In Kung Fu Hustle, adversaries splatter on billboards, jump to bird-skirting heights, and run after each other with such speed that their legs turn into wheels. Some have their feet flattened to the approximate size and shape of deflated basketballs. One lands facedown after being thrown out a window, only to have his forehead pushed a little farther into the ground by a precisely flung potted plant.
In other words, imagine Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote as humans—with special talent for the martial arts, of course—and you’ll have a good idea of what Kung Fu Hustle is all about. Writer-director-star Stephen Chow’s follow-up to his 2001 Hong Kong hit, Shaolin Soccer (shelved here by Miramax until 2004), the movie is another example of mo lei tau, a genre of comedy Chow is credited with creating. The term translates as “nonsense”—a quality that becomes increasingly evident as Kung Fu Hustle’s relatively straightforward story, about a group of baddies trying to take over a ’40s Chinese shantytown, escalates into a series of battles manic enough to leave Bugs Bunny wishing he’d taken that left turn at Albuquerque.
Chow plays Sing, an incompetent crook who attempts to con the residents of the blighted Pig Sty Alley into believing that he and his tubby sidekick (Kam Tze Chung) are members of the notorious Axe Gang. When they fail miserably, discovering too late that the sorry-looking denizens of the Sty are actually kung-fu masters, the ruckus gets the attention of the actual Axe Gang. Sing, naturally, then tries to convince the mob that he’s worthy of joining it. His sidekick goes his own way, claiming, “It’s tiring being tough!”
It’s tiring to watch, too: Depending on your tolerance for slapstick, the film’s 95 minutes can be either nonstop fun or downright demoralizing. Co-written by Chow, Lola Huo, Chan Man Keung, and Shaolin collaborator Tsang Kan Cheong, Kung Fu is the HK equivalent of The Naked Gun, packed with homages to and parodies of movies ranging from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Kill Bill to, weirdly, The Shining. Even superhero flicks get a nod, with a quote lifted directly from Spider-Man 2 and the Axe Gang’s version of the Bat Signal.
But the real point, of course, is the gag-packed action, hypervividly rendered by cinematographer Poon Hang Sang, visual-effects supervisor Frankie Chung, and fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping. The fights are epic and high-speed, often with one or two underdogs wiping out an army of adversaries, whose bodies fly like missiles or pound deep into the dirt. In one of the more impressive scenes, a harp-playing duo use their instrument to strum ghostly fists and bayonets that strike their opponents. Then there’s the deathly yowl of the film’s most fully developed character, the Landlady (Yuen Qiu). Wearing a housecoat and curlers, and with a smoke dangling from her pursed lips, Pig Sty’s de facto warden need only unleash her “lion’s roar” to send villains airborne and pulverize property into balletically scattering pieces. (“The fat lady can really sing,” Sing remarks. “And she deserves to die.”)
Thing is, the fanciful fighting breaks out every few minutes, so by the time Kung Fu Hustle’s big—and seemingly never-ending—finale takes place, Chow’s furious antics have started to get boring. Though bits of the dialogue are funny (asked whether he’s ever killed anyone, Sing replies, “I’ve thought about it!”) and some of the sight gags are surprisingly subtle (far in the background, a kitty jumps off the roof and ends up a splatter of blood), the filmmakers generally overestimate the value of such humor—not to mention pure cinematic spectacle. You want to see assassins who take on the characteristics of frogs? Check. How about a guy whose wayward shorts reveal a giant portion of ass crack? Done. Sing getting peed on? You got it.
That last one, which immediately follows our young hero’s first attempt at administering an asskicking, is about as close as Kung Fu Hustle gets to real emotion—which is still a requirement of successful filmmaking, even if reality isn’t. Undoubtedly, Chow is the new master of nonsense. But perhaps Looney Tunes sensibilities are better kept to Looney Tunes lengths.
Trapped by the Mormons also depends on a joke that isn’t funny enough to sustain a feature—even one that’s only, ahem, 69 minutes. A remake of a 1922 British propaganda film, this is the first cinematic foray for Cherry Red Productions, the local theater company that—just in case you’re not familiar—describes itself as being “dedicated to smut.” A story about an evil Mormon who brainwashes a young woman and her friends isn’t a surprising choice for the irreverent troupe—after all, company founder and Trapped adapter/director Ian Allen was, nudge nudge, raised in Utah.
Trapped is a largely faithful redo of its predecessor, from its black-and-white cinematography to its scene-by-scene re-creations. Like the original, Allen’s version is silent—and, with quaintly old-fashioned dialogue, played relatively straight. Though the original, which is actually considered a horror movie, has allegedly gathered a cult following because of its campy alarmism, the new Trapped raises the usual question for this sort of thing: Why take a piece of wonderfully unintentional cheesiness and replicate it with tongue now kinda sorta in cheek?
Even Trapped’s retro appearance doesn’t quite work. Obviously shot on digital video, most of the scenes are too crisp to seem old-timey, regardless of the occasional shadows and scratches that were added in postproduction. And though it’s fun to see familiar Cherry Red players such as Monique LaForce on film, no one but big-eyed, ringleted newcomer Emily Riehl-Bedford (as the main damsel in distress, Nora) can pass for a character stuck in the ’20s. Allen’s casting of New York drag king Johnny Kat as Trapped’s she-bitch villain, Isoldi Keane, also fails. Sorry, but dude looks like a dude.
Of course, there are a few unmistakably Cherry Red touches to be enjoyed: a disclaimer that reassures, “No Mormons were harmed in the making of this production”; the random nakedness that’s a staple of the company’s plays; and bits of suddenly lascivious banter that are even funnier when presented on a placard. By the time the film crawls toward its zombie-vampire conclusion, however, the idea of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a fear-instilling cult has lost its entertainment value. Cherry Red followers may appreciate a peek at the crew in whatever form it takes, but here’s hoping Allen & Co. put down the camera and return to what they do best: smutting up the stage.CP