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Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2005

Doing Bruce proud

Kung Fu Hustle

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Stephen Chow
Running time: 95 minutes
Language: Cantonese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Filmmaker and action star Stephen Chow is a man obsessed by two things: himself and Chinese martial arts. The last time someone had banked on a similar obsession was Bruce Lee, and indeed Chow has stated in many interviews that the late action hero has been his greatest inspiration since childhood. Three years back, Chow's name had gone on the global map with "Shaolin Soccer," which blended soccer (in step with the 2002 World Cup Games) and Shaolin martial arts and resulted in a hilarious, bizarre and thoroughly enjoyable concoction. This time, with no international sport event needing a nod, Chow literally rips off all restraints and plunges headlong into a carnival of rib-crunching, skull-shattering, knee-cap-pulverizing mayhem.

News photo
Stephen Chow in "Kung Fu Hustle"

In his new star vehicle, "Kung Fu Hustle," Chow makes it crystal clear that it won't be "Shaolin Soccer 2." When he makes his entrance, a group of boys are playing soccer in a field. The ball rolls over to Chow, and he kicks it around a bit with graceful expertise. Impressed, the boys ask him to be their coach, whereupon Chow destroys the ball with one decisive stomp. "I quit soccer," he growls, then spits. Cut to shot of the boys' devastated expressions then one of them holding the smashed ball, weeping.

These past three years haven't mellowed this lean, mean dude from Hong Kong. On the contrary, his bullying seems to have achieved a higher level of cruelty. Back home, Chow is known first and foremost as a really funny guy, but in "Kung Fu Hustle" the humor is biting, crude or just plain sadistic. Chow revels in the kind of joke that involves someone getting his face squashed in the mud as his torturers stand around jeering. He also has a penchant for juvenile sight gags, like the one that shows a guy defecating onto a sheet of paper, right next to a stove where a family gathers to cook dinner, and no one so much as bats an eye.

Not funny? Too bad, Chow grabs your face and rubs your nose in the screen until you start laughing. He has no interest in politeness or political correctness or any of those unnecessary frills that burden other modern films. Is this guy kidding? Of course he is, but at the same time he's dead serious. There's a neat, schizophrenic contrast between the hyperbolic jokes/action sequences and the deadpan gravity with which they're delivered -- Chow insists that you laugh though he refuses to laugh with you. In this way he recalls the early Quentin Tarantino, but with a bit of self-deprecating Asian angst.

Before I forget, there's a story here, too. "Kung Fu Hustle" opens in 1940s China. The country is terrorized by a band of black-suited, axe-swinging thugs called the Axe Gang. The only district that hasn't come under their rule is Pig Sty Fortress, a village so poor no one is interested in controlling it. Besides, Pig Sty is already in the grip of a fearsome landlady (Yuen Qiu), who habitually beats up the tenants as well as her cowering husband (Wah Yuen), and there's really no room for other violent tyrants. So when wannabe gangster Sing (Chow) shows up with his sidekick (Lam Chi Chung) to blackmail some cash from the villagers, no one is intimidated and things remain as they were.

But later the landlady makes the fatal mistake of kicking the pants off Axe Gang leader (Hsiao Liang) and incurring his mighty wrath. Two kung fu assassins are dispatched to destroy her, and when that doesn't work, Sing is sent to fetch the "Fire God," the strongest and most ruthless kung fu fighter of all time. It turns out, however, that there is one other fighter to match the strength of Fire God, and that's Sing himself. Will the hero in him awaken in time to save Pig Sty and the villagers?

The breath-taking fight sequences were choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping of "Matrix" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" fame, and to make optimum use of his talents, Chow invested four months in filming the crucial action scenes. That's an unthinkable schedule in the Hong Kong film industry, where many action directors wrap up filming in the space of six weeks. And though it's true "Kung Fu Hustle" isn't in the class of, say, "Hero," every frame attests to Chow's deep love for martial arts and the demands he made on his own body to prove it.

The prepping for "Kung Fu Hustle" started months in advance. Chow was famed for practicing kung fu maneuvers everywhere, from the dinner table to staff meetings. In the world according to Stephen Chow, life starts and ends with kung fu, and this movie does everything to convince you of it.

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