Proving unfortunately once again that Asian comedy has a difficult time crossing over with mainstream American audiences, Stephen Chow's martial arts parody Kung Fu Hustle set box office records in its native Hong Kong but fizzled badly in the U.S., despite an aggressive theatrical push from distributor Sony Pictures Classics. The reasons for that are open to speculation. Chow's film employs very broad slapstick humor based on familiar Western touchstones like Looney Tunes cartoons, Hollywood musicals, and famous action blockbusters, but mixes it with some particularly crude gags and hard violence that earned the picture an R rating. Was it too much of a tonal disconnect? Perhaps American audiences by and large just don't understand the Chinese sense of humor. Or maybe Sony simply set their expectations too high by opening the movie in wide release when it might have done better in a limited platform rollout. Their misleading ad campaign deliberately tried to disguise the fact that this is a foreign language production, but obviously didn't fool the type of audience scared away by subtitles. In any case, the movie now has a second chance in the more forgiving waters of home video.
Set in a vaguely 1930s era inspired more by old movies than by historical accuracy, Kung Fu Hustle stars Chow himself as Sing, a down-on-his-luck drifter and lousy excuse for a con artist who notices that bad guys tend to make the most money and get girls easily. Determined to ingratiate himself with the notorious Axe Gang, Sing inadvertently sets off a war in Pig Sty Alley, a slum where the colorful assortment of goofy residents turn out to have surprising fortitude and kung-fu super powers. The effeminate tailor has exceptional strength, the meek noodle shop owner demonstrates superb weapons prowess, and the shrill landlady can run fast as the wind and bellow a roar that will knock a man backwards. The Axe Gang doesn't take well to being upstaged by peasants, and send their most dangerous supernatural assassins to raze the entire area. Caught in the middle of all this is the bumbling Sing, torn between his desire for the superficial gratifications the gang can offer him and the growing awareness of his own latent kung-fu talents, which compel him to fight for the side of good. As much as he thinks he wants to be a bad guy, Sing can't escape his destiny as a hero.
The movie's comedy is very silly and cartoonish, especially the exaggerated acting and intentionally ridiculous CGI visual effects that send characters speeding along like the Road Runner or performing outlandish high-flying Wuxia moves (choreographed by Yuen Wo-Ping and Sammo Hung). Sight gags spoof everything from Bruce Lee and Crouching Tiger to The Shining and The Matrix. Sets look as much like soundstages and studio back lots as possible, and there's even a big dance number at the beginning. Yet the movie is more than just a scattershot farce. It has a real story with heart, and characters who grow endearing. It's crazy, inventive, and very funny. The pacing drags a little in the middle and the finale indulges in overwrought spectacle, but the movie's best qualities can be easily appreciated whether you catch all the cultural references or not. This Hustle is no cheat.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Kung Fu Hustle debuts on the Blu-ray format courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The disc contains only the U.S. theatrical cut of the film, which digitally erases or removes several shots found in the original Hong Kong version. Most of the edited bits involve blood during the fight scenes, and one implies that a character has had a bowel movement. None of the changes significantly hurt the movie's entertainment value, but the footage was harmless and its omission is annoying.
Blu-ray discs are only playable in a compatible Blu-ray player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in an HD DVD player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Kung Fu Hustle Blu-ray is encoded in High Definition 1080p format using MPEG2 compression on a single-layer 25 gb disc. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.40:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.
All things considered the movie looks pretty good, if not without some flaws. The image is a bit on the soft side with only a fair sense of detail, and like all Sony discs has problems with edge enhancement artifacts. Black levels start out poorly but get better as the film progresses, though there's a weak sense of shadow detail in the darkest scenes. Colors look nice, but the black & white flashback sequences have a greenish gray scale. Still, even despite these issues, by the end of the movie my impressions were more favorable than not.
