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 town - mere months after its smash success in Hong Kong - and was actually playing in theatres, 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 with apparently only one other film to her name, a James Bond outing from 1974!). 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.