“I don't want to read the telly!”
How many times have I heard those words? It is an unfounded stigma against half the world's population. Not only that, it eliminates about half the films ever made. What do I mean? Subtitles. The very word conjures up the deepest feelings in almost everyone. The most common and consequently wrong, is typified by the opening statement. The “I don't want to read the telly” brigade are so closed minded they won't even entertain the idea that some of the best works of cinema ever made may not be in their native tongue, as such they deny themselves. Others believe, though a much rarer breed, that subtitles automatically means excellent cinema, an odd assumption as all cinema, like all works of art, is subjective. Then there is everyone else, to whom the word subtitles means nothing except that the film is not in your own language. Doesn't make it any better or any worse but is a film to be watched like any other. Guess which camp I fall into?
The Asian film market is one of the biggest in the world, easily rivalling that of Hollywood. If you can make it there, you can, literally, make it anywhere, since Hollywood has always plundered the riches of the Orient. To be notice in such a huge market, an individual has to standout from the crowd, and what better way to do that than by creating a genre for yourself. Bruce Lee was the first, with his uncompromising Kung Fu. Jacky Chan was next with his skilful blend of action and comedy. Tony Lee is up and coming with his natural ability and stunt work. Along side these but yet to break into the west fully is Stephen Chow. He has been directing, writing, producing and starring in his own films for ten years now and had an astonishing hit in 2002 with Shaolin Soccer. Instead of taking the Jacky Chan motif of action comedy, he made an out and out comedy with a little action and sport, and love; it had everything as well as being utterly brilliant. The film was a mammoth hit in Hong Kong becoming the highest grossing film of all time, and has been well received outside, already being looked at as a Hollywood remake (/me shudders). On the back of this Chow was given a bigger budget and instructions to make another success, he produced Kung Fu Hustle, and was granted a worldwide release, something sadly lacking with his former which has really survived and become known though its DVD releases; Kung Fu Hustle's USA release was the biggest of any foreign language film ever and has now surpassed Shaolin Soccer as the number one film in Hong Kong.
It is 1940's Hong Kong, and gangs rule the streets. The most notorious of them all is the feared Axe gang, known for their ruthlessness and brutality; easily identifiable by their black outfits and cross axe tattoo. Sing (Chow) wants nothing more than to be a fully fledged member of the axe gang, he even pretends to be one attempting to extort favours from the local Pig Sty Ally. The reasons for him wanting to be a gang member stem from when he was small, he was unable to help a poor mute girl being threatened, plus his perception is that gangs or law breakers are cool. It is at these attempts of extortion that bring the real Axe gang to Pig Sty Ally, itself home to some kung fu masters. Suffering their first defeat at these masters the Axe gang unleash hell upon the poor town, sending in assassins. When these are eventually defeated they finally enlist the help of Sing to break out the most feared master of the all; the Beast. A known killer he obliterates all in his path, until it is left to Sing to repair the damage he has caused with his 'wolverine' like regenerative powers and gained spiritual powers.
These few lines describe the basic concept, but with Chows at the helm its execution is far more complex. The blend of action and comedy is much closer here than with his earlier film, in some places the violence becomes quite extreme and brutal. Consequences for the violence are explored, bloodied bodies and wounds are common place even if they are sometimes slapstick. The comedy is rarely off the mark, always in the slapstick, or toilet humour area, it cannot fail to raise a smile. So too is the use of CGI; Chow seems well versed with its uses, from the mundane to the outrageous. Barely a scene goes by without some digital effect in it. Whilst most of the smaller effects (football spring to mind) are obvious, it's ok because the sheer audacity of it all, it's supposed to be funny after all. One of the best scenes is a road runner spoof, total madness, yet eminently watchable and funny. A shame though that during the many fights there are few practical effect, Chow seems to rely too much on the CG. Talking of fights they are excellently choreographed by Sammo Hung and Yuen Wo Ping, the latter spoofing his own Burley Brawl from Matrix fame, but somehow making it fresher and more exciting!
The production quality of the film is second to none, you could be forgiven for thinking this is a Hollywood film. Chow fills every frame with something happening, there are hundreds of extras, and jaw dropping sets. There is a real sense of depth to the frame; he really uses all of the wide angle aspect, not just in the fight scenes but in passing shots too. Night time street sets are bathed in neon lights giving the comic book look which was the intent. Added to this Chows skill of seamlessly interweaving comedy, melodrama, action and tenderness you have one all encompassing film.
Shame then that it all doesn't quite work. In terms of visuals, production and action Kung Fu Hustle is easily number one in Chow's repertoire. But it is a long way from his best film. The problem could be the reliance on the action motif too much, as stated above it can be very brutal in places (in the USA there were cuts to its R rating). It could be that there is just too much CGI and it bringing you out of the film at times. Personally I lay the blame at the Sing character, for most of the film he is just unlikeable. The motivations for his character are explained well enough, but why that should make him still rob the girl whom he tried to save all those years ago remains repugnant. Yes he does get redemption at the end, but the closing scene of him returning to his childhood innocence just seems like too little too late; at lease with Shaolin you knew who the baddies were, there was no moral ambiguity. This however maybe my personal gripe as Hustle has been well established as Chow's top grossing movie and the one most will associate him with. So, if you don't want to read the telly, you are missing out, and quite frankly that is your loss.
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