I've been a fan of Chinese action Kung Fu movies for something around a half to two thirds of my life, ever since Channel 4 started showing classic Jackie Chan movies like 'A' Gai Wak (Project A), Long Xiong Hu Di (Armour of God), Se Ying Diu Sau (Snake in the Eagle's Shadow) and my personal favourite Kuai can che (Wheels on Meals). But of all the various martial arts movies I've watched over the years it's Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle which holds the (somewhat dubious) distinction of being the only movie more gripping than going for a pee.
Now that's a title which probably needs a little explanation; unfortunately the story isn't a gripping or exciting as the movie is. The short version is as follows, I went to watch the movie with several friends - including Snark and Fury (if I recall correctly, at the least I was sat next to his housemate of the time); and around twenty or thirty minutes into the movie the soft drink I'd consumed while watching the previews (side question: Do you also consume most of your snacks before the movie actually starts?) started to wreak it's vengeance on me. Normally if this happens I'll either pause (when at home) or wait for a lull period in the film (like a romantic scene or some extended talking/extrapolation) and nip out quickly. The problem here was that at no point did I find a spot where I wanted to walk away, I didn't want to miss a single moment of the movie - so for the remaining hour I had to exercise an iron will and banish the thought from my mind. The movie was entertaining and exciting enough that this was possible and it was only when the credits started that I had to run out of there at high speed, quite literally jumping over a few of the seats and the stairs to get out as fast as I could. The comment of 'There's someone who really needs the loo.' following after me.
To this day I can't exactly put my finger on what it is about Kung Fu Hustle which appeals so much, I suspect it's due to the sharp contrast it portrays when placed alongside the other style of kung fu movie which was in ascendancy at around that time, movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Accomplished and beautiful movies with spectacular fights and wire play, but lacking in that sense of fun and wit that first drew me to those Jackie Chan movies years back.
Kung Fu Hustle is nominally set in 1940's Shanghai, but it's not a semi-realistic adaptation of a traditional Chinese legend (like the Once Upon A Time in China series), instead it's an energetic and fast paced story which borrows and parodies elements from many other films and genres. Including, but not limited to The Matrix, Spider-man, Looney Toons cartoons and more. While it's definitely a member of the kung fu action comedy house, it also provides a story with heart and soul.
Sing (Stephen Chow - Writer, Producer) is a down and out street punk, surviving with his friend Donut (Zhi Hua Dong) by grifting hardworking peasantry by pretending to be members of the infamous and dangerous Axe Gang who have recently risen to ascendancy in the city and now control most of it. One day they attempt their special brand of con artistry in a low rent set of tenaments called 'Pig Sty Alley' and the resulting debacle sets up a series of events. Events that gradually escalate until the lines are clearly drawn between the inhabitants of the alley itself (who just happen to have some Kung Fu masters living there) on one side and the Axe Gang. Sing spins out of control through all of this, torn between his basically good nature and his desire to be a genuine bad ass criminal.
Eventually the Axe Gang turn towards increasingly dangerous kung fu masters in the hope to crush and defeat the masters of Pig Sty Alley and an arms race of a kind breaks out. Until the most dangerous master of them all, a man known only as The Beast, is released from the asylum in which he is kept by Sing (acting under the orders of the Axe Gang).
The only one who could possibly beat him and save would be a one in a million natural born kung fu master, 'The One' as referred to in a pastiche of The Matrix, and the final climatic series of fights result in some incredible moments of martial art skill mixed with wire play and CGI.
It's not like Kung Fu Hustle is a clever movie as such, but it has a real charm and wit to it which I enjoy immensely. It feels like the spiritual sucessor to those 1980s martial arts movies, but updated to take advantage of modern technology. The story as well feels like an evolution (or perhaps a parody) of the style used in the afformentioned movies; it's very fast paced, filled with convienient moments and plot holes but it just doesn't matter. The whole is just complete, unadulterated fun - high action, comedy and even a little romance thrown in to boot. It's my favourite Stephen Chow movie and one of my top martial art films as well.
All of which leaves me somewhat excited about Kung Fu Hustle 2.