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Two years spent stuck on Miramax's shelves prevented Stephen Chow's brilliant Shaolin Soccer from scoring with Western audiences. With that chastening experience in mind, Kung Fu Hustle is rush released mere months after becoming Hong Kong's highest-grossing home-grown film ever. Perfect timing. Chow's joyful parody/homage to the Hong Kong action flicks he grew up with steals in on the boom of Asian martial arts movies like Ong-Bak and House Of Flying Daggers. But this is no hustle. Chow's unique comic gifts and filmmaking flair are the real thing.
Chow takes us into a 1940s-era Shanghai of sharp-suited, hot-stepping, top hat-wearing gangsters, notably the Axe Gang. They rule the city - at least those parts deemed worth ruling. Pig Sty Alley, on the other hand, is a slum ruled over by a wayward landlord (Yuen Wah) and his chain-smoking harridan of a wife (Yuen Qiu). When Sing and his narcoleptic sidekick (Lam) turn up, falsely claiming to be Axe Gang members, their exploits bring the real gang calling. Pig Sty Alley fights back with its own unlikely martial artists, sparking an escalating battle that will draw in harp-playing master assassins and a Neo-like figure to possibly save the day.
Those new to Chow's absurdist mo lei tau or "nonsense style" approach should expect something along the lines of Tex Avery's explosive cartoons, the razor-sharp repartee of a Preston Sturges comedy and the good-natured fisticuffs of Jackie Chan. The speed of the action and free-flowing gags make most films, by comparison, feel like they're trundling along in Matrix-style bullet time. Working with legendary fight co-ordinator Wu-Ping Yuen allows Chow not only to send up the inflated pretensions of the Wachowski brothers and the more sober wuxia (marital arts chivalry) epics like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, but in some cases, with the jaw-dropping athleticism and stunt work on display, to show them up too.
Equally important is the way that Chow doesn't settle for cheap, scattershot spoofery like that found in Scary Movie. For all its crazed slapstick and frenetic humour, Kung Fu Hustle shows enormous respect and affection for its source material (Yuen Wah, who plays the landlord, was actually Bruce Lee's stand-in for Fists Of Fury). The sense of community Pig Sty Alley's denizens demonstrate against the intolerant gangster 'establishment' directly echoes the history - and popularity - of the genre.
It's not quite flawless. Chow and his team pile on so much that eventually the wirework and nifty CGI trickery overstretch themselves. Plus, Chow himself is such an accomplished comic leading man that it's a shame when he disappears for large chunks of the film's middle section. Nevertheless anyone leaving Kung Fu Hustle with less than a giddy smile on their face should see a doctor for an immediate sense of humour transplant.