking.) Sylvester’s frustration is palpable; his rage springs from getting so close to having what he wants most in life, only to get pounded flat by the very object of his desire. Who hasn’t felt like this?
Kung Fu Hustle is a 90-minute Looney Tunes cartoon in live-action form, where the Wile E. Coyotes of the world finally get legitimate shots at success. The movie basically translates the work of Chuck Jones and Tex Avery into Chinese. It’s an antic collision of Acme explosions, Road Runner chases, Bugs-Bunny-esque one-liners, slapstick worthy of Daffy Duck at his most demented, and rapid-fire allusions to everything from The Shining to The Odyssey. I’m not sure it makes a lick of sense logistically, but it’s so entertaining that I don’t give a damn.
Two young men (Stephen Chow and Chi Chung Lam) slip into a decrepit town—it’s named Pig Sty Alley—and pose as members of the feared Axe Gang. (They’re trying to scam a free haircut from a barber.) Through a series of misunderstandings, the real leader of the gang gets wind of this, and a squadron of tuxedo-wearing gangsters converges onto the town. But the town has a surprise for them. Among its inhabitants are three kung fu masters in disguise. The gang gets its ass kicked by the trio. The gang leader spends the rest of the movie trying, with mounting hilarity, to take his revenge on the town; the town spends the rest of the movie thwarting his efforts. And that’s it for the plot…
Like Chuck Jones, director Stephen Chow understands how simple premises can contain multitudes. Our heroes—and, eventually, there are at least six of them in the movie—are humble in the extreme. The trio consists of a tailor, baker, and a coolie. Not one of them can pay his rent on time; all of them live in fear of the drunken landlord (Wah Yuen) and his shrewish wife (Qiu Yuen). They’re potbellied, slovenly, down-and-out men who have come to this godforsaken slum to pay penance for something in their pasts. Watching these guys execute fast-paced, lyrical action maneuvers is hysterical—physical poetry is the last thing we expect when we see them. They have little in common with the gorgeous, sinuous heroes of traditional Chinese action flicks.
Nothing in Kung Fu Hustle, in fact, feels like a typical Hong Kong action film. The sets are drab slums and dirty alleys; the villains have bad teeth; the sound effects are as exaggerated and comical as those of cartoons; the action sequences, while frenetic and engaging, are also so filled with CGI effects so obvious that we don’t believe in them for a second. Unlike the austere compositions and dance-like rhythms of such recent classics as Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Kung Fu Hustle’s camera jumps and lunges nervously.
If the movie were just a parody, however, it wouldn’t be so howlingly funny. But Chow clearly loves the genre. The movie’s action sequences are outsized even by Hong Kong standards, but they’re well-paced and rhythmic. A night sequence, in which two blind assassins pick off fighters, is effectively eerie precisely because of Chow’s camerawork and pacing—it’s the one spot in the movie where things slow down to a manageable speed. Yet, even amidst chaos, he finds ways to insert surprising, hilarious jokes. It’s not that KFH is parodic so much as it grasps that the genre’s roots lie in slapstick as much as they do in classical dance. It understands that Jackie Chan is the direct descendant of Buster Keaton.
Chow’s subtle characterization counterpoints the overblown action. There’s little character development in Kung Fu Hustle. Rather, Chow uses small, perfect details to give us a full sense of each character in such a way that we know each has a rich backstory. We size them up at a glance, but little things about them surprise it. The heroes belch, scratch their butts, and generally act like doofuses—it’s only in action that they look graceful. They fight in their bathrobes and tube socks, for chrissakes. We understand how world-weary they are by their dress and their postures, just like we empathize with Wile E. Coyote as soon as we see him.
The humor springs from the characters—all of their superpowers are extensions of either their occupations or their temperaments. The tailor uses the tools of his trade to fight. The Beast’s toad-like fighting style (He even ribbits like a frog!) can be seen in his essential mucky ugliness. The gang leader’s suave, angular movements mirror his essential nattiness—he’s never dressed in less than a clean, well-cut tuxedo.
The actors are all so phenomenal and fresh that it’s unfair to single out one. But I need to, anyway, because one performance exemplifies the movie. Kung Fu Hustle belongs to Qiu Yuen (see above picture). For most of KFH, she’s clad in a dirty bathrobe, plastic hair curlers, flip-flops, and a permanent scowl. She gets away with this because, as soon as we hear her, there’s no question who the toughest cookie in town is. (We hear her before we see her, which gives a hint of her superpower.) Even when she smiles, she radiates phosphoric acid. She’s thoroughly unashamed of her sad-sack appearance, and gets laughs in every frame in which she appears. After a ferocious fight, she kisses her husband on the cheek without removing the ever-present cigarette from her lips. She simply moves it, using only her tongue, from one side of her mouth to the other. Now that’s hardcore. It’s a moment of triumph we long for Wile E. Coyote to have, and which Chow delivers. Kung Fu Hustle gives the losers their due.