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:
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.
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.
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:
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.