After Crouching Tiger, Hero, Flying Daggers and Kill Bill, get ready for yet another effects-heavy martial-arts extravaganza – and this one might well be the pick of the bunch. It certainly the most wildly enjoyable, delivering eyepopping set-piece after gravity-defying set-piece from start to finish. But though the violence is often crunching and sometimes bloody, Kung Fu Hustle is really a daft, upbeat romp, directed with a terrifically light touch by producer-writer-star – in fact, all-round number-one-super-guy – Chow.
In a sprawling ensemble cast, he plays the closest thing the picture has to a lead as Sing, a wannabe-mobster in an unnamed 1930s Chinese city (Canton? Shanghai?) who unwittingly sparks a feud between the top-hat-wearing, cleaver-wielding 'Axe Gang' and the ostensibly yokel-like residents of 'Pig Sty Alley': a tiny, rundown residential/business/ghetto area dominated by the foghorn-voiced, utterly indomitable Landlady (a movie-stealing turn from Yuen Qiu, a long way from The Man with the Golden Gun!).
But Pig Sty Alley isn't as unremarkable as it seems – there turn out to be several retired Kung Fu masters among the residents, and they soon spring to the defence of their turf. Raucous full-tilt shenanigans ensue, with each showdown somehow more elaborate, audacious and jaw-dropping absurd than the last. It's no wonder that Kung Fu Hustle became the most successful domestic film ever at the Hong Kong box-office, the previous record-holder being Chow's own Shaolin Soccer.
Perhaps more surprisingly, Kung Fu Hustle also scored some major triumphs at the august Hong Kong film awards, edging out Wong Kar-Wai's 2046 for Best Picture and picking up a host of subsidiary gongs. The two picture represent two very different strands of Hong Kong film-making – while the gorgeous-looking, overegged 2046 will probably send all but the most hardened cinephile nodding into a slumber, it's impossible to imagine anyone's attention flagging during the electric 99 minutes of Kung Fu Hustle. And amid all the chaos and noise, watch out for a wordless, dead-serious, near-silent night-time sequence involving a muscular kung-fu hero, a supernatural musical-instrument and a cat leaping off a roof. Even Wong would surely give his back teeth to pull off such a dazzlingly graceful, magical, pan-riffic moment.
20th June, 2005
KUNG FU HUSTLE : [7/10] : Gong fu aka Gungfu : China (Hong Kong) 2004 : Stephen CHOW : 99 mins
seen at Cineworld, Sunderland (UK), 20th June 2005 – press show