In 2001 Stephen Chow's Shaolin Soccer hit big time pay-dirt at the box office in its native Hong Kong and despite the best efforts of Miramax, even managed to build a very solid cult following on American shores (no easy task for an Asian comedy film). The film set box office records that year and became the highest grossing Hong Kong film to be made in Hong Kong – a pretty significant accomplishment. How would Chow top that? Kung Fu Hustle, that's how.
The film is set in the 1930s and revolves around Sing (Chow), a small time thief and trouble maker who really wants to move up the ladder in the criminal world by joining up with a gang. Sing's a firm believer in the old motto that 'good guys finish last' and he figured that in order to make it, you've got to be willing to take advantage of others and do what you have to do to come out on top.
Sing moves into a small slum of a town pretending to be a member of the notorious and much feared 'Axe Gang' who control most of the criminal operations in the area. Once he arrives and starts poking his nose in where it doesn't belong, however, he finds out that there's more to this slum than he first thought – three powerful kung fu masters are using it as their secret hide out. To complicate things further for Sing, a few legitimate members of the Axe Gang show up to help him out with a few jobs but they're soon put in their place by the aforementioned kung fu masters.
Unfortunately for the three masters of the martial arts, the Axe Gang doesn't take a beating lying down and they firmly believe that revenge is a dish best served cold. They send in some more men to take the three warriors down no matter what the cost, turning the once quiet neighborhood into a veritable war zone with Sing caught in the middle.
Kung Fu Hustle takes the insane martial arts antics that we saw in Shaolin Soccer and cranks them up to even more insane, and hilarious, levels of fun. The films plays out like an ultra violent cartoon – everything in the film is completely exaggerated and over the top, and realism is thrown completely out the door. Those looking for the intensity of the fight scenes in something like Ong Bak will be disappointed but anyone who can take their martial arts movies a little less seriously and appreciate some jabs that poke some truly loving fun at the genre should find no small amount of affection for Chow's latest film. While the fight scenes aren't exactly realistic, that doesn't mean that the filmmaker's didn't take a great deal of care in bringing them to life in the film. The choreography is great and the direction (all handled by Chow save for two scenes done by Sammo Hung!) and cinematography does an excellent job of capturing all of the humor and action packed into the film.
As someone who normally detests the use of CGI over real, organic effects or wirework, I was a little disheartened to see so much of it used in the movie but to be honest, I'm not sure how else some of these effects could have been pulled off and I will give credit where credit is due – the computer generated effects in this movie look excellent. Often times CGI can very easily pull you out of the movie but thankfully in this comic book/cartoon world, they actually fit and don't feel out of place at all.
Now that all the praise is out of the way, let me complain for a minute. For whatever reason, Sony Pictures has decided to release the American theatrical cut of the film onto DVD. What's the big deal, you ask? Well, the US cut removes most of the blood from the fight scenes, which lessens their impact, and it also removes a 'turd' from another scene that ruins a joke. Why Sony decided in this is anyone's guess, as none of this material would have cost the film it's R-Rating, but it is missing and that's just plain lame. While this doesn't really ruin the tone of the film as the cuts are apparently pretty minor, it is yet another example of a major studio monkeying with a foreign film for no apparent reason.
The film also suffers from a rather plodding romantic subplot that kinda-sorta ties up in the end but not really. It just seems like it was tacked on so that the film would have a romantic element to it, not because it was particularly important to the storyline at all.
Overall though, Kung Fu Hustle is pure, unadulterated fun. The laughs don't come as fast and funny as they do in Shaolin Soccer the action scenes are fantastic and the story moves along at a nice pace. Stephen Chow has got to be one of the most genuinely likeable guys in the Hong Kong film industry right now and his charisma goes a long way towards making this one a winner.
Kung Fu Hustle is the recipient of a very nice 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that presents the film in its original theatrical aspect ratio. Black levels stay strong and deep throughout the film, print damage is pretty much a non-issue aside from a little bit of healthy looking film grain here and there, and edge enhancement, while present, isn't a big problem. There is some noticeable line shimmering in a few scenes but the good definitely out weighs the bad here as the colors look fantastic, as do the flesh tones. There's a surprisingly high level of detail present in both the foreground and the background of the image and overall there's really very little to complain about in terms of the visuals on this DVD.
You've got your choice of watching the film in its original Cantonese language in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound, in a dubbed English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track, or in a dubbed French Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track. Subtitles are optional in English or French and an English closed captioning option is also available for the hard of hearing.
As you might expect, this is a very aggressive sound mix and much of it is quite exaggerated and over the top. With that in mind, the Cantonese 5.1 Surround Sound mix handles things very nicely, throwing all manner of sound effects and battle noises at you from various directions during the fight scenes and delivering crystal clear dialogue during the quieter moments of the film (of which there are few). The English subtitles are clean, clear and easy to read and didn't contain any noticeable typographical errors. As far as the English dub goes, avoid it unless you've got a serious aversion to subtitles for some reason. Much of the dubbing hurts the film in that it's too cornball for its own good. I've certainly heard worse English dubs on Asian films than this, but watching the film in its original language where the lip movements match what's being said by those who are saying it does make a big difference and the humor seems to work a little better in Cantonese than in Chinese.
