I’ve come to the realization that I prefer a huge dose of humor with horror, drama, and even Kung Fu movies. I find myself mining the entertainments I watch for whatever comedic value might be present.
I don’t have to work too hard to find the humor in Kung Fu Hustle. It’s almost as if Stephen Chow wrote this movie especially with me in mind. If a film could be considered a mashup of Jackie Chan movies, and Loony Tunes cartoons, this is that movie, and its a much more successful attempt than Chow’s first sports movie/Kung Fu mashup, Shaolin Soccer, which I also enjoyed waaay more than I should have.
From its surreal opening dance number, to the music, stunts, and acting, the movie hits every comedic beat perfectly. The villains, The Axe Gang, are firmly established as dangerous right at the beginning of the film, when we watch them, literally, chop down a political official, and his lovely, innocent, evening companion, just because she witnessed his demise. Next, there’s a disco dance number with the Axe Gang, at their semi-public hideout, as if to celebrate their villainy:
From there, we go to Pig Sty Alley, with a colorful range of characters, all just living their noisy, messy lives. Imagine a trailer park version of Chinatown. The denizens are definitely at their working class worst. There’s the lecherous Landlord, who is married to the chain smoking Landlady, who never removes her hair curlers. The two of them are never seen in anything other than their pajamas for the first half of the movie.
Then there’s Sing, played by Stephen Chow. Sing is a wannabee thug, who reveres the Axe Gang, and wants to let them know he’d be a valuable asset to their criminal activities. He does this by bullying, or rather, attempting to bully, various citizens in Pig Sty, but he’s such an inept bully that he gets his ass regularly handed to him by, nerdy corporate accountants, the Landlady, various local ne’er-do-wells, and even his own partner, Bone, an ambition-less , gentle soul, whose only mistake is being Sing’s loyal friend. Sing started down this path after being humiliated by a neighborhood bully, when he was a child, when the Kung Fu move that he had been practicing, (The Buddhist Palm Method), failed to protect him, and the blind, Candy seller.
When Sing finally gets the attention of the Axe Gang things go spectacularly wrong. After being defeated by the Landlady, Sing and Bone end up in the Axe Gang’s dungeon. The Axe Gang, in an effort to reassert their authority, attack Pig Sty Alley, and are beaten by three, unknown, martial arts masters, Tailor, (a gay stereotype, who nevertheless manages to seriously kick some ass, using Iron Wire kung fu ), Coolie, (a Chinese stereotype who specializes in the 12 Kicks style of fighting), and Donut, (a baker specializing in the use of the Bo Staff).
The Landlady rebukes Tailor, Coolie, and Baker, for angering the Gang, and kicks them out of the alley, but not before she gets sidetracked by Sing’s antics, as he tries to get rid of her again, by using knives and snakes. This tactic backfires on Sing, although the next day, he has miraculously recovered. A straight Loony Tunes moment, is when the Landlady chases Sing out of the alley, done in the style of the Wile E Coyote/Roadrunner cartoons. That sneer you see on her face, she wears that same expression throughout the entirety of the first half of the movie.
Humiliated, the Axe Gang call in a couple of musical assassins, whose instruments produce deadly phantoms, that kill and maim. Coolie is killed, and Donut and Tailor are fatally injured, but the assassins, (and the witnessing Axe Gang), are driven away by the angry Landlady and Landlord, who also turn out to be martial arts masters. The Landlord specializes in Tai Chi Chuan, and can flow like water, bending his body like rubber, and the Landlady has a spectacular talent called, The Lion’s Roar.
After yet another humiliation, the Axe Gang finally become desperate enough to ask Sing for help. Having proven himself capable of escaping their dungeon, they send him to aid in the escape of an even greater villain, The Beast, a frog-like man, who certainly lives up to his name, as he is a singularly uncouth and unattractive fella’. We are definitely meant not to like him.
The Landlord and Landlady show up at the Axe Gang’s lair, to exact revenge for the killings at Pig Sty, and they encounter The Beast. The fight is spectacular, and spectacularly funny. For the first time we see the two of them wearing something other than bedclothes. In fact they’re both dressed as if they simply stopped buying regular clothing sometime before 1975, which, sadly, is probably true, as that’s probably around the time their son died. They’re even kind of infamous as The Tragic Couple.
Sing, in a moment of severe pressure, turns on the leader of the Axe Gang, and gets his head bashed in by The Beast, but is rescued by The Tragic Couple who, impressed by Sing’s bravery, (and injured by The Beast’s deception), grab Sing, and beat a hasty retreat.
The couple nurse Sing back to health at Pig Sty. Wrapped in a cocoon of bandages, Sing experiences a miraculous rebirth, as he reaches his full chi potential. He is a wholly different man now. He’s calm, balanced, and deadly as he, once again, fights the Axe Gang, this time led by The Beast.
After defeating all of the Axe Gang by doing such whimsical things as, stepping on their feet, and kicking them into the air like leaves, Sing finally takes on The Beast. In an emotional turn of events, The Beast is not defeated through greater violence, but through Sing’s greater mastery of chi, and compassion, when Sing agrees to teach him how to be a martial arts master, too.
I remember seeing this movie for the first time, and not liking any of the characters, initially, because none of the characters are likable at the beginning of the movie. The Landlord sexually harasses the women of Pig Sty. The Landlady chastises everyone in her orbit, (she says some pretty nasty stuff to Tailor, for example, and I almost stopped watching the movie). She beats her husband and random others. Sing is a vicious, though ineffectual, bully, and Bone his slothful follower. But over the course of the movie, the characters are fleshed out, and the audience (that’s you) start to practice the message of the movie, most especially for the Tragic Couple.
The movie ends with Sing having found his equilibrium in the good graces of the beautiful candy seller, that he tried to bully earlier in the movie. The overall message, and one that is practiced by the characters in the movie, is forgiveness and the giving of second chances. As the young candy seller, she remembers the little boy who stood up for her, when another bully attacked her. She behaves towards Sing, even after he robs her, with understanding and compassion. The Landlady and Landlord do the same for Sing later, when they rescue him from The Beast, even though Sing tried to kill her earlier with poisonous snakes, and Sing pays it forward, treating The Beast the same way, which is how he defeats him, and saves everyone at Pig Sty.
I’d also like to make special mention of the music,which is awesome. The music is very energetic and fun. It really sells the action and is perfect in every scene. It’s so good that I made a special effort to buy the soundtrack, which wasn’t readily available in the US, at the time the movie was released.
The movie is suitable for all ages as it’s largely gore-free. If your children can watch action cartoons, then this is okay for them to watch. There’s some language, and those who have issue with ethnic slurs, and homophobia, take heed. You won’t like those specific moments, but the movie is worth sitting through, because the purpose of those moments is to show just how disgusting some of the denizens of Pig Sty can be, (contrasted with their later nobility), and it’s an opportunity for the viewer to practice the movie’s message too, by forgiving their ignorance and giving them a second chance to show the viewer their best side.