Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle: Mildly Amusing Martial-Arts Romp

Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, from a screenplay by Mr. Chow, Tsang Kan Cheong, Xin Huo and Chan Man Keung, is difficult for me to evaluate. I know next to nothing about Mr. Chow, even though he’s been appearing in Hong Kong films since 1988, with more than 50 action-comedy performances to his credit that have made him a huge star throughout Asia.

He is credited with creating the “Mo Lei Tau” (“nonsense”) comedy style, based on a Cantonese dialect which, unfortunately, I could discern only dimly through the film’s slangy English subtitles.

When I saw the intriguing coming attractions for Hustle, I imagined the title of my review would be “Busby Berkeley Goes Kung Fu”: the film’s carefully choreographed swivel-hipped mobsters with their outthrust machine guns reminded me of the old Berkeley Gold Digger chorus lines tapping away in a frenzy. But when I saw the film in its entirety, it didn’t quite play out with the facetious rhythms featured in the previews.

According to David Kehr’s amusing interview with Mr. Chow in The New York Times (Arts and Leisure Section, April 3), the filmmaker is entering a new phase in his cinematic adventure courtesy of computer-generated imagery (or C.G.I., as it’s known in the industry). I seem to recall that as recently as Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), the superhuman aerial flights of its female combatants were facilitated by using hidden wires-a venerable technique also used by Bruce Lee in the 1970’s and Jackie Chan in the 1980’s. But since the martial-arts scenes in Crouching Tiger, as well as the Wachowski Brothers’ The Matrix (1999), were staged by Yuen Wo Ping, a connoisseur of C.G.I. and ace choreographer of balletic fight sequences whom Mr. Chow recruited for the same function in Kung Fu Hustle, C.G.I. would seem to have been around longer than I’d thought.

By now it may be obvious that as a film fancier, I’ve never lived or died for the ecstasy provided by martial-arts mayhem. In fact, I could be charged with the imperial presumption of preferring the ritualized violence of westerns to the ritualized violence of “easterns,” though for a time I made exceptions for the samurai ethos exemplified by the films of Kenji Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa.

The problem for me with Kung Fu Hustle-and it sounds strange for me to say this-is that the prolonged martial-arts combat tends to get in the way of a very romantic love story. It’s a story that begins belatedly, in a mid-picture flashback. The hero recalls that, as a little boy, he rebuffed a little girl by refusing her heartfelt gift of a lollipop-a gift that, over the years, magnifies by symbolic expansion into a Buddhist “rosebud” of a second-chance happy ending through a cycle of repentance and rebirth. (You have to see the movie to know exactly what I mean.)

Still, when I thought about Kung Fu Hustle afterward, I could relate to the slum-child memories of the underdog character played by Mr. Chow, even though he didn’t grow up in the film’s historical setting, 1939 Shanghai, a decade before Mao Tse-tung supplanted Chiang Kai-shek (with more than half of that period spent under Japanese occupation).

It is, instead, the time and place of J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun, from which Steven Spielberg made his much-underrated 1987 epic film, from a screenplay by Tom Stoppard. But there are no Japanese occupiers in Kung Fu Hustle, only local predators like the Axe Gang and comical would-be predators like the brash Sing (played by Mr. Chow) and his slow-witted sidekick (Lam Chi Chung), whom Sing patronizes and insults at every opportunity.

Indeed, the entire first act of Kung Fu Hustle is so full of bluster and braggadocio that, burdened as I was by my unfamiliarity with the language and genre, I only slowly began to suspect that the proceedings were supposed to be hilarious. Unfortunately, Mr. Chow is actually too normal-looking to serve as a language-barrier-crossing clown in the vein of Fernandel, Jacques Tati or Alberto Sordi.

If there is one comic original in Kung Fu Hustle, it’s a harridan-like character known simply as “Landlady” (Yuen Qiu), whose lethal, ear-splitting scream can drive whole gangs into terrified submission. She isn’t much kinder to her poor Pig Sty Alley tenants, whom she deprives of water until they pay their rent. Her husband, known simply as “Landlord” (Yuen Wah), swaggers about like the drunken lout he is, but Landlady tolerates him because of his hidden powers as a kung fu master.

Pig Sty Alley itself is inspired by Mr. Chow’s own childhood existence in a crowded Hong Kong slum neighborhood. In such an impoverished place are to be found retired kung fu masters quietly engaged in humble pursuits-at least until their community is threatened by an infestation of violent extortionists known as the Axe Gang.

The gangsters turn out to be no match for a trio of Pig Sty Alley’s honest inhabitants with different areas of kung fu expertise, including iron rings and poles. It must be said that Pig Sty Alley’s brand of populism has no equivalent in today’s individualistically oriented Hollywood action genres.

When Sing is recruited by the Axe Gang to bring them a master killer confined in an insane asylum, he doesn’t realize that the seemingly mild-mannered, middle-aged man he’s releasing from custody is actually “The Beast,” whom Sing will eventually have to defeat before Pig Sty Alley can be made safe.

I suppose that the many times Sing seems abnormally slow on the uptake can be considered a source of amusement for viewers who know the genre better than I do. All I can say is that I never laughed or even smiled while I was watching the movie, even though I’m retroactively amused now that I’ve thought about it.

