Shanghai, China, the 1930s. The Axe Gang is taking over the town but is not interested in the poor slums. This leaves the residents of Pig Sty Alley to deal with their overbearing Landlady. One day, Sing (Stephen Chow) and his sidekick, walk into the Alley and attempt to blackmail people there. When the residents of the tenement stand up to fight him, he reveals that he is part of the Axe Gang and signals for help. Gang members show up and the landlady and the tenement residents fight them off. The Axe Gang realizes that they have been called to help someone who is not a part of the gang, but Sing is desperate to become a member. Now that the gang and the residents of Pig Sty Alley have met, they can’t back down from each other, fighting until one group is victorious. The leader of the Axe Gang realizes that he will not be able to fight them alone and brings in The Beast.
“Kung Fu Hustle”, written and directed by the star, Stephen Chow, is a fun, exhilarating, fast-paced film, borrowing elements from and paying homage to many other genres. Chow is clearly a filmmaker who loves films; he seems like a kid in a candy store. Now that he can make a film, how many different types of things can he get into the story? “Hustle” combines all of these elements in a way that is fresh and exciting.
The opening sequence is a homage to police interrogation films and westerns. When the opposing sides face off on a dusty road, we are transported from Shanghai to the Wild West. The sky turns magenta and everybody faces off, preparing for a classic gun fight. This scene is very theatrical, comical and sets the tone for the remainder of the film. Of course, we aren’t in the Old West and the leader of the Axe Gang uses an axe to prove his point and keep us firmly rooted in the world of kung-fu.
The story is a framework for Chow to throw each and every trick in the book at the audience. After he introduces the Axe Gang, we then meet the residents of Pig Sty Alley. Landlord walks through the shops, receiving tributes and terrorizing everyone in a jovial way. Until he meets up with his wife, Landlady, who terrorizes her husband. Everyone in the Alley appears perfectly normal until Sing shows up.
When the two groups meet, we learn that people have special skills that they hesitate to use, unless absolutely necessary. They will do anything to protect their lives and friends. This leads to a series of amusing, entertaining fights, in which their skills are comically enhanced by special effects. Chow deftly blends all of these elements together making them appear somehow natural. Amazing considering all of the special effects, cartoon style action and over the top acting. Once we have accepted that these things can happen in this universe, we can accept the behavior as it becomes more cartoonish and more outlandish.
The story, while slight, is effective at creating a character that we can root for. Chow’s Sing is just a guy looking to join the Axe Gang, but as he witnesses their brutality, he seems more drawn to the people of Pig Sty Alley. He realizes that their efforts to use their powers, only when absolutely necessary, to defend themselves, is the more responsible course of action. Throughout the film, we see glimpses of a pivotal moment in his childhood; he saves a deaf mute girl from a bunch of bullies and buys a book about kung-fu from a street beggar. Later, we learn that Sing may be the Chosen One. To live up to this prophecy, he has to make some changes in his life.
All of these over-the-top, disparate elements combined together would normally create a mess of a film. In “Hustle”, they come together to create a fun, enjoyable film that will hopefully spur filmmakers to come up with more creative ways to tell a story.