I like to tell people that I’m not a comedy fan, but I’ve come to the realization that I prefer a huge dose of humor with horror, drama, and even Kung Fu movies and shows I enjoy. I find myself mining the things 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. Its as if Stephen Chow wrote this movie especially with me in mind. If a live action film could be considered a mashup of Jackie Chan movies and Loony Tunes, this is the 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 chop down, literally, a local political official in the street, and also his lovely and completely innocent evening partner, just because she witnessed his demise. Next there’s a strange 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 kind of trailer park version of Chinatown. The denizens are definitely at their working class best. There’s the lecherous, put upon Landlord, 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 and bathrobes 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 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: four-eyed, corporate accountants on the bus, 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 wrongful path after being humiliated by a neighborhood bully as a child, when the Kung Fu move that he had been practicing (The Buddhist Palm Method) failed to protect him and a young, blind, ice cream seller.
When Sing finally gets the attention of the Axe Gang, things go spectacularly wrong. 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 defeated by three, unknown martial arts masters, Tailor (a gay stereotype, who nevertheless manages to seriously kick 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 Bo Staff).
The Landlady rebukes the 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 by using knives and snakes. This tactic backfires on Sing, although the next day, he has miraculously recovered. A straight up 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 expression through 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 can kill and maim.Coolie is killed, and Donut and Tailor are fatally injured, but the assassins are driven away by the Landlady and Landlord, who also turn out to be martial arts masters. The Landlord specializes in Tai Chi Chuan, and can flow like water and band his body like rubber, and the Landlady has a spectacular talent called The Lion’s Roar.
After yet another humiliation, the Axe Gang 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, who certainly lives up to his name, as he is a singularly uncouth and unattractive fella’. We are 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 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 after 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 The Beast and gets his head bashed in, 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 tossing them into the air like fall 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 because of that) and beats her husband and random others. Sing is a vicious, though ineffectual, bully and Bone his mindless follower. But over the course of the movie, the characters are fleshed out, and 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 ice cream 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 ice cream seller, she remembers the young 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 goes on to learn from this and treat The Beast the same way, and that 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.