Harp-Fu Mania!

The special effects, humor and non-likeable protagonist make 'Kung Fu Hustle' worthy of the admission price

It's kind of weird to see a movie while there's no pope in office. I keep thinking that there's no one to stop Satan himself from bursting forth from the screen and roasting the entrails of everyone in the audience, even the secular humanists.

But watching Kung Fu Hustle, I had no such fear, because writer/director/star/dude Stephen Chow would surely protect me with his super-powered kung fu action abilities.

Indeed, Chow has very strong movie-fu, and has made, if not a great film, at least one that is never boring. Instead, and in opposition to being boring, it's riveting, even if it's a bit stupid and plotless. But who needs plot when you have axe-wielding, dancing gangsters with bad teeth, the bare vestiges of a story ripped off from Seven Samurai, and lots of super-powered magical fighting action choreographed by Woo-ping Yuen, the master choreographer who made Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and all the Matrix movies at least semi-watchable?

This is actually Yuen's best work, in that Stephen Chow has given him free rein to have fun. See, in ancient times, choreographers were the people who designed dance numbers. Nowadays, they mostly design fight numbers. But in Kung Fu Hustle, Yuen gets to do both, presenting smooth segues from bloody, axe-in-head violence to lovely, axe-in-hand dance sequences.

And it's not just that there are real dance sequences that make the choreography so fun. Rather, this is, in many respects, the first movie to make superpowers seem real. I realize that Superman made you believe that a man can fly, and that X-Men made you believe that a mutant can cry, but in no previous super-hero action movie have the fights so truly captured the spirit of the comic books from whence they come.

Of course, the super-powered kung fu masters are fast and strong and can fly and make daggers appear out of thin air, but far more importantly, when they hit someone, that person goes flying through brick walls in a strangely real, but still fantastic manner. The way the violence causes buildings to shatter, the ground to ripple and the air to shimmer with power isn't just fun to look at, it seems to have its own, internally consistent sense of physics. Not real physics, of course, but a kind of movie physics that creates a cohesive world, one that is beautiful and coherent enough to allow for just the right amount of suspension of disbelief.

Of course, special effects alone do not make a movie. Oh wait, it's 2005: Special effects alone do make a movie! But in case you want more, Kung Fu Hustle is also reasonably funny when it tries to be, and is creative in its use of characters.

For example, there's the tailor who employs deadly tailor-fu, and the harpy-like middle-aged woman who employs the fearsome yelling-fu, and of course the twin musicians who employ the lovely and lethal harp-fu.

What I liked best about the characters, though, was that there was essentially no one who was pretty and pure and good. The story concerns a group of gangsters who decide to decimate a poor neighborhood because one of their own got dissed there. But the defenders of the neighborhood are a lecherous landlord and his unpleasant wife.

Meanwhile, the film continually focuses on a weak, evil, ne'er do well who robs, steals and lies in order to become a mob member. And he's the star. Not just the star, mind you, but also the writer, producer and director.

So it's a refreshing change of pace from the standard Hollywood fare that demands that characters, especially protagonists, be "likeable." That Chow rejects this shows an unusual degree of sophistication, especially in light of the somewhat dopey humor of the film. Not that humor isn't funny; it's just that a lot of it is based on the inherent hilarity of watching someone fall down and get hurt. But in Chow's version of this venerable gag, the fall is from three stories, and the impact is something that would make the Roadrunner proud.

Chow's previous film, Shaolin Soccer, was a similar mix of silly slapstick and over-the-top super-fu, but Kung Fu Hustle is by far the better movie. With a larger budget at his disposal, Chow was able to take a lot of the themes and motifs of his earlier work, and the work of a lot of chop-socky directors, and push them to a new level. He's also able to take advantage of the advances in CGI to finally create super-effects that seem truly super. Kung Fu Hustle is not exactly high art, but it is low art, and sometimes that's even better.

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