First up on our trip through extra features land is a full length commentary track in Cantonese with English subtitles from Stephen Chow who is joined by Lam Tze Chung (who played Bone), Tin Kai Man (the 'Axe Gang Advisor), and Chan Kwok Kwun (who played Brother Sum). Chow does the bulk of the talking, which makes sense seeing as this film was more or less his baby but the other three members have got some interesting things to add from time to time normally when their characters are on screen. The track is pretty much scene specific though it does wander off on tangents periodically. There's a nice sense of camaraderie between the participants that makes this one fun. Chow goes into some background on how some Triad activity gave him some ideas for the film and its characters and he also talks about many of the characters' motivations. Oddly enough, he talks about how the audience applauded during the 'red underpants' scene when the movie opened in Hong Kong, but he also details some of the sets and locations that were made for the film and he supplies some fun anecdotes about the people that worked with him during the shoot. There isn't a lot of detail on post production and the commentary doesn't really get too technical but it's a fun listen for fans and it is a worthwhile extra feature.
Up next is Behind The Scenes Of Kung Fu Hustle which is a made for TV special that was shown in Hong Kong around the time of the film's theatrical release. This documentary on the making of the film runs just over forty minutes. It's presented in Cantonese with English subtitles and it features not only a wealth of behind the scenes and on location footage of the film being made but also plenty of interviews with most of the people who appear on camera and a few who worked behind the scenes. Chow, clad in a slick British racing cap, talks about how he wanted his film to be about those times in life where it's hard to do the right thing, which pretty much sums up where his character was coming from in the film. Tsang Kan Cheong, who co-wrote the film with Chow, talks about how chaotic it could get on set sometimes with so much going on, and Chow discusses how it was to work with some less experienced actors during the making of the film and how it made it a different movie making experience for him. This documentary is spiced up with some interesting little trivia bits here and there that play out like a multiple choice questionnaire for the viewer that add a bit of fun to the proceedings. The segments on the fight choreography and the CGI scenes are quite interesting from a technical perspective and the bits on how the score was composed are also pretty keen. All in all, this is a very comprehensive look at the making of the film that plays out like much more than your average 'talking head' promo piece. It actually informs you about the making of the movie, rather than just trying to sell you on it.
Following the documentary are two Deleted Scenes. The first one is called Pig Sty Community Meeting and it is extended version of the scene where the members of the slum discuss the merits of being a kung fu master with Landlord and Landlady and it runs just shy of two minutes. The second deleted scene is called Meeting Brother Sum and it is an extended version of the scene where Chow gets inducted into the Axe Gang. He's given his pick of girls and introduced to a few gang members, but when he's asked to choose a lady, all he can see is the girl from his past. This scene is also just shy of two minutes in length. The quality of these two scenes isn't on par with the video quality of the feature itself and it looks like it might have been taken from a work print source, but it's all perfectly watchable and English subtitles are supplied.
Moving right along we find a feature called Ric Meyers Interviews Stephen Chow in which the writer for Asian Cult Cinema magazine spends a half an hour on camera with Chow discussing his career. Chow gives some details on his rise to fame in Hong Kong as well as the influence that some older Shaw Brothers martial arts films had on Kung Fu Hustle. This is a pretty interesting interview and although it's conducted in English, which isn't Chow's native tongue, the language barrier doesn't pose too much of a problem (the one or two times that it does there's an interpreter on hand to sort things out). Meyer's mentions how happy he was that Chow didn't use a hip hop soundtrack on the film, Chow counters that with the fact that he did try that, he just wasn't happy with the results, which leads into an interesting discussion on the tone of the film. Chow comes across as very amicable in the film, very gracious to be talking about his work with Meyers for the audience, and this interview is an excellent companion piece to the commentary and documentary supplied on this disc as it covers some ground that those two segments did not.
After that we're treated to a series of Outtakes And Bloopers. Clocking at a little less than five minutes in length, these are mostly just flubs that happened on set while the camera is rolling. They're mildly amusing and worth watching once but there isn't anything all that important contained herein. Still, it's nice to see them and this material is further proof of Chow's good natured sense of humor.
Rounding out the extra features are a decent sized Poster Gallery, a wealth of trailers and promotional spots for Kung Fu Hustle and a batch of trailers for other Sony DVD releases.
The highest grossing Hong Kong film of all time (at least in its native land) comes to Region One DVD in grand style thanks to Sony. The movie looks great and sounds great and the extra features are plentiful and more importantly they're quite interesting and a lot of fun. Stephen Chow may not be for all tastes and some of the humor will probably be lost on North American audiences but there's enough to love about Kung Fu Hustle to slap this one with the ol' Recommended stamp. If it hadn't been for the completely unnecessary cuts to the film, it would have ranked even higher.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.