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Kung Fu Hustle   (released 3/23/2005)
By Neil Norman

I want to be a Kung Fu Master. My childhood dream has been dragged out of the closet and re-kindled by the kinetic beauty and the comedic showmanship of the incredible film Kung Fu Hustle (or Gong Fu), directed by Steven Chow. I was fortunate enough to see Kung Fu Hustle at the Sundance Film Festival, and it ended up being one of my favorites. I knew I was in for a second helping of a special treat when I saw it was coming to the Florida Film Festival. This film brought me back to the old Kung Fu Theatre days, where on every Saturday, my little brother and I would watch the overdubbed movies on the afternoon cable program. We would then enact fierce backyard battle royals in which we tried to overwhelm each other with the moves we had just absorbed. I remember buddying up to Asian-American kids in school, just in hopes that they might teach me some moves. Let's face it, then and now, Kung Fu was and is just so freaking... cool.

Many years, and bumps, bruises and one concussion (where I failed to land a flying kick from off of the top of my bunk bed to my little brother, instead cracking my head on the terrazzo floor) later, I still have the desire. I want to jump from my back to my feet in a single athletic leap, dominate multiple opponents with exotic weaponry, and through the magic of some unknown ventriloquism, deliver lines of ultimatums while my mouth is moving out of synch with my words. Unfortunately, "becoming a Master takes time, unless you're a natural born Kung Fu genius, but they're one in a million." Mayhap I have started too late…one can always dream, though, and Kung Fu Hustle delivers the fantasy.

Kung Fu Hustle is the story of Sing, played brilliantly by Steven Chow who pulls off the difficult task of wearing the many hats of lead actor, producer, director, and screenwriter with style. Sing is a two-bit wannabe hoodlum, who along with his portly sidekick, attempts to fleece some of the honest merchants of Pig Sty Alley by pretending he is a member of the infamous Black Axe gang that terrorizes the city. Set in the period of '40s Hong Kong, the city is defended by a few Kung Fu Masters in the guise of ordinary citizens (played by a number of actors from classic 80's Kung Fu films) who confront the would-be criminals. Sing summons the real Axe gang in a false act of bravado, and all hell breaks loose in an intensely choreographed, massive fight scene. The Axe gang is temporarily routed by the Kung Fu Masters, but the war has just begun. Sing eventually is drafted by the Black Axe gang to help recruit the most vicious killer of all to confront the rebellious citizens of Pig Sty Alley. Sing breaks "The Beast" out of a local mental institution and it seems all is lost for the ordinary citizens, until they are represented by an unlikely candidate who might be the greatest Master of all, a wielder of the most powerful forgotten Kung Fu technique ever.

Chow is masterful in his directorial choices in this film. First of all, his decision to make the movie a mixture of screwball comedy and gangster era melodrama was invigorating. This is one of the funniest films I have seen in a long time. Part of the reason is due to Chow's knack (both as an actor and with his directorial eye) for physical comedy. I haven't seen funnier physical comedy since watching Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther when I was a young'un. Chow also uses a number of quality special effects to help push the laughs in the film.

Chow is also well versed in the language of popular culture, both Eastern and Western. You don’t have to be a Honk Kong cinema guru to spot the contemporary allusions to gangster films, Tarantino movies, The Amazing Spiderman, and hell, even a famous Saturday Morning cartoon. This movie is all about style. It positively reeks of hipness and cool. This is the kind of film to which Quentin pays respect when he makes his martial arts homage's. I believe Kung Fu Hustle is destined for cult stardom. The kids will love it. The filmmakers will love it. The Hong Kong cinephiles will love it. The wanna-be gangsters and Masters will too.

As a filmmaker who works in the Art Department, I was awestruck by the Period accuracy and the grandiosity of the Production Design by Oliver Wong. The sets were so epic and beautiful that I wanted to cry when they were repeatedly destroyed by gigantic ass-kicking battle scenes... but I bet everyone else will eat it up!

I can't say enough of good things about this film, except maybe that it is the best Kung Fu picture I've ever seen and probably one of the best pictures I'll see all year. So whether you are an actual practitioner of the wing chun style (humbly waiting until you can find someone to teach you the Buddha's Open Palm), or someone like me… who likes to stand in front of the bathroom mirror, aping Bruce Lee's famous open-mouthed pose: Hustle your bones down to the Florida Film Festival and see this movie!

Neil Norman is a freelance writer and a graduate of the University of Central Florida. Neil also works on independent film productions.

Kung Fu Hustle plays on Sunday, April 17, 2005 at 7:00pm at Regal Winter Park Village.

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