One of the most bewildering episodes for me in Kung Fu Hustle involves two musically inclined blind gang assassins known only as Harpist No. 1 (Tim Kai Man) and Harpist No. 2 (Hak On Fung). This attempted fusion of music and violence is symptomatic, I suppose, of a certain level of artistic ambition on Mr. Chow’s part. But again, one must be more familiar with the genre than I am to appreciate the effort. The truth is that I haven’t seen nearly enough unimaginative martial-arts movies to respond to Mr. Chow’s bizarre flights of fancy. As for my esteemed colleagues, who have drawn parallels between Mr. Chow and Buster Keaton: I’m sorry, but I don’t see any resemblance.

Spanish Hustle

Pablo Berger’s Torremolinos 73, from his own screenplay, provides a cheerfully amoral fable about an encyclopedia salesman named Alfredo Lopez (Javier Cámara) and his attractive wife Carmen (Candela Peña), who, out of economic necessity, are persuaded by Alfredo’s manipulative boss, Carlos (Juan Diego), to make amateur Super 8 erotic movies in their own home, to be distributed throughout Scandinavia as part of a pseudo-educational “Danish World Encyclopedia of Reproduction.”

To add to the irony of the situation, the film is set in Franco’s puritanical Spain of the early 1970’s. When we first encounter Alfredo, he’s a well-dressed encyclopedia salesman with an earnest demeanor trying to sell encyclopedias of the Spanish Civil War door-to-door, invariably to people who are determined to forget the whole painful subject by slamming the door in his face, with escalating degrees of vehemence. There is more than a touch of absurdism in trying to sell the story of a traumatic war in Spain to its victims and the descendents of its victims. And there is also a universal horror and humor in the plight of door-to-door salesmen facing constant rejection in the natural course of their employment.

Obviously, Alfredo is being set up for a desperate decision on how to escape his daily share of humiliations, particularly since he’s shown resisting Carmen’s entreaties to have a child due to the economic uncertainties of the period. Carlos uses a carrot-and-stick strategy to entice Alfredo and Carmen into the underground international porn industry. The carrot is the big money involved, and the knowledge that the films will never be shown in Spain; the stick is the implied threat of dismissal and the resulting unemployment if Alfredo doesn’t agree to change professions.

After a sleazy “instructional” course in a dingy motel, Alfredo and Carmen embark on a career of making “home movies” for export. But what they’ve overlooked is Carmen’s emergence as a porn star in Scandinavian sex magazines, making her luridly recognizable to the hordes of male Scandinavian tourists in Spain. After one unpleasant encounter with a Danish “fan” in a Madrid department store, Alfredo tells Carlos that he and Carmen want to quit. Carlos persuades Alfredo to continue, first by giving him more money and then by promising him a Danish production crew to make a real movie. Alfredo is at least partially seduced by the prospect of following in the footsteps of Ingmar Bergman, whom he has idolized since The Seventh Seal. As he writes his screenplay, the black-robed figure of Death looms large in Alfredo’s imagination.

For her part, Carmen is anxious to play opposite Danish male star Magnus (Mads Mikkelsen), but here the plot takes a melodramatic turn when a medical examination shows that Alfredo is sterile and Carlos alters Alfredo’s script, putting in a hard-core sex scene between Carmen and Magnus.

Alfredo is enraged and demands that Carmen leave the production. She refuses because of her intense desire to have a child. In the end, Alfredo’s Bergman fantasy wins out over his husbandly outrage, and he ends up “directing” Carmen’s lovemaking with Magnus. The last scene shows Alfredo making a home movie of Carmen and her child by another man without the slightest trace of rueful regret or even emotional ambivalence. I found this a little strange. Still, the film was apparently a big hit in Spain. If so, it seems that Spanish machismo has taken a big hit as well.

Jesus Juice

Jonathan Nossiter’s Mondovino seems to be concerned with the downside of Sideways as it traverses the sun-drenched vineyards of California’s Napa Valley, France, Italy and South America to chronicle the politics, economics and mystique of the wine industry throughout the world. Many reviewers of the film have perceived a raging controversy between the champions of wine with terroir versus the would-be monopolists of the market, particularly the American Mondavi family, who have been accused by the French and Italian growers of destroying the industry’s high standards in the quest for commercial profits.

The film runs 135 minutes and is constantly on the move between continents and wineries, but in all that time I cannot recall the impressively multilingual Mr. Nossiter, a sometime sommelier, taking a stand on the issues raised by the people he interviews-or even clarifying these issues for the lay viewer. The other thing I noticed was the film’s odd (and incessant) zeroing-in on any dogs that happened to be in the vicinity. After the first dozen dogs have hammed it up for Mr. Nossiter’s cameras, I was tempted to call the film Mondo Doggo.

His interviewees are not without wit, charm, technical expertise and possibly even wisdom, but I never fully understood whether they were talking about wines that cost $10 a bottle or those that cost $100 a bottle. The central role in the proceedings is assumed by the supposedly legendary wine critic, Robert Parker. He fascinates me for professional reasons, inasmuch as his power in the wine industry dwarfs even that of The Times’ theater critics over New York’s stages.

There’s a populist reflex in this kind of film that demands you root for the “little guys” in the French terroirs over the jet-setting American consolidators like the Mondavis. I just wish that Mr. Nossiter had intervened more in the interviews to give viewers like me something more to work on than a reflex.