Judging from box office history, American audiences seem to be ethnocentric to a point to where they are adverse to films with subtitles. That’s a shame, because these people will probably pass right by the latest comedy from Hong Kong writer/director Stephen Chow Kung Fu Hustle, the funniest film to be released in any language all year.
Sing (Chow) is a rather inept con man, barely scraping together the money for a meal or even a haircut. While attempting to scam the residents of a slum called Pigsty Alley by pretending to be a member of the powerful Axe Gang crime syndicate, he inadvertently causes the real Axe Gang to take an interest in the Alley. But when the Axe Gang tries to move in to extort money from the residents, they find that the Alley is protected by fierce martial arts masters, living in the slum in disguise. Pressed by the Axe Gang to try and kill Pigsty Alley’s protectors, it is discovered that Sing has the potential to be the greatest martial arts master of all.
Do not assume that since Chow is mixing martial arts and comedy or that the gags here are just recycled from his previous action-comedy, Shaolin Soccer. In fact, when Chow first appears on screen, he interrupts a group of soccer-playing children, stating “No more soccer,” before stomping their soccer ball flat. Kung Fu Hustle is its own film; the only shared trait with Shaolin Soccer is that they are both hysterically funny movies. With Kung Fu Hustle, Chow has created a live action cartoon in every positive sense of the term. People run at super speed with with legs that blur a la old Warner Brothers Road Runner cartoons. Bone-crunching injuries are shaken off as if mere inconveniences. Like a carefully choreographed cartoon, the action and laughs build to a climaxing crescendo, an unbelievable kung fu battle of ground-shattering proportions. To tell more would spoil the film’s many surprises.
Chow is also confident enough in his story’s ability to generate laughs. Unlike Shaolin Soccer, where his character was firmly the center of the film, Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle character is sidelined for long sections of the film, only taking center stage for the finale. Kung Fu Hustle is a star vehicle for Chow, not so much in the sense of his performance, but for his comic vision.
And if you are one of those folks who I mentioned at the top of this review, who avoids sub-titled films, I strongly urge you to give Kung Fu Hustle a try. There’s not that much dialogue – most of the laughs are generated through character reaction and physical comedy. You just may be pleasantly surprised to learn that laughter transcends the language barrier.