How fondly I remember those halcyon days of the early 1990s, when – thanks to John Woo's The Killer – Hong Kong cinema had a surge of popularity here in the US. It wasn't uncommon to find HK movies playing in local cinemas or even having their own mini-festivals. Then the DVD arrived, and for Chinese and American fans alike, it became more sensible to simply buy the video for less than the cost of two movie tickets. As a result, not being much of a DVD-watcher myself, I missed out on the last ten years of Hong Kong cinema, Wong Kar Wai notwithstanding. (The one film I did catch on DVD – Expect the Unexpected – is terrific.)
So when Kung Fu Hustle came to American theaters, mere months after its smash success in Hong Kong, I rushed out to see it. The verdict? Well, despite huge advances in computer-aided visual effects, I fear not much has changed over the last decade for the martial arts comedy. You get the same mixed bag of juvenile humor, witty character performances, and occasionally superb effects-laden fight scenes, with a sometimes confusing storyline and assorted ridiculousness.
The plot of Kung Fu Hustle, put as simply as possible, is about a small town in a sorta-1930s China overrun by bloodthirsty gangsters, and the humble locals who turn out to be the butt-kicking Shaolin masters that save the town. I won't ruin anybody's fun by revealing the surprise heroes, as that's the bulk of the (thin) charm that the film draws upon.
Writer/director/producer/star Stephen Chow, now a bigger box office draw in his native Hong Kong than Jackie Chan, employs plenty of sight gags – some side-splittingly funny, others weak – and he's picked an eclectic mix of veterans and neophytes for his cast (Qiu Yuen as the belligerent landlady being the most inspired choice, especially as this is her first role since 1985!). However, the film never amounts to anything more than an hour and a half of rampant silliness. Despite enjoying myself sporadically, I didn't find much more here than in the average Bugs Bunny cartoon – and Bugs Bunny cartoons only go on for seven minutes.