A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 395 – Kung Fu Hustle

Kung Fu Hustle – March 30th, 2011

Clearly we need to get more Stephen Chow movies in our collection. And he needs to make more movies. Because there is something so bizarrely awesome about the two that I’ve seen and I think I need more of it in my life. It’s not just that it’s funny and full of good action. It’s the type of humor combined with the type of action. It’s a perfect mix of cartoonish comedy with unreal fighting.

There is something about this movie that puts me in mind of the old Roadrunner cartoons. And it’s not just the chase scene where two of the main characters go racing off along a dirt road with their legs blurred into whirlwinds while the scenery whizzes by. Though that is a fairly iconic image, so it figures in. But it’s that spirit of absolutely everything that happens being so thoroughly over the top and ridiculously dangerous, and while the people involved get banged up, for the most part they bounce back. Okay, so that’s not true of everyone in this movie, but once we pass the halfway mark? Yes, it is.

We begin our story with the introduction of the Axe Gang, who all wear black suits and top hats and carry little hatchets. They dance with them. This is about where I fell in love with this movie, because anything that has men in dapper suits dancing in formation while holding bladed weaponry is a-ok by me. Alas, there’s not much more dancing in the movie, but there is a lot of the Axe Gang, who’ve apparently taken over much of the city. They’ve got a nasty leader who’s not afraid to hack a man to death and they run whatever they feel like running. Then we meet the residents of Pig Sty Alley, who are all too poor to be worth the Axe Gang’s time. The residents are a motley bunch who seem to live hand-to-mouth and all owe back rent to the landlord and landlady of their buildings.

The landlord and landlady are interesting figures here, because while the movie starts out by setting them up as antagonists to the people who rent space from them, they end up being rather heroic. And I like that. I like that while the real bad guys are truly bad, and the good guy ends up being truly good, there’s plenty of gray area for everyone to spend some time in. I am all about the gray area. It’s nice to have characters who don’t neatly slot into Good and Bad sometimes. So anyhow, we’ve got Pig Sty Alley and its denizens and in walks Sing, a petty criminal who’s attempting to extort a little money out of folks by claiming to be with the Axe Gang. Unfortunately for him, and for the folks of Pig Sty Alley, he’s not in the gang at all. So when they show up, they’re not happy. And then the fighting starts.

The fight scenes are amazing. They’re varied and fun and fast but not too fast. There’s always something happening in screen but not enough to make it confusing or muddled. And during one of the big scenes I pondered aloud “So, this is the movie, right? It’s going to be another hour of fight scenes, right? Cause I can get behind that.” And okay, not quite. There’s plot in between the fight scenes, where we learn that the neighborhood has not one, not two, not three but five Kung Fu masters just hanging out incognito. We see the Axe Gang bring in hired killers to take out the folks who humiliated them. We see Sing try to get into their good graces by agreeing to do just about anything they want if they’ll let him join the gang. We get some background for Sing and find out that he was cheated out of his life savings by a con man who sold him what seems to have been a worthless kung fu manual. There’s a bit with a girl and a lollipop. The girl with the lollipop doesn’t get much in the way of time. She’s basically a symbol of Sing’s lost innocence and hope. Ah well. No movie’s perfect.

So wrapped around this plot are the fight scenes. There are the three masters in the beginning, fighting against the Axe Gang first and then two kung fu musicians, who use a guqin to make music that forms ethereal blades, fists and skeletal warriors to strike at their enemies. There are the other two masters who show up later and fight against the musicians and then against the Beast, freed from an institution by Sing at the Axe boss’s command. There’s Sing’s huge battle against the Beast that I swear takes up a third of the movie. And it’s all fantastic. And I mean that not only in that it’s good, but that it’s fantastical as well. It’s magical and outrageous as a movie like this should be. It’s the perfect combination of comedy and action and I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it outside of Shaolin Soccer, which is, of course, another Stephen Chow movie. So I repeat what I said at the outset: I need more of him in our collection. Because this was awesome.

March 30, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kung Fu Hustle

March 30, 2011

Kung Fu Hustle

Early on in this movie – when there was a montage of men with axes dancing that showed the rise of the “Axe Gang” as their empire of sin engulfed Shanghai – Amanda asked me “Why don’t we own more movies like this?” To which I replied “Because there aren’t any other movies like this.” There really aren’t. It’s a big-budget effects laden kung-fu comedy as only Stephen Chow can do it.

Stephen Chow has such a unique sensibility. As with the brilliant Shaolin Soccer his movie blends cartoonish comedy with ultra-cool kung-fu action for something strange and magical. Something utterly and indescribably weird, but also something you can’t easily look away from.

Humor in kung-fu movies is nothing new. I remember when I was just getting into watching kung-fu movies and had it in my head that they were the epitome of cool action adventures how puzzled I was by things like Jackie Chan’s Half a Loaf of Kung-Fu. The notion that something so cool could also be so goofy struck me then as very odd. This movie takes that core concept of parody and comedy and brings it to the extremes that can only be reached by the modern age of digital effects.

Stephen portrays Sing, a no good vagrant and wastrel who has given up on being good and dedicated himself to his ambition of becoming a gangster. When he tries to use his wannabe gangster moves on the downtrodden people of Pig Sty Alley he inadvertently draws the attention of the dominant local gang – the Axe Gang. These thugs descend on Pig Sty Alley in force, only to be driven off by a trio of kung-fu masters who have been living a simple life of anonymity amongst the other slum dwellers.

From there it’s a plot of escalation. The Axe Gang hire a pair of creepy killers to assassinate the three kung-fu masters. The assassins are in turn stopped by another pair of unlikely masters who also dwell in Pig Sty Alley. The Axe Gang then release from a mental ward a cold blooded killer known as “The Beast” who cares about nothing but finding a worthy opponent. All the while Sing is proving himself to be a very ineffectual gangster, until he ultimately discovers his true potential.

Part of what makes this movie so much fun is the great collection of colorful characters. Every single performance is crazy, over the top and utterly bizarre. A mincing, wailing, flaming gay tailor who happens to also be a master of the kung-fu arts? Yeah. A round-faced clown of a character who spends the whole movie with his ass hanging out of his pants and shampoo on his hair because the landlady has cut off the local water supply? Weird. Sing himself with his ineffectual attempts to be a mean gangster which more often than not result in him being hurt instead is a strange character. (Luckily he has a preternatural healing ability or he’d be dead halfway through the movie.)

When I say that the action in this movie is cartoonish I mean that the movie often appears to be a live-action Warner Brothers cartoon. It might just as well have been directed by Tex Avery. There’s a road-runner style chase scene. There’s constant warping and deformation of people as they’re punched and kicked. There are bodies flung about, flying and falling every which way and smashing through windows and walls alike.

Most bizarrely of all there’s a kind of spirituality to this film. Sing’s ultimate redemption and awakening, even couched in the ridiculous cartoon violence of this movie, has a sort of power to it. This is also clearly a movie aimed at the child inside all of us – a point driven home by the last few minutes of the movie. The irony being that a movie aimed at bringing out a child-like wonder in its audience was given an R rating for its release here in the States due to the violence (I’m guessing because of some of the axe fighting early in the film.) It’s just one more strange contradiction in a movie full of them. Then again – if the Road Runner and Wylie Coyote were live action they might receive an R rating as well.

March 30, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment