Stephen Chow as Sing
Kwok Kuen Chan as Brother Sum
Leung Siu Lung as The Beast
Qiu Yuen as Landlady
Wah Yuen as Landlord
Dong Zhi Hua as Doughnut
Chiu Chi Ling as Tailor
Xing Yu as Coolie
Chi Chung Lam as Sing’s Sidekick
Xiaogang Feng as Crocodile Gang Boss
Shengyi Huang as Fong
Hsiao Liang as Axe Gang Leader
The movie starts out as a rather violent ’40s gangster film, showing the viciousness of the formally-dressed Axe Gang and their dapper leader Brother Sum. After a quick musical dance number–anyone surprised by this probably isn’t familiar with Chow’s previous work–the movie cuts to the slums of Pig Sty Alley, a downtrodden village where the Landlady rules over the townspeople with an iron fist. When Sing comes to town, there’s little he could do but get into conflict with her, leading to the type of slapstick comedy that Chow is so good at, and it’s not long before the humor is permeating every aspect of the story. But first, we meet the town’s unassuming tailor, baker and “coolie” (essentially a strong laborer), who reveal themselves to be kung fu masters when the Axe Gang follows Sing to town, much to the surprise of everyone.
Chow makes it pretty clear that he wanted to do something different with Kung Fu Hustle. When his character Sing first appears on screen, he disrupts some kids playing soccer by stamping their ball flat with a fierce cry of “No More Soccer!” It’s a pretty clear statement, although Chow does maintain a similar action and comedy formula that made his previous films so entertaining. Fans of Shaolin Soccer probably won’t be disappointed.
To explain the relationships between the various characters would be a lesson in futility, but the top-notch action sequences are the best reason to see Kung Fu Hustle. Choreographed by the legendary Sammo Hung and the omnipresent Yuen Wo Ping (The Matrix), Chow mixes things up a bit, starting with straight-forward Bruce Lee like martial arts, and then intensifying the action as the story progresses, just like in Shaolin Soccer. When Chow brings in his CGI effects team, the action gets so outlandish that your jaw just drops watching it, and just when you think Chow has topped himself with something amazing, he takes it one step farther. The Axe Gang’s last stand on the streets of Pig Sty Alley almost seems like Chow’s attempt to outdo the “Burly Battle” from The Matrix Reloaded, but he never loses sight of the fact that the movie is a comedy, and the violence is always tempered with humor.
Kung Fu Hustle’s increased budget certainly gives Chow the chance to flex his directorial vision, not only with the action and effects, but also by creating some big budget sets. The colorful and glitzy casino is an interesting contrast to the equally colorful (although in a different way) Pig Sty Alley, a huge slum complex filled with shops and people of all shapes and sizes.
Sing ends up being the perfect bridge to gap these two settings, going from poorly dressed mongrel to full-blown Axe Gang member. A bumbling underdog who just can’t commit crimes as hard as he tries, Sing can’t even properly rob an ice cream vendor after he realizes that the girl who runs it is the same one he tried but failed to save from bullies when they were children. As hard as Chow tries to play the bad guy, it’s really hard not to like him, as he solidifies his role as Asia’s Jim Carrey with all of the crazy physical comedy at the core of his character.
Still, Chow plays almost a secondary role in the movie to the legendary martial arts stars of the ’60s and ’70s whose careers he revive with prominent roles in this movie. Yuen Qiu, a Bond girl in The Man with the Golden Gun, is almost unrecognizable as the town’s bitchy overweight landlady, spending most of the movie stealing scenes with her crankiness and her “special powers.” In one scene, she chases Sing through the streets with their legs spinning in classic cartoon fashion that would not have looked out of place in a Roadrunner cartoon. Of course, watching live people do this kind of thing can be jarring, and less open-minded people may have trouble adjusting to Chow’s brand of insanity.
The Bottom Line:
Kung Fu Hustle opens in New York and Los Angeles on April 8 and nationwide on April 22.