Following his success with Shaolin Soccer—a bonkers mashup of martial arts and underdog sports drama heavily flavored by a zany sense of humor—Stephen Chow got to work on a far more complex and ambitious project that would draw heavily once more on martial arts (but this time more closely from the Shaw Brothers movies of the 1960s and 1970s) as well as gangster movies from the 1920s and 1930s, Warner Brothers cartoons, and more. Heck, there is even a big musical number in the opening scene. It all comes together in a masterwork pastiche of singular excellence and hilarity: Kung Fu Hustle.
The story takes place in a heavily fictionalized version of Shanghai in the 1930s, where poverty is rampant, as are the various street gangs that essentially rule the city. The most powerful among them is the Axe Gang, a small army of dandy thugs dressed in top hats and tails, and who fight with hatchets. Two losers named Sing and Bone try to pass themselves off as members of the gang while trying to shake down the residents of Pig Sty Alley, a huge apartment complex that is essentially a small town unto itself, populated entirely by Shanghai’s most down and out. When Sing and Bone are run out of Pig Sty Alley empty-handed, the Axe Gang feels compelled to turn the place over just to save their reputation. They bring 50 guys to terrorize the place, only to find out that more than a few martial arts masters live there, and the spectacular fight that ensues results in a while lot of Axe Gang fellows in the dust. Things spiral progressively out of control from there, but it involves a pair of supernatural hit men whose weapon is music, an invincible killer with the powers of a toad, a husband and wife martial arts team who have practically elevated spousal abuse to a superpower, a foot chase straight out of a Road Runner cartoon, and perhaps the most hilariously botched assassination attempt in the history of cinema.
The funny thing about Kung Fu Hustle is that our protagonist, Sing, often fades into the background while we examine the other forces at work here, especially among the people of Pig Sty Alley, many of whom are more than they at first appear. And when Sing is around, for most of the movie, he doesn’t play like a hero-in-training; instead he and his buddy Bone are the comedy relief to the more serious action around them, a pair of bumblers of no importance to anybody…until Sing decides to get serious with his life and sees if he can really unlock the powers of martial arts promised to him in a little booklet he got off of a filthy street beggar. Sing’s eventual metamorphosis from the most inept street criminal in Shanghai to a superhuman martial arts prodigy happens almost in parallel to the larger story of the increasingly dangerous situation brewing around Pig Sty Alley, and in a way, we are almost watching two separate movies that parted early in the first act, and reunite at the end of the final act. It’s a dicey way to tell a story, but it works especially well in a movie that is equal parts straight-up action fiasco and comedic payoff. And honestly, once you’re far enough into the movie to sense how it has split into two, you’re not likely to care anymore. Kung Fu Hustle is such a fearless mash-up of genres, story lines, themes and tones that you are like one of the bystanders in Pig Sty Alley, keeping your head down—but not too far—so you can see how all this mayhem turns out.
There are a lot of standout scenes in this movie, some extremely funny, some not quite so much. Most of my favorites involve the fearsome Landlady who runs Pig Sty Alley, and who is rarely seen dressed in anything other than her nightshirt, hair curlers, and cigarette dangling from her downturned mouth. Her kung fu power is a sonic yell that will blow the walls off a building. She heaps such abuse that if he did not have a superhumanly rubbery skelton, he’d surely be dead. In one scene, Landlady chases Sing from the scene of a crime in a style that somehow turns the movie into a live-action cartoon. Never have I seen such stylistic metamorphosis work so well.
The moment of truth takes that stylistic turn to a dark place, when a pair of musically inclined hit men are sent to kill the kung fu heroes of Pig Sty Alley. As they launch their fearsome attack, we see that these guys really aren’t kidding around, and the result is an intense scene where the stakes are high and there are no laughs to be had. What makes this the moment of truth is its thematic virtuosity. This is a film that begins with a Busby Berkeley-style musical number featuring the members of the Axe Gang, trades heavily in some hilarious slapstick, and suddenly takes a left turn into much heavier material. And yet, somehow it never feels derailed or meandering. It goes back and forth between those darker tones as if to say that this movie will go wherever it wants because it has the skill to do so in a way that no other movie ever could. Once you realize that, the surrender to this movie’s spell is total. Movies are meant to transport us somewhere else for a short time. Kung Fu Hustle brings us so deeply into its world of weirdos, martial arts superheroes and Pig Sty Alley that we’d swear we were born there. And most of us find ourselves not wanting to leave, either.