Kung Fu Hustle is such a jumble that it doesn’t seem possible the film should even work. Is it a love story? A tale of gang warfare? A comedy? An action film? A story of one man’s ascent to his highest potential? Well, it’s all of those things and, to its credit, the film never really slows down long enough to show you the seams that keep all those disparate elements together.
Set in Shanghai in 1940, Hustle tells the story of Sing, a small-time hustler with dreams of grandeur who accidentally starts a war between the vicious Axe Gang and the residents of a slum called Pig Sty Alley. What should be over very quickly turns out to be pretty complicated: when the Axe Gang come to the Alley to wreak havoc, they run into three reticent Kung Fu Masters. The tailor (Chiu Chi Ling), the Coolie (Xing Yu), and a baker named Donut (Dong Zhi Hua) all come from different schools, and the gradual introduction of each style ramps up the film’s first major fight scene.
All landladies wear rollers.
It’s not long before the Axe Gang, with their tails between their legs, hire talented assassins—first a pair of deadly musicians, and then a killer known only as the Beast—to do their dirty work for them. While all this is going on, Sing is coming to terms with his true nature, becoming a kung fu master known as the One. There’s plenty of humor and the fight scenes are, above all else, graceful and imaginative.
It’s a film rich in allusions and references, so much so that it’s tempting to call Chow Hong Kong cinema’s answer to Quentin Tarantino. The look of Pig Sty Alley is based on a Chinese TV Show (and later Shaw Brothers filme) called House of the 72 Tenants, a chase between the Landlady and Sing turns into a tribute to Coyote & Roadrunner cartoons, and Sing even has a blood-drenched vision straight out of The Shining. On a more subtle level, many characters are named after characters in famous kung fu books and movies of the past.
Gnarly 'tache, dude.
In the film’s neatest nod to the past, though, many of the characters are played by actors from earlier eras of Hong Kong film, some of whom hadn’t been in front of a camera in decades. The Landlord is played by Yuen Wah, most famous for his roles in Eastern Condors and Dragons Forever, and for his work as Bruce Lee’s double. Yuen Qiu’s scowling, chain-smoking Landlady marks her first appearance since she played a teenager in 1974’s James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun. Leung Siu Lung, who plays the Beast, hadn’t been seen on screen since the ‘80s. Choreographer Yuen Woo Ping and two other Hong Kong directors also show up in minor roles.
Knowing that isn’t necessary to enjoy Kung Fu Hustle‘s action, though. We’re used to seeing people doing impossible things courtesy of wires and computers, but several sequences in Kung Fu Hustle are notable even by those standards. The initial battle in Pig Sty Alley (choreographed by Sammo Hung, before he dropped out for health reasons) is a visual lesson in each master’s style and also shows these middle-aged men moving with surprising grace and power. A later battle in the Axe Gang’s headquarters involving the Landlord, the Landlady, and the Beast—drawn up by Yuen Woo Ping, who replaced Hung—is a mixture of cartoonish humor and raw power. By the time we get to the final showdown between the Beast, the One, and countless Axe Gang members, we’re practically drunk on kung fu fun—and it’s a good feeling.
Our hero battling the axe gang
It’s hard to watch Kung Fu Hustle without letting a smile creep onto your face. Whether it’s from the extravagant characters or the action sequences, there’s a love of movies and of kung fu evident in this film, and it’s pretty infectious.