Saturday, February 05, 2005

Sundance Review: Kung Fu Hustle

If you've seen Stephen Chow's incredible Shaolin Soccer, you'll have an idea what to expect from Kung Fu Hustle. I prefer Shaolin Soccer because it’s a bit more grounded in reality. Again, those of you familiar with Shaolin Soccer will realize that to say that it is “more grounded in reality” than Kung Fu Hustle is really saying something about Kung Fu Hustle.

In KFH, Stephen Chow is a poseur pretending to be part of the fearsome Axe Gang, but he accidentally touches off a fight between the real Axe Gang and a peasant neighborhood that happens to harbor some surprisingly adept kung-fu masters. A series of battles ensues in which the Axe Gang tries to teach the peasants a lesson by bringing in ever-stronger foes.

At one point, there’s a chase that literally resembles a Road Runner cartoon, with spinning legs and whooshing backgrounds, and by then you’re either on board for the lunatic ride or you’re left behind to lament the rest of this bizarre movie.

There’s cruel slapstick, spectacular fight scenes, cartoonish sight gags, gross-outs, and humiliation. There are some jarring shifts in tone, as the film has a surreal style that is occasionally poetic and gorgeous, but is soon broken by another CGI effect that turns the world back into a cartoon.

There are references to and parodies of other films, including American ones. There are fights with hordes of suited gangsters reminiscent of the big fight in Matrix Reloaded. At times the effects here look less fake, at times much more fake, but overall the effects are forgivable because they’re often played for laughs anyway. The film itself is much more fun instead of a ponderous bore, and there is tangible excitement and real energy here, rather than the going-through-the-motions you find in the Matrix sequel.

The rhythm of the story is a little strange, leaving me with one less big fight than I expected, but generally I have no complaints. I got the fun that I came for.

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