Hong Kong director, writer and actor Stephen Chow's latest lunatic, genre-splintering creation, "Kung Fu Hustle," appears certain to unite critics in at least one respect: upon exiting the theater, not one reviewer — or viewer, for that matter — will be able to say what the hell the movie is.
A comedy? Definitely. An action flick? Undoubtedly. A coming-of-age tale? Partly. A surreal carnival ride? Sure thing. Applying such descriptions to "Kung Fu Hustle," however, is about as useful as calling the Grand Canyon a hole in the ground, or Prince an entertainer: mere words fall far short of the reality — especially when that reality is so surreal.
But still, the critics try. Roger Ebert, for instance, devised a verbal formula that attempts to capture the movie in as few words as possible: "A film in which Jackie Chan and Buster Keaton meet Quentin Tarantino and Bugs Bunny." Now, that's not bad — but anyone who has seen the film knows that it would be far more accurate to describe "Kung Fu Hustle" as Christopher Walken and Bruce Lee drinking shots of tequila on a roller coaster while Miss Piggy serenades them with a bugle.
Or James Cagney and Roger Rabbit dancing a tango right through the heart of "Gangs of New York."
Or the Three Stooges and Lucy Liu producing a reality show for the Sci-Fi Channel, with the ghost of Groucho Marx acting as host.
No matter how it's described, something about the movie is appealing to moviegoers; in limited release this past weekend, "Kung Fu Hustle" earned an average of more than $40,000 per cinema. (By comparison, the weekend box office winner, "Sahara," earned about $5,800 per cinema, while "Fever Pitch" earned around $4,000 per. In other words, by one measure, at least, "Kung Fu Hustle" absolutely killed at the box office. It expands to nationwide release on April 22.)
So what can you expect from "Kung Fu Hustle"? Try two gangster wannabes, named Sing and Sidekick, both of whom are actually soft-hearted buffoons; a chain-smoking landlady who can scream loud enough to shatter walls and defeat legions of axe-wielding psychopaths; two assassins playing an instrument — that appears to a cross between a zither and a pedal steel guitar — that launches enormous knives and skeleton warriors from its magical strings; the world's "number-one killer," known as "the Beast," whose preferred attack mode involves inflating his neck like a bullfrog's and blasting off from the ground like a NASA rocket; cobras biting the hero's lips for comedic effect; towering white clouds in the shape of the Buddha; a beautiful mute girl with an intensely emotional attachment to a very old lollipop; and a sequence that might just be the single funniest movie scene of the year thus far, involving Stephen Chow's character repeatedly jabbed by knives.
Martial arts wizard Chow, who has appeared in more than 50 films over the past 15 years, had a modest hit three years ago with the exuberant "Shaolin Soccer" — modest in the U.S., that is; the film broke box-office records across Asia, where Chow is every bit as revered as Jackie Chan, "the other" Hong Kong megastar to whom he's most often compared. In reality, while both are ingenious filmmakers, the two men are as dissimilar as, say, Spielberg and Scorsese: Chan's sunny charisma and almost supernatural inventiveness with even the lowliest prop has little in common with Chow's hyper-kinetic brilliance and "Looney Tunes" sensibility.
Ultimately, though, Chow's work defies analysis, and that's probably its greatest strength. At one of the few movie theaters in the country where "Kung Fu Hustle" played last weekend, the moviegoers who showed up appeared far less interested in dissecting the director's influences or his intentions than they were in just enjoying the show.
"I saw 'Shaolin Soccer,' and liked it a lot," said Ed Kavilanz, a 28-year-old marketing research analyst. "But this was even better. It's just so over the top — you don't know what's coming next. It's a cartoon, but with live actors."
Cheryl-Anne Cummings, an NYU student who had never heard of Stephen Chow before her boyfriend dragged her to the theater on a picture-perfect spring afternoon, seemed a bit stunned by it all. When asked what she thought of the experience, Cummings thought for a while, shaking her head.
"I don't know what the hell I just saw in there," she finally answered, with a laugh. "But I loved it."
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