“Kung Fu Hustle” was nominated for a Golden Globe in 2005 for “Best Foreign Language Film,” but lost to “Paradise Now.” (Courtesy of Columbia pictures)
When it comes to action and comedy, in most movies the two are kept relatively separate. There may be a scene where some snappy dialogue happens between a few characters and then there’s a scene with the heroes duking it out against the villains.
Even if they are in the same scene, it’s usually just in the form of quips being told in between the punches. Some films however take the physicality of the action and make it humorous in itself, and few works do this quite as excellently as Kung Fu Hustle.
Released in 2004, Kung Fu Hustle was directed, co-written by and starred Stephen Chow. Set in 1940s China, our hero Sing is a shameless coward who wants to join the notorious “Axe Gang” so that he can get the respect and wealth that he has always wanted.
He inadvertently brings them into conflict with an extremely poor district, Pig’s Sty Alley, where it turns out a number of highly skilled martial artists have taken residence. Thus begins an escalating fight between the martial artists defending their home and the Axe Gang who refuse to be made fools of.
The action in the movie, in many ways, takes after classic kung-fu movies. The fight choreography is top-notch with rapid fire motions that never become too disorienting. As the movie progresses though the fights take on a fantastical nature with the aid of more modern special effects. Characters leap impossible distances around the battlefield as they meet each other in intense mid-air exchanges.
Combatants send shockwaves through the ground rending it into pieces with a single stomp. One particularly memorable scene involves a pair of musicians who fight using a stringed instrument whose notes literally cut through their opponents. This may seem like it can get goofy at times, but that is entirely by design.
The movie uses its special effects to not only exaggerate the action of its scenes but also its comedy. The motions of characters can be downright “Looney Tunes-esque”at times. For example, at one point there is a chase scene between the landlady of Pig Sty Alley and the protagonist Sing where their legs literally become blurs as they zoom along the street like roadrunners.
The exaggeration never becomes too silly though because the characters are always playing it straight; Nobody ever points out the absurdity of what people are doing during fights, so the illusion is never broken.
The combination of high flying action and goofy slapstick creates something akin to a Buster Keaton film mixed with a high quality martial arts movie. Even during some of the most intense fights of the movie there are still funny moments peppered throughout.
It is unfortunately very difficult to describe the comedy of the movie because it is so very physically focused, it really needs to be seen to be understood.
While the movie’s action and comedy is top notch there isn’t terribly much in the way of complexity to the movie’s plot. The bad guys are bad, the good guys are good, and the hero eventually finds the path to righteousness over evil. It’s nothing particularly new but the characters really bring life to an overall bland plot structure.
Nobody is just, “the wise old sage who does nothing but martial arts.” The heroes are people who have to deal with mundane issues, like paying bills, dealing with neighbors, and getting dinner. They are presented with very human lives and this is critically done before they are ever seen fighting. They are people first and martial artists second.
When it comes to the action-comedy genre, there are few that can do it quite as well as Kung Fu Hustle. It’s exaggeration of kung-fu action is at once a loving parody as well as a respectful homage to a genre with decades of history. It’s an exciting, clever, and very funny to romp to anybody with a passing interest in seeing some absurd action.
Final Grade: A-