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Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer introduced Americans to a new, silly blend of martial arts action, over-the-top special effects, and slapstick comedy. Chow follows through with a new film, winning almost universal praise, called Kung Fu Hustle. It’s an entertaining cartoon, but if there is anything more to it than that, it gets lost in translation.

Supers of Pig Sty Alley

Hong Kong’s answer to ElastiGirl
Hong Kong’s answer to ElastiGirl

The story tells of a wannabe gangster, Sing (Chow), who comes to Pig Sty Alley, the poorest, most humble place in town, to harass the locals. He pretends to be a member of the notorious Ax gang, but the locals are not impressed. Any random denizen of Pig Sty Alley is bigger, stronger, tougher or meaner than our scrawny protagonist. In fact, all Sing manages to do is to bring the real Ax gang down on these poor, honest folk.

As luck would have it, the landlady happens to be a retired “super,” like in The Incredibles, only with martial arts superpowers. Her deadliest weapon is a super scream, the effects of which are a hundred times more powerful than the old Maxell ad.

The revenge and counter-revenge among the Ax gang, Sing and his sidekick, and the Alley folk (more and more of whom turn out to be retired supers) provide enough motivation to keep the zany movie going for 90 minutes.

Cracks, Cartoons, Color, Caro

As with Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle has lots of visual comedy. The movie’s heroes are old, overweight, or just plain ugly. Butt cracks, hair curlers, and pratfalls abound. The marketing department has co-opted Roger Ebert’s description that mentions Buster Keaton, Quentin Tarantino, and Bugs Bunny, and indeed the movie is practically a cartoon. Chow even recruits the music of cartoons, including Khachaturian’s frenetic Saber Dance.

But Chow also throws in a little musical fun. An opening number has the Ax gang dancing into the neon streets in another part of town. It looks like a genuine MGM musical for a second, including an over-the-top neon color palette.

And Pig Sty Alley looks like something out of Jeunet and Caro, including a swinging pig sign lifted straight from the credits of Delicatessen. The first time we see the alley Chow impresses with a density of detail, all lovingly crafted that fits the simpleness of the folk perfectly. All that’s missing is the face of Dominique Pinon.

Dichotomy Fu

In the earliest days of film, there were two camps, represented by George Melies and the Lumiere brothers, respectively. The Lumieres saw film as a way to document the world, while Melies was quick to discover the fantastic possibilities of film and special effects. This early dichotomy has illustrated the difference between documentaries and narratives and between re-enactments and cinema verite. This dichotomy is alive today in martial arts movies as the difference between choreography and special effects.

The reason Jackie Chan’s movies (his earlier ones, at least) are so amazing is that the camera doesn’t blink. Many of his jaw-dropping stunts are captured in one take, proving that they are real. And his fight scenes are so well choreographed that, even though we know they are created, we have to admire the skill that goes into performing them.

Contrast this style to “wire-fu” movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The wires allow for more fantastic stunts and superhuman grace, but at the cost of believability and awe — the fluid flying may look great but it also looks like the wires are doing all the work. Computer-generated special effects can cut the wires completely and make anything imaginable, possible, although it looks like no effort at all. Anybody with an Apple computer, $1,000 worth of software, and enough spare time can create these same special effects.

Stephen Chow has the grace and skill of a martial artist, but he’s also a comedian, and he quickly escalates the martial arts in Kung Fu Hustle from “real” and choreographed fight scenes to wacky, impossible, cartoonish sequences. He is all too happy to trade the awe of martial arts for the cartoony laughs of special effects.

Laugh Inspection

The laughs Chow gets in trade are of irregular quality. His character Sing is morally grubby, but with a glimmer of naivete that we can sympathize with. There is an echo of the great silent comedians Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton in his portrayal. So when the special effects add to the character’s humility — like the scene where Chow gets his face punched right through the floor — the comedy works and the tradeoff is worth the price.

But there are other moments where the special effects are just silly. Running away from the landlady’s rolling pin, Sing’s legs spin so fast they become Roadrunner pinwheels. It’s another cheap special effect for a cheap laugh that required no special skill to create, and that makes the movie seem almost tedious.

Other elements to Chow’s comedy may be entirely lost on American audiences. A friend who speaks a little Mandarin says that Chow is great at verbal gags. Some of the differences between Chinese vowels are so subtle that they make fertile ground for puns and double entendres. And much of the cast would be recognizable to Hong Kong audiences, the baggage of their previous roles used as a springboard for jokes about their characters. All of this is lost in translation, if it really is there to begin with, leaving only the slapstick comedy for Westerners.

Conclusion

If it’s true that Chow rolls a little Groucho Marx and Stanley Kramer into his martial arts comedies, then I envy audiences in Hong Kong and China. Kung Fu Hustle may actually be a more well-rounded comedy that it appears. But here in the middle of the United States Kung Fu Hustle has to stand or fall on its visual gags and slapstick. And while these are good enough for some audiences (middle school class clowns and Roger Ebert), serious fans of comedy or martial arts may be a little disappointed.