The whole point of the Jim Carrey movie The Mask is the idea of using CGI to combine a pretty standard and amiable zero-to-hero comedy with the antic, absurdist slapstick of Bugs Bunny cartoons. Stephen Chow’s 2004 movie Kung Fu Hustle came a decade after The Mask and from a different side of the world, but the movie does something pretty similar, just switching out the amiable-comedy stuff for the setting and structure of an old-school Shaw Brothers martial arts movie. The two movies are really pretty similar in terms of tone, except the The Mask is basically a kids’ movie. Kung Fu Hustle’s opening scene has a gang leader telling a woman that he doesn’t kill women, then waiting until she turns her back and blowing a shotgun hole in her. Hong Kong movies are different.
Stephen Chow had been the most popular star in Hong Kong comedies for years before he made Kung Fu Hustle, and the movie is a sort of extended tribute to the kung fu movies he grew up watching. Shaolin Soccer, his previous movie, had played around with those tropes, too, but Kung Fu Hustle was a full-on cover version, albeit one that nobody else in the world would’ve made. Chow first got martial arts legend and frequent Jackie Chan co-star Sammo Hung to choreograph all his movie’s fights, and when an exhausted Hung quit after a little while, he got Yuen Po-Wing, the Hong Kong veteran who’d moved onto Hollywood movies like The Matrix and Kill Bill, to replace him. He filled the cast up with retired figures from Hong Kong cinema’s past, including Bruce Leung, one of the many fake Bruce Lees who rose up to fill the void that the real Lee left when he died. Chow took this shit seriously.
At the same time, Kung Fu Hustle is absolutely not a serious movie in any way. It is goofy as hell. Chow is the star and director, and he’s also a co-writer and co-producer, so he clearly had the leeway to do whatever he wanted when he was making it. And he wanted to do some ridiculous things. Kung Fu Hustle is packed with computer effects, and they never make even the slightest attempt to look real. People run in place for a few seconds before becoming speeding blurs. People’s feet get crushed and assume pancake form. Cobras bite Chow on the mouth, and his lips turn into gigantic pendulous things. And even without the cartoonish effects, this is some crazily broad comedy: A slimy landlord who hits on every girl in his tenement building, a hairdresser whose ass crack is always showing, a stereotypical flouncing gay character who also happens to be a kung-fu master.
That last juxtaposition is also key to the movie’s appeal. Early on, Chow introduces all these stock characters, stick-figure caricatures that you’ll recognize even if you’ve only seen a couple of martial arts movies. And then he twists them. Even the most minor characters have moments where they get to transcend their types. And a deeply implausible number of the movie’s characters turn out to be really, really good at kung fu. This movie’s world is one where martial arts masters are around every corner, and most of them are perfectly content to do menial everyday jobs and never let anyone know how good they are at fighting unless, say, an axe-wielding criminal gang happens to wander into the neighborhood and start threatening to set families on fire.
The movie’s plot is dense and convoluted, and it probably has too many characters. But at it’s core, it’s pretty simple. There’s this gang, the Axe Gang, who runs the entire city and fucks up everyone in it. But after an unfortunate accident, they happen upon this deeply shitty and poor tenement called Pig Sty Alley. And when they try raising hell there, they learn that a few of the tenants there happen to be legendary fighters. So they spend the entire movie doing whatever they can to crush the one building. Meanwhile, Chow himself plays a pathetic failed con-man who consistently yaps about how great his kung fu is. He keeps getting his ass kicked. It’s fun.
From what I understand, there is a ton of shit I don’t get about Kung Fu Hustle, and you probably won’t get it either. If you don’t speak Cantonese and have a deep love and knowledge of ‘70s martial art movies, a whole lot of what Chow is doing will fly right over your head. Apparently, his comedy is heavy on wordplay, and the translators who try throwing English puns into the subtitles aren’t helping anything. And it’s also a heavily referential movie; the quotes, visual and otherwise, from The Shining and Spider-Man are so basic that there’s no way you’re not getting them. But if you’re not familiar with, say, the 1973 Shaw Brothers movie The House of 72 Tenants too, you’re most likely not going to get the full effect. Don’t let that stop you from watching the movie.
There are stumbling blocks to the movie, of course. There’s the lost-in-translation stuff. If loud and broad slapstick comedy is not your thing, you’re going to have to grit your teeth through some of this. Also, this is a movie where the emotional climax comes with a flashback to the movie’s hero, as a kid, trying to help someone and then getting pissed on by a mob of bullies. You get to see the gang piss on him a couple of times. It’s rough.
But the movie works anyway because the comedy is so absurd and fast-paced that you stop rolling your eyes and eventually just give into it. It starts out insane, and then the insanity escalates to the point where it just steamrolls your ability to resist. And just like Shaun of the Dead has a pretty decent zombie movie underneath all its comedy, this is a pretty decent kung fu movie underneath all the silliness. Chow isn’t a lifelong martial artist, but he looks great fighting a horde of black-suited Axe Gang members. (That fight scene explicitly recalls the Matrix Reloaded scene where Neo fights all the Agent Smiths, but these are actual stuntmen and not CGI creations.) The fights go over-the-top with the CGI effects, but there are always a few shots of crisp, clean kicks and counters in there, as well. And there’s an underlying theme about discovering your own goodness, about gaining strength from it, that resonates.
There’s just never been another movie like Kung Fu Hustle. And it’s hard to imagine that there will be again, even though it was a huge hit in Hong Kong and in China and even did pretty well in its American release. You’d think the next step for Chow would be to come to America and make something. It almost happened: For a while, he was all set to direct and play Kato in Seth Rogen’s Green Hornet movie. (It’s probably a good thing that never happened. That movie was pretty bad, and Chow’s antic giddiness is so far removed from Rogen’s doofy laconic style that I can’t imagine anything other than a styles clash of historical proportions.) Instead, Chow stayed in Hong Kong and kept making hits. Maybe one of these days, he’ll get around to making the Kung Fu Hustle sequel he was talking about for a while. Until then, this movie stands as a glorious anomaly, the only one of its kind.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn’t have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying “fuck it” and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we’ll highlight a new one. You can read previous installments over here.