KUNG FU is a movie unlike any I have seen before or since. It combines the lunatic physical comedy of a Buster Keaton film and a Bugs Bunny cartoon with the wi-fu artistry of the best Hong Kong action flicks and a post-modern irony born of two parts Monty Python and one part Tarantino. It is one of the few films where I laughed throughout and wept with tears of joy, not just the first time I watched it but on repeated viewings. The audacity of the movie - the commitment to see through the insane vision to its illogical end - is dazzling.
The plot is simple and unoriginal. 1920s Shanghai is populated by the murderous axe-gang - a bunch of hard-ass criminals who wear slick suits, spats and bow-ties and, naturally, get all the respect and all the girls. Two dumb-asses, one of whom is Hong Kong movie giant, Stephen Chow, want to become members of the gang in the back-water called Pigsty Alley. They even go so far as to imitate gang-members but are soon exposed due to their complete ineptitude. Unlucky for them, the landlord and landlady of Pigsty Alley are retired kung fu masters. And when the Axe gang come to defend the two idiots who have set of alarm signals, these retired masters must go to war. Along the way, the Stephen Chow character has his chi unblocked and discovers that he is a Kung Fu master. Moreover, with the help of cheap pamphlet that he has been scammed for, he learns the amazing Buddhist Palm Kung Fu. This helps him face off to the feared evil master, The Beast.
The genius of the film is to take the classic kung fu plot and take it further and faster than anyone dreamed possible. The action is bigger, louder, and often cartoon-like. And every scene has an allusion to some other pop-culture classic - from TOP HAT to THE BLUES BROTHERS to THE SHINING. Best of all, the stock characters become outrageous comic caricatures of almost grotesque proportions. We are given a rogue's gallery of characters that Charles Dickens would have been proud of. Who will forget the mad Landlady shouting on the verandah, curlers in her hair and cigarette permanently hanging from her lips? Who will forget the old kung fu master, The Beast, flip-flop hanging from his toe, straggly hair scraped across his scalp. Who will forget the little girl who has lost her lollipop?
For all these memories and so much more, KUNG FU remains the best film I have seen, and perhaps, the greatest movie ever made.
KUNG FU HUSTLE showed at Toronto 2004 and Sundance 2005. It has been on release in Europe and hits the UK this week.