Kung Fu Hustle

To go to a movie of Stephen Chow, arguably Asia's funniest man, expecting coherent narrative, dramatic involvement, or strong characters, is to be in the wrong movie. “Kung Fu Hustle,” a follow-up to his “Shaolin Soccer,” delivers the basic goods of an action-comedy-musical that's funny and fiendishly entertaining for most of the time.

Viewers who care about storytelling will be disappointed, since “Kung Fu Hustle” has an extremely slender and flimsy plot, basically an excuse to allow the gifted Chow to display his histrionics.

This time around, the story is set amid the chaos of pre-revolutionary China, centering on a small-time thief named, Sing (Cho), who aspires to be one of the sophisticated and ruthless Axe Gang, whose underworld activities have overshadowed the city.

Stumbling across a crowded apartment complex, aptly known as “Pig Sty Alley,” Sing attempts to extort money from one of the ordinary locals, but the neighbors are not what they appear. Sing's comical attempts at intimidation inadvertently attract the Axe Gang into the fray, but not in the expected ways. The whole point is set off a chain on events, some predictable, others not, that will bring the two disparate worlds together, face-to-face.

As the inhabitants of “Pig Sty” fight for their lives, the ensuing clash of kung fu titans unearths some legendary martial arts masters. Sing's attempts are, of course, futile, for he lacks the soul or brain of a killer. In order to discover the true nature of the kung fu master, he must face his own mortality.

Though only in his early 40s, Chow has made more than 50 movies. He seems to be now at the peak of his career, the point where Jackie Chan was a decade ago, before overexposing himself in too many pictures. In contrast to the outgoing, larger-than-life characters that he plays in his pictures, Chow (based on one interview with him) seems to be quiet, low-key and even shy.

Chow's inspirational model has always been Bruce Lee, as he recently recalled: “Bruce Lee was so incredible, not only because of his martial arts experience, but also because of his furious spirit. Bruce just filled the big screen. He became everything to me, and I decided that I wanted to be Bruce Lee.” The idea of a little boy who wants to be a powerful hero is at the heart of “Kung Fu Hustle,” a comedy that contains other touches reminiscent of the films Chow saw as a child.

A pivotal film in his career, “Kung Fu Hustle” comes across as both a labor of love, and the fulfillment of the dream of a boy growing up in poor circumstances in Hong Kong. The escapism that had marked those campy 1970s movies also characterizes the new film, in which the story is by turns smart and dumb, cartoonish and absurd, spinning out of control in both inane and insane ways.

“Kung Fu Hustle” bends and blends genre conventions, not always in a masterfully way, but sufficiently enough to be almost consistently entertaining. Part action, part comedy, part musical, and part drama, it's a mishmash of a movie, in which over-the-top excess is the rule of the game.

The film's self-referential nature is reflected in the cast and crew, which are comprised of legendary figures of the Hong Kong cinema. First and foremost among them is action choreographer, Yuen Wo Ping, whose work on “The Matrix” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” has made him one of world cinema's most respected wizards.

The music also draws on that old Hong Kong tradition. The song sung by Fong, the mute ice-cream girl (Huang Sheng Yi) is a mandarin classic from the 1970s called “Zhi Yao Wei Ni Huo Tian,” written by the famous songwriter, Liu Jie Chang. The song relates one girl's unforgettable memories of a man she once loved, and now wishes to live for him again, even for one day.

Yuen Wah, who plays the “landlord,” began his career as one of Bruce Lee's stunt men and has appeared in numerous Hong Kong films. The “landlady” is cast with Yuen Qiu, a star of the 1970s, who viewers may recognize as one of James Bond's girls in “The Man With the Golden Gun.” For Yuen Qiu, who came out of retirement for this picture, the biggest challenge was not recovering her martial arts skills, but gaining 30 pounds in two months, necessary for her role.

Another 1970s star, Leung Siu Lung, plays “the Beast,' the most fearsome fighter in “Kung Fu Hustle.” Leung is still best-known as one of the “three dragons” in the 1970s, along with Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.

The movie's central locale, the teeming neighborhood of “Pig Sty,” also pays tribute to Chow's past. The design of the crowded apartment complex is similar to the labyrinthine Hong Kong complexes Chow lived in with his poor family. Though much of the film was shot in and around “Pig Stye” itself, other locations were used. The ballroom scene was shot in an old athletic club in Shanghai's famous shopping strip, Nanjing Road, originally built in the Colonial era.

As in Jackie Chan's pictures, the well-choreographed action battles in “Kung Fu Hustle” increasingly get bigger, more elaborate, and more absurd. Which may explain why, particularly by Hong Kong standards, the shoot lasted four months.

Over the past five years, American audiences have been exposed to many martial arts films, such as “Crouching Tiger” and Zhang Yimou's “Hero,” Broadly defined, “Kung Fu Hustle” belongs to that genre, but it's a different kind of film from “Hero,” or its follow-up, “House of Flying Daggers.” It's more in the vein of Jackie Chan's earlier action comedies, before he began “talking” in American movies like “Rush Hours.”

It remains to be seen, whether “Kung Fu Hustle,” which Chow describes as a “movie that's really about the spirit of martial arts,” would become his breakout success in the West.