The scene is Shanghai, or Busby Berkeley’s dream of it: a Chinese city of the 1930s, teeming on the outskirts with rickety tenement compounds, bustling in its business district with clanging streetcars and plump, humpbacked autos, groaning everywhere under the oppression of the Axe Gang, a chorus of
criminals who dance like Fred Astaire and dress like London bankers, except for the hatchets on their belts. As the gangsters jitter and jive in their Art Deco casino–while a docile police chief thumbs through his cash–a montage of well-choreographed mayhem convulses the city. I mean woman-shotgunned-in-the-face, blasted-backward-through-the-air-type mayhem.
“People live in peace,” a title explains, “only in the poorest districts, which have nothing to interest the Axe Gang.” The camera glides, with 1930s facility, into Pig Sty Alley: four teetering stories of low-ceilinged shops and cramped residences, gathered like a broken-sided box around a courtyard damp with laundry.
Here, a different oppression reigns. The landlord, a would-be lounge lizard, slinks about putting the touch on his tenants, for money if they’re men, for the sake of the touch if they’re not. Meanwhile his robust wife, her hair permanently rolled up in curlers and a cigarette forever dangling from her lip, reasserts discipline when needed by hurling the landlord out of a second-story window, followed by a skull-denting flowerpot.
Only a loser of the lowest sort would be so stupid as to seek his fortune in Pig Sty Alley. Enter Sing (Stephen Chow): a scrawny fast-talker dressed in clothes assembled from other people’s wash lines. He struts into the courtyard pretending to be an Axe Gang member and soon enough, by bluff and swagger, calls down the vengeance of the real gang on Pig Sty Alley. It’s Sing’s first self-inflicted disaster in Kung Fu Hustle.
Thinking of the many more to come–the punctured boasts, the ballooning body parts, the calamities that spark one another like a chain of firecrackers–the synopsizer falls silent. To tell more of the story of Kung Fu Hustle is to risk telling all, from the Zither of Doom to the flaming Buddhist Palm, from the flying attack in Toad Style to the explosive Lion’s Roar, not excepting the tale of the mute girl with the broken lollipop and the heartache of her failed defender, a poor boy pledged to “uphold world peace and fight evil” with instructions from a fifty-cent pamphlet. A mere recital of the plot points would make an entertainment for a winter’s night; but since it’s spring as I write, let’s simply say that Kung Fu Hustle gives you something to watch, as today’s American pop movies seldom do.
Serving not only as star of the film but as its director, producer and co-writer, the immensely popular Chow (Shaolin Soccer) shot Kung Fu Hustle on elaborately beautiful sets constructed in and around Shanghai, with a technical crew drawn from the best of Hong Kong’s film industry. The cinematographer was the veteran Poon Hang Sang (Peking Opera Blues; A Chinese Ghost Story), any one of whose crane shots or dolly excursions would be the glory of a Scorsese picture. The production designer was Oliver Wong–a frequent collaborator with Jackie Chan–and the sound engineer was Leung Chi Tat, who has amassed a decade’s worth of credits with Wong Kar-Wai. This accumulation of expertise became even more extravagant with the action choreography, for which Chow called on not one but two masters, Yuen Wo Ping (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Kill Bill) and Sammo Hung (A Touch of Zen; Wheels on Meals).