The camera in “Kung Fu Hustle” is never where you expect it to be, and it never moves the way you think it’s going to. It is a perfect match for the movie itself, which is wildly funny and inventive, a giddy re-imagining of martial-arts flicks that might be one of the most audaciously entertaining films of the year.
The writer, director and star is Stephen Chow, whose “Shaolin Soccer” was mishandled by Miramax, screened in only a handful of theaters before being dumped onto DVD. After the rapturous response “Kung Fu Hustle” received at Sundance this year, Miramax may have seen the error of its ways, as “Hustle” is now receiving a real theatrical release backed by some legitimate promotion.
Chow has set “Hustle” in approximately the 1930s in Pig Sty Alley, a U-shaped tenement high-rise on the outskirts of a Chinese city. The landlord is greedy and unfair, but his wife is even worse. Clad in a housecoat and curlers, a cigarette forever dangling from her lips, she bullies all the occupants of their little ghetto into paying their rent and keeping the peace.
Still, Pig Sty Alley is a relatively happy place, the residents living out their cramped lives without much connection to the hectic, dangerous world of the city. The slum has merchants and businessmen, housewives and laborers, a full microcosm of lower-class life.
Into this world comes the ruthless Axe Gang, a well-choreographed group of miscreants who wear black suits and top hats and occasionally break out into dance numbers. They are unaware of Pig Sty’s existence until word gets back to them that a couple of Axe Gang wannabes are there, attempting to extort residents by pretending to be true members of the gang.
How will the town defend itself against the Axe Gang? Are there heroes and kung fu masters hiding in plain sight among the slum’s ordinary inhabitants? At one point is there a guy who plays a weird harp-like instrument that sends musical notes flying out like weapons? Why, yes!
There are astonishing fighting sequences, usually flagrant in their disregard for the laws of physics and gravity. There is abundant cartoonish humor, including a bit where the landlady runs at high speed like the Roadrunner. There are broad, silly characters like the gay tailor and the super-strong coolie, and joking references to classic kung fu movies. It is explosively funny, with exaggerated, stylized violence — it’s not realistic, so it never looks painful — and unflagging energy. Few films remain so buoyant for such a long duration; when this one ends, it feels like it could run at top speed for another two hours.
A (1 hr., 39 min.; Chinese with subtitles; )