The Kung Fu Hustle Blu-ray disc is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over a Blu-ray player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's Cantonese language soundtrack is provided only in uncompressed PCM 5.1 format. There are standard Dolby Digital options on the disc for the English and French dub tracks, but not the original language. This will be problematic for viewers who rely on getting their 5.1 audio through a Toslink or coaxial digital connection, because Blu-ray players downconvert PCM tracks to 2-channel stereo over the S/PDIF connection. If your player isn't connected to an audio receiver by HDMI or multi-channel analog, you won't be able to listen to the Cantonese track in full 5.1. For example, owners of the Playstation 3 (which doesn't offer a 5.1 analog output) who don't have an HDMI receiver are forced to choose between the original language in basic stereo or the dub in 5.1. This is a stupid oversight.
I'm not a fan of dubbing in general, but the English track on this disc is especially horrible. The translation is wildly different from and inferior to the subtitles, and all of the voice actors speak in offensive "ching chong" accents (sorry, there's really no other way to describe it). It's jaw-droppingly awful.
Those who are able to take advantage of the Cantonese PCM 5.1 track will find the audio nowhere near in sync with the video. Lip sync is off and sound effects hit about a half-second too early, which is really distracting during all of the fight scenes. It's a shame, because the quality of the mix itself is stellar. The soundtrack is loud and expansive, with aggressive surround activity (perhaps boosted a little too loudly?) and deep, thumping bass. Sound effects are spectacularly crisp and resonant. If it were in sync, I'd be inclined to give the audio a near 5-star rating, but I've got to knock at least a point off for this significant issue. The lack of a backwards-compatible DD 5.1 track in Cantonese also bothers me greatly.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – English, English captions for the hearing impaired, or French.
Alternate language tracks - English or French DD 5.1.
The English subtitles are positioned half-in/half-below the letterboxed movie image, which is a tremendous problem for many front projection users with dedicated 2.35:1 movie screens.
All of the bonus features on this Blu-ray title are carried over from Sony's DVD edition, most of which were in turn recycled from prior Asian DVD releases. All features are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression.
Also found on the disc are some previews for unrelated Sony Blu-rays. Missing from the DVD edition are a poster gallery, theatrical trailers, and TV spots.
- Audio Commentary - Stephen Chow is joined by castmates Lan Tze Chung, Tin Kai Man, and Chan Kwok Kwan. The talk was recorded in Cantonese and is presented with English subtitles. English-speaking viewers may find it hard to keep track of the participants. The discussion is very chatty, with a lot of joking around.
- TV Special – Behind the Scenes of Kung Fu Hustle (42 min.) – The Chinese equivalent of an HBO First Look special, this featurette (in Cantonese with English subtitles) is very corny and promotional.
- Deleted Scenes (4 min.) – Two very brief scenes are featured, both with music from the disc menu obnoxiously overlayed so heavily that you can barely hear the dialogue. Neither scene is all that interesting. These are genuine deleted scenes, not the segments edited from the American theatrical cut (which are not found anywhere on this disc).
- Ric Meyers Interview with Stephen Chow (28 min) – The only feature conducted specifically for the American video release is the most compelling and worthwhile on the disc. Meyers, a respected genre expert and writer for Asian Cult Cinema magazine (among others), has a frighteningly crazy beard and is wearing an even scarier shirt, but conducts a decent interview (in English). Chow recaps his career, the concept of the movie, the casting, and his thoughts on kung-fu. The discussion is both funny and enlightening.
- Outtakes and Bloopers (5 min.) – A standard assortment of flubs, neither particularly funny nor interesting.
Hidden on the disc is a selection of HD test patterns. You can access these by entering 7669 on your remote control from the disc's main menu. Use the Skip button to page through the patterns.
A very entertaining martial arts comedy, Kung-Fu Hustle is great fun. The Blu-ray has pretty good picture and sound quality, but the screwy audio configurations may leave many viewers shafted if they want to listen to the original language soundtrack in 5.1. Lazy oversights like that could be easily avoided. The disc merits a recommendation regardless.
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