Kung Fu Hustle

Kung Fu Hustle. Beijing Film Studio 2004.

Before watching the movie:

I have no idea what to expect. Apparently it’s a comedy, but the very little I read up front didn’t really give that impression outside from the “comedy” tag. So… I assume there is martial arts, and something about gang violence?

After watching the movie:

In Shanghai in the 1940s, rival gangs can battle right outside the police station downtown and only the poorest slums are safe from their warfare. One such neighborhood, Pigsty Alley, is under a reign of terror from their drunkard Landlord and shrewish Landlady, when one day small-time crooks Sing and Bone come to the local barbershop posing as members of Axe Gang to try to scam a bribe. The Landlady soon chases them off, and unfortunately for Sing and Bone, his bluff at calling for reinforcements blows up the hat of a passing Axe Gang boss, provoking him into attacking the residents of the neighborhood. However, three residents, Coolie, Tailor, and Donut, out themselves as superpowered Kung Fu masters to save their community. In fear of reprisal from the Axe Gang, the Landlady evicts them. Brother Sum, the head of the Axe Gang, captures Sing and Bone and intends to kill them for their impersonation, but Sing’s lockpicking skill impresses him, and instead Sum releases them on orders to go kill someone to prove themselves worthy of joining the gang. Sing tells Bone the story of how his failure as a child to defend a mute girl from some bullies with what he’d learned from a cheap pamphlet cemented his belief that the good guys never win, and now he finally has a chance to make something of himself, just as soon as they kill the Landlady. But Brother Sum has also hired some superpowered assassins of his own to kill the masters from Pigsty Alley.

This is an absolutely bonkers movie. The aesthetic can go from Kung Fu movie to mafia movie to live action Looney Tunes in a heartbeat. I was so uncertain of what to expect that I didn’t figure out who the protagonists were until well after the lengthy battle in Pigsty Alley where the masters revealed themselves. There are so many oversized setpieces that give scenes a Broadway stage show feel.

In addition to the plot not always being laid down in ways that are easy to read, at least for a Western audience member, the movie can be a little overreliant on explaining things through dialogue instead of demonstrating them. Particularly some of the biggest reveals of the finale are said rather than shown, because the world of the movie is so fantastical that the rules it’s governed by aren’t so apparent and sometimes this isn’t addressed until it comes up instead of preparing the audience for it.

The comedy and stylized aesthetic were nothing I could have expected. While the unfocused aspects of it didn’t tell the story well, it did create a feeling of a larger world and illustrated the setting very strongly. None of the final good guys were people who were introduced as heroes, and that might be a purposeful statement. Everything sums to the height of Kung Fu camp while also sustaining some pretty grave stakes.

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