Kung Fu Hustle
You wouldn't expect to find yourself clicking your fingers as an axe-murderer breaks into an impromptu rhumba over the sliced corpse of his victim, but such is the sheer bloody bravado which kicks off Kung Fu Hustle, only a saint would refrain.
Of course, it helps that the corpse was a brutal gang boss, but what really alleviates our moral qualms is the blatant artificiality of the surroundings (we're supposedly in Shanghai in the 1940s, but it looks like the soundstage for a 50s MGM musical); that and the kind of blaring, jazzy Elmer Bernstein-type score we don't hear too much of these days. Or maybe it's just how the dead guy's cowboy hat and alligator boots set off the killer's tux and jaunty white fedora? Like the song says: "It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it. "
In his last bid to break into the Western market, Hong Kong box-office champ Stephen Chow played a luckless but versatile shaolin master trying to repackage his talents to suit a contemporary, non-violent sensibility. He tried shaolin singing, but was booed off the stage. Then he turned to sports… The fitfully inventive Shaolin Soccer earned Chow his first UK release but didn't exactly set the world on fire.
Three years on, he's figured out that the most marketable aspect of martial arts is, in fact, violence – whooda thunk it? An affectionate parody of the classic Shaw Bros chopsocky picture (with a cheeky nod or two in the direction of Gangs of New York and The Matrix), Kung Fu Hustle, has already trumped Shaolin Soccer to become the most successful Hong Kong movie in Hong Kong and aced Wong Kar-wai's 2046 at the local film awards; there's every hope it will be a smash over here too. It's a long while since we've seen a popcorn movie this exhilarating, from Hollywood, Bollywood or anywhere else.
The plot is pure potboiler, but with an unstoppable fast-forward momentum and a fantastical edge. The gangs control the city, but when they try to put the squeeze on Pig Sty Alley they meet unexpectedly formidable opposition from a weedy-looking cook, a barber, and a tailor. Mightiest of all is the tenement's ferocious landlady (Qiu Yuen). In pink hair rollers and matching bloomers, a droopy cigarette apostrophizing her permanent scowl, she may not look like much, but when she blows, buildings quake.
Low-brow (even 'no brow') Chow's comedy isn't above sophomoric stereotyping, but there's a happy egalitarianism in the conviction that beneath every flea-bitten underdog there's a kung fu superhero busting to get out. The complete package, Chow himself takes the role of a good-for-nothing would-be gangster whose misplaced ambition precipitates one humiliating showdown after another. A prolonged sequence in which his every attempt to assassinate the Landlady rebounds on his own head typifies Chow's gleeful appropriation of Chuck Jones's karmic slapstickery.
Chow experimented with CGI in Shaolin Soccer but the new film represents a quantum leap. Far more imaginative than Sin City, Kung Fu Hustle shows how the sky's the limit when it comes to the creative application of computer animation to live action cinema. Men turn into toads. Sound shatters walls. Even the Buddha himself puts in an appearance. Physicists tell us there may be as many as ten dimensions beyond our fragile comprehension of space and time. Chow seems to be ahead of the curve on at least four or five of them. World domination can't be far behind.