Kung Fu Hustle: Martial-Arts Silly Symphonies
By Fernando F. Croce

Who the hell is Stephen Chow? I ask out of plaintive ignorance, not dismissive presumption, having just stumbled out of his Hung Fu Hustle and still reeling from blissful disorientation. Kinda like sneaking into 8 ˝ without having ever seen a Fellini film. Not that Chow, writer-director-human-hackie-sack, makes claims for the high artistic plateaus, anyway -- his is the mo lei tau technique, dismantling nonsense and proud of it, a character's lips cartoonishly swelling to punctured-tire dimensions following bites from snakes. Still, there's the feel of an artist with a very personal style wrought, if not out of august expressiveness, then at least out of sheer professional longevity: this is Chow's seventh effort as a director, and he's been in Chinese screens since 1988, with Kung Fu Hustle the triple-threat's new attempt into the U.S. market after Miramax fucked up with his previous genre-bender, Shaolin Soccer. Indeed, American ad campaign is leaning heavily on Ebert's tag ("Jackie Chan and Buster Keaton meet Quentin Tarantino and Bugs Bunny"), which would be glibly Hollywoodcentric if Chow himself did not court Western points of reference throughout -- the opening skirmish in 1940s Hong Kong is a transparent Gangs of New York dig, complete with sets of fireworks going off behind hatchet-wielding dandies.

The tuxedoed choppers aren't Chow's gloved revenge on Harvey Scissorhands, but the dreaded Axe Gang, whose leader (Kwok Kwan Chan) breaks into choreographed jigs after mowing down rival criminals. Chow's camera meanwhile is having dances of its own, sketching tenement slum Pig Sty Alley as a nostalgic haven of broad slapstick, a multilayered courtyard for affectionate human-cartoons with such cartoon names as Donut and Bucktooth Jane, presided over by the penny-pinching, slaphappy landlady (Qiu Yuen). In stroll a wandering bumbler (Chow) and his chunky sidekick (Chi Chung Lam), posing as Axe Gang members only to bring about the real villains and kick off a full-on war between the bad-guys and the complex dwellers. Not as unbalanced a match as it sounds, though -- Chow the genre absurdist-satirist is democratically generous with virtuosic zaniness, so that a trio of unimposing tenants suddenly sprouts mystical powers to defend their turf, and the doughy landlady reveals annihilating warrior-mojo underneath the curlers and droopy cigarettes, shaped as ultrasonic shrieks. Elsewhere, when not getting his ass kicked by trolley-riding nerds, Chow comes to realize his true vocation as a kung-fu hero, given the okey-dokey by a cumulus nimbus Buddha.

It should be clear by now that, despite the steady barrage of references (everything from Top Hat to The Shining), Kung Fu Hustle is an insanely unique film. As befits any deconstructionist kung-fu spoof worth its salt, the fight sequences are like MGM musical numbers, no less stylized, just as voluminous -- blades shooting out of malefic harp-strumming, a frail, henpeck hubby (Wah Yuen) literally mopping the floor with opponents, bodies and weapons molded via breathless CGI morphing. Chow keeps the spirits high and the humor low, gags about runny noses and asscracks, with even a Road Runner bit snuck in: the hapless hero chased by the landlady in a Chuck Jones desert highway, with the knife blades stuck in his limbs as rearview mirrors. The frenetic pratfalling mercilessly draws the piss out of the genre, yet the film is huge-hearted, a tribute to community, the Pig Sty Alley underdogs pointing to a cultural heritage vanished in the brassy neon of the big city. In fact, the film's most memorable warriors are middle-aged remains from the old Shaw Bros. era, and my favorite showstopper is a floor-cracking casino rumble between "the Beast" (Siu Lung Leng) and the landlady-landlord magical duo. It's no accident that, amid the wacky demolition, the "world's top killer" has his slippers on, and the old-school fighters are decked in tacky tourist garb.

*

Don't Move could have used some of Chow's goofiness, especially since a sense of absurdity runs very near the surface of Sergio Castellitto's hothouse melodrama. No such luck -- the film trudges on ponderously, humorlessly, hoping to get by on accumulated meta-"insights" and Penélope Cruz's enthusiastic degradation. Cruz's path is the art-house version of the Oscar-plated route of Berry, Theron and Swank, of a fine-boned glamour puss dowded up (down?) into unappetizing working-class slag for the benefit of a panting camera. The camera is, of course Castellitto's, who kicks things off with a celestially overhead shot but egotistically keeps the point-of-view in the first-person, as the original source was probably meant to be delivered -- the novel is by Margaret Mazzantini, the director's wife. Castellitto is also the main character, a successful surgeon tending vigil to his teenage daughter following a nasty motorcycle spill; as the wait agonizes on, pieces from a past affair come together in the doctor's memory, when a car stall, lurid afternoon heat and vodka lubrication collided into the rape of a dilapidated slattern (Cruz, tricked out with gapped teeth and unwashed hair). "Ho violentato una donna," he writes on the sand of his beachfront palace back home, but his hot wife (Claudia Gerini) just strolls past it, too concerned with her swim to notice.

Castellitto casting himself brings to mind the self-concern of fellow Italian ruminator Nanni Moretti, who in The Son's Room mined a not dissimilar middle-age male angst, though, for their basically comic, baggy-meek dispositions, Castellitto sports a far less touchy-feely penchant for pissing on flowerpots and fucking women from behind. It's no wonder, then, that the doc is soon back at Cruz's flat for some more grimy boffing, especially since her gum-chewing vulgarity seems almost thankful for the attentive mauling. Still, something like love flowers between the two, with Cruz's smeared vulnerability and Castellitto's muted bourgeois turmoil beginning to congeal together. It's not meant to be, however, as simultaneous wife-mistress pregnancies throw a wrench into the plot, and the rest of the film limps toward the finish line in Betty Blue shouting-slamming fits, philosophy tossed in for bad measure (flashbacks detailing a father's pasta-tossing frustration or a daughter's post-judo contest tantrum). "God will never forgive us," Cruz says to Castellitto, and, despite the jaundiced reply ("God doesn't exist, amore mio"), there are plenty of divine salvation strains, crooked crucifixes on the wall, and a pathetic roadside saint who, once redemptive duties are up, can just be left behind like a red high-heeled pump. At least Glen Close's Fatal Attraction harpy just would not allow herself to be ignored.


Reviewed May 5, 2005.

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