It’s hard to get your bearings when you start watching Kung Fu Hustle, the half-amazing, half-ridiculous, thoroughly exhilarating new . . . what? It’s hard to say exactly what it is, because Hustle is itself a hustle, a put-on, a Chinese comedy/adventure/spoof/period piece/martial-arts epic. It features a hero who proclaims, “Good guys never win—I want to be bad!”; and a feisty little old lady and a meek little old man who prove to be gleeful killers of a gang of villains who wear black top hats and throw axes at helpless folk. (The gang members also dance awfully well, in meticulously choreographed unison, for no obvious reason.) This is something movies can do remarkably well: revel in the kind of intentional confusion that only gradually resolves itself. For a TV show, such an approach would be fatal—click, click, and the remote has whisked away millions of impatient viewers. But in a movie theater, you feel obliged, if only because you’ve forked over some dough, to stick around, and when a filmmaker’s chaos strategy pays off, as it does here, it can provide deep pleasure.
At the center of Kung Fu Hustle is its endlessly creative leading man, director, and co-writer, Stephen Chow—a megastar in China but best known in America only for a delightfully raucous movie you probably thought beneath you, Shaolin Soccer (2001). Set in forties Shanghai in a dingy little working-class neighborhood called Pig Sty Alley, Hustle takes a while to rev up; in fact, at first it’s impossible to be sure that Chow’s character, a whiny wastrel named Sing, and his nameless sidekick, played by Lam Tze Chung, are even the movie’s central figures. Chow spends a lot of time pushing his camera through every dusty corner of Pig Sty Alley, which is overseen with grumpy frumpiness by Landlady (Yuen Qiu), who stomps around in curlers and a baggy housedress, berating her goofball husband, Landlord (Yuen Wah), as well as all the cowed inhabitants of the Alley.
Then the Axe Gang, a band of territorial bullies, comes to town (black clouds hover wherever these meanies go). The gang meets its match in Landlady and the rest of the Alley cats, who abruptly prove to be semi-retired kung fu warriors. Where does our ostensible hero, Sing, fit in with all this? Initially, he’s just a dope who wants to join the Axe Gang. But when, as a sort of initiation, Sing frees the most powerful “top fighter,” the Beast (Leung Siu Lung), from an insane asylum, Sing understands that he must side with the Pig Sty inhabitants, fight the good fight, and ultimately discover a truth about himself: that he’s the reincarnation of . . . oh, I won’t give it away, except I can’t resist writing that he possesses “the long- lost Buddhist Palm,” the mightiest punch in the universe.
If Hustle sounds crazy, believe me: I’ve only grazed its top layer. The movie is apparently stuffed with references to older martial-arts films, at least as far back as the seventies—the critic David Chute does a dashingly erudite trot through most of them in a recent issue of L.A. Weekly—and thus there’s a subtext of meaning, of added humor, that most of us won’t get. No matter: Chow also crams Hustle with homages that the kung fu illiterate will get, to Spider-Man, Road Runner cartoons, and Jean Renoir.
Chow’s movie may seem nutty on the surface, but its slyness, its dreamy unfolding of so many moods and genres, becomes intoxicating. Hustle’s violence is, by turns, brutal (the first murder by an Axe Gang–banger is bloody frightening), absurdist (there’s a gag about Sing’s pal’s hitting Sing’s arm accidentally with knives, only to pluck them out and throw them again), and beautiful (the film contains many of those gorgeous slo-mo leaping-and-high-kicking combative moves that mass America discovered late, via Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Chow plays with narrative structure as artistic irony—as a contrast to the people he’s filming: They are poised and disciplined; his tale is scattered and woolly. The result is happy confusion—you may walk out of the theater in a daze, wondering whether you’ve just seen a cinematic mash-up of West Side Story and A Clockwork Orange sung-spoken in Cantonese, and whether the Buddhist Palm is really another phrase for magisterial sleight of hand.