Every year, despite my best efforts, there are a few films I forget to review. Not that you, dear reader, can’t live without my ramblings on any particular cinematic experience, but more that I presume, as always that you, dear reader, don’t actually exist, and this blog is merely my diary of moviegoing experiences. One that my children may one day stumble across and find amusing or fleetingly nostalgic. I don’t find out the film is missing until I later go to link it and realize…it’s not there. (Back in 2010, when I was working three jobs, I just gave up trying to keep up, and so even with far fewer movies in the queue, 2010 is full of holes.)
And so we come to Kung Fu Hustle, which we saw in February, and which I went to link to just now, only to find it missing.
And that cannot stand, man.
Kung Fu Hustle was Steven Chow’s follow-up to his amazing sports-fu comedy Shaolin Soccer, and it essentially perfects the ideas introduced in that film, enough to where you would think it could launch a genre, except it’s too hard an act to follow.
This is the story of a very bad tong that takes over Shanghai in the 1940s and finds itself in trouble when a couple of thug wannabes (Chow and his doughy sidekick) end up causing trouble in a little slum on the outskirts of town. The resultant escalation reveals a number of unexpected super-powered kung-fu masters with comic and tragic consequences.
This is a very broad film. Early on, you’ll see scenes that are literal reimaginings of Wile E Coyote chasing the roadrunner. Later on, there is comically extreme violence, as a man’s head is literally pounded into an ever deepening hole in the floor. (He’s okay, though!) Enlightenment leads to a state akin to that of a superhero—or, if you’re a child of the ’90s, Neo in the Matrix. In fact, Woo-Ping Yuen, one of the stunt coordinators on this film, served the same role for the Matrix trilogy.
It’s an odd experience, going from the absurd to the poetic in a matter of moments. In fact, it’s the very (objective) definition of “uneven”, which is usually a bad thing for a movie. But it all works, even when you think it shouldn’t, and for reasons I can’t really figure out.
There is a kind of fundamental truth underlying the proceedings. Our hero is, as a boy, someone with powerful heroic instincts that the world has taught him will get him nowhere, so he tries really hard to be a thug. But he’s no good at it. He can be an awful jerk and a bully, but he’s not really evil, and misery and misfortune follow him wherever he tries to take the path of villainy. This is a theme in Shaolin Soccer, as well, combined with a very pure sort of love story.
Comedy, action, romance, kung-fu, poetry…it really embodies the best elements of the chop-socky film. You could call it a “cult classic” but it was also very successful (for such a film), taking in over $17M in the US alone, and putting it at #10 on the top foreign film box office list. It may be too steeped in that Chinese cinematic tradition for some, but at the time I saw it in the theater, I had never sat through an entire Hong Kong action flick in my life, and I loved it.
So, you might, too.