[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a bi-weekly column dedicated to retrospectives on the martial arts films I grew up watching. We’ll be covering all kinds of Hong Kong action films from Bruce Lee all the way to Joseph Kuo. Get ready to be introduced to some weird, wacky, and utterly badass films.]
With this month’s focus on more modern Hong Kong films, I figured there was no better movie to talk about than Stephen Chow’s highly acclaimed Kung Fu Hustle. Praised for being one of the best films of the 00s and launching Chow into international stardom, Kung Fu Hustle has remained in the pop culture zeitgeist for nearly two decades thanks to how unashamedly ridiculous it is. That and the film is plain badass, so that’s nice.
With a potential Kung Fu Hustle 2 making headlines again (after it was last mentioned four or five years ago), I wanted to take a look back at the film that firmly cemented my love of the wackiness that Hong Kong cinema can contain. The film that showed me how CG could organically enhance a movie even when it doesn’t look particularly great. The movie which wears its heart on its sleeve while also realizing how outlandish some of its ideas are.
Let’s dive into Kung Fu Hustle.
When Stephen Chow’s comedic masterpiece was released in international theaters in 2004, the general moviegoing public in America was blindsided by his creative genius. Where the hell was this guy hiding for the last decade or so? How did a relative nobody create such a genre-bending mash-up of Kung Fu and Looney Tunes without even so much as a hint of his talent?
The thing is, Chow wasn’t a nobody in Hong Kong. After starring in a number of successful films in the late 80s and early 90s, Chow made his directorial debut in 1994 with the James Bond spoof From Beijing with Love. Showcasing his love for not only Hong Kong cinema, but international films, it was clear that Chow was set on making sure his films had international appeal.
While Chow would continue to act in other films (lots of other films, as most Chinese actors do), there was a clear shift in his output after his unique spy thriller. Instead of simply aiming to please the Cantonese audience at home, Chow’s films started to incorporate elements from American pop culture. In a film I’ve previously covered in this column, Love on Delivery, there are references to The Terminator and Garfield, of all things. One of his films from the following year is titled Sixty Million Dollar Man, for crying out loud.
As well as that shift in tone came a gradual decrease in the amount of starring roles Chow would take. The reason for this is unclear, but it could be down to Chow wanting more creative control over the films he was in. He also probably didn’t want to continue being in anywhere from nine to 11 different movies a year, which is wild to think about… and shockingly common for people in the Hong Kong film industry.
Whatever the case, From Beijing with Love put Chow on the map like never before. Instead of just being that dude who was really good at comedy, he became a household name that fans would line up for. This popularity would follow him for the remainder of the 90s and crescendo with the release of 2001’s Shaolin Soccer. Another incredibly notable film from a man that has many notable films, it was here that his love and understanding of Martial Arts cinema would be made known to the world.
I’ll save a deeper dive of that movie for a later column, but just know that fans eager to see Chow embrace more of his chop-socky side would have their wish granted when Kung Fu Hustle was released just a few years later. Chow was practically responsible for saving the Hong Kong film industry and now he was putting out a film that would immortalize Kung Fu for the entire world.
It’s no surprise or happy accident that Kung Fu Hustle was immensely popular in Hong Kong. It would go on to become the highest-grossing film of that year in the region and remain one of the highest-grossing films until 2011. What was possibly unexpected is the popularity the film could garner in America. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sparked something in US audiences where they began to embrace foreign movies more than ever before. While hardly a blockbuster, Kung Fu Hustle would generate $17.1 million in its short theatrical window before doing an additional $30 million in video sales.
Why was this movie so popular? As famed comedian Bill Murray put it, Kung Fu Hustle is “the supreme achievement of the modern age in terms of comedy.” Taking an everything and the kitchen sink approach, Chow put in references to basically everything he grew up with and all of the things he loved about the media he consumed. There are the aforementioned Looney Tunes references, but also shout-outs to Shaolin Soccer, Top Hat, The Blues Brothers, The Shining, and Gone With the Wind. A scene is even taken directly from Bruce Lee’s Way of the Dragon in homage to the legendary star.
On top of that, the cast is loaded with Hong Kong film legends left and right. The landlords of Pig Sty alley are played by Yuen Wah and Yuen Qiu. Wah got started as a Hong Kong stuntman and was famously Bruce Lee’s stunt double in his early years. Qiu wasn’t as prominent, but featured in a number of Golden Harvest productions and was even in The Man with the Golden Gun (a film Chow previously referenced in From Beijing with Love).
More than those two was the villain, played by Leung Siu-Lung. Not a familiar name to international audiences, Siu-Lung was very prominent in the 70s and starred in a remarkable amount of Bruceploitation films -hence his English name of Bruce Leung-. Having retired for almost two decades, he happily took the role in Kung Fu Hustle as Leung was Chow’s favorite Kung Fu actor while growing up.
There’s a wonderful video by YouTube channel “Accented Cinema” that goes over the references to Chinese media that I simply cannot do justice to. Having not grown up in the same environment as Chow, a lot of these moments are lost on me. What I can describe is how the CG utilized throughout the film has the opposite effect than most CG heavy action films. Instead of feeling out of place and corny, the exaggerated moves accentuate the philosophies behind Martial Arts and give them new life.
Similar to how fighting games can throw limitations out the window and make Martial Arts teachings become reality, Kung Fu Hustle embraces the concepts of certain styles (in particular, the Buddhist Palm technique) and hyperbolizes them. Certain moves that are said to move mountains literally do in Chow’s cartoonish world. More than that, it’s not even treated as bizarre or wacky, with characters clearly accepting that these myths are real.
This is mixed with a story about a character trying to find his place within the world. As is the case with a lot of Hong Kong media from this period (roughly the early 90s to the mid-00s), citizens were worried about how the transition from an independent colony to occupation by mainland China would be. Though Chow’s character, Sing, is stuck between two worlds -that of the citizens in Pig Sty and his desire to be an Axe Gang member-, he eventually learns to overcome his doubts and unlock his true potential. It’s maybe not as deep as something like Happy Together, but it’s not the core focus of the narrative.
Kung Fu Hustle is more a send-up and love letter to all of the influences Chow had throughout his life. Whether or not you can spot every reference and homage, it’s clear the film was made with a warm love for everything cinema. That’s what makes it stand out despite some language barriers (the subtitles sometimes mess things up). That power also keeps the film relevant to this day and is pushing the hype for a sequel into the stratosphere despite being nearly two decades old.
As for my personal history with the film, I went to see the movie during its US theatrical run in the middle of 2005. Since I had been engrossing myself in Kung Fu films for almost a year at this point, I couldn’t not see the movie. I immediately acquired a bootleg DVD and eventually would upgrade it to the uncut Hong Kong release some months later. I still have that disc to this day, along with a gorgeous steelbook Blu-ray.
Chow’s career would take a sad turn following this film’s release. After teasing a sci-fi creature comedy movie for years (think Chinese E.T.), his follow-up CJ7 was both a critical and commercial disappointment. I’m not sure if the relative failure of that film deeply impacted him, but Chow hasn’t starred in a film since. He has continued to direct films, though, and those have all been much more successful. His 2016 film The Mermaid was also briefly the highest-grossing film in China.
This column may be less about what the movie is and how its plot evolves and more about the significance of Kung Fu Hustle as a whole, but I felt that was the best way to do justice to the movie. If you haven’t seen it, I would tell you to seek it out in whatever capacity you can. It routinely comes to Netflix but is also available to rent/buy on digital storefronts. The Blu-ray isn’t common but can be had for cheap on Amazon.
If you’d like to read more of Peter’s Kung Fu Corner, you can do so by clicking here.