Two years ago, before its American theatrical release, a good friend brought an imported copy of a ridiculous sounding film called 'Shaolin Soccer' over to my house. I desperately tried to distract him from throwing it in the DVD player for most of the night, but ultimately gave in to his incessant assurances that I would love the flick. Needlesstosay, he was right -- we weren't even ten minutes in when I realized that I was watching something different, something I still refer to as "sheer brilliance". By the time the credits rolled, I rushed upstairs, jumped online, and ordered my own copy as quickly as I could type. By the end of the next month, I had loaned that DVD to every one of my friends.
Writer and director Stephen Chow's next film, 'Kung Fu Hustle' was greeted with much less hesitation at my house, and I was ecstatic to find it another work of genre genius that was as funny as it was striking. As for which film is better, I can't decide -- but I can assure you that you'll never find a kung fu filmmaker who showcases more heart, better writing, or more excellent cast performances in this (or any other) hemisphere.
The somewhat daunting story follows several groups of endearing characters in the '40s and their clashes with the notorious Axe Gang in Canton, China. This group inclides a sad sack gangster rookie (Stephen Chow), his partner in semi-crime (Kwok-Kwan Chan - brother Light Weight in 'Shaolin Soccer'), a grumpy village landlady (the scene stealing Qiu Yuen), her husband (the expertly cast Wah Yuen), and a trio of martial arts masters. All will soon come into direct conflict with the notorious warlord The Beast (Siu-Lung Leung), sickly gang advisor (the hilarious Kai Man Tin - brother Iron Shirt from 'Shaolin Soccer'), and the Axe General (Suet Lam). It's hard to hone in on which characters fill the lead roles and which are supporting, but that's one of the impressive feats of the film -- balancing so many characters without ever losing sight of the plot or overall story arcs.
I can't begin to tell you how many times I laughed out loud or was moved to the edge of my seat, only to find myself stunned into silence seconds later. Watching this film again (probably my seventh time since its release), I was struck by how often I still lost myself to uncontrollable bouts of laughter. At the same time, fight scenes are expertly mapped by fight coordinator extraordinaire, Yuen Wo-ping, and fill the screen with movement, unique skill, and glorious technique. Hard hitting, lofty, and shatteringly solid despite their flighty nature, the battles put similar scenes in The Matrix series to absolute shame. On top of this, the human body elements reproduced in CG look stunning and, yagain, put the plastic skinned Neo and Smith in the cinematic recycling bin.
All in all, there are so many visual gags, sleight of hand maneuvers, and physical comedy bits that viewers might expect a dumbed down action extravaganza. But not-so-carefully hidden beneath all of the comedy is a darker, more poignant story about loyalty, standing up for the little guy, and achieving higher ambitions in life. Every character is so well designed, so infectiously loveable, and so intriguingly complex, that the movie's depth will take most by surprise.
Some fans may have an ax to grind (no pun intended -- well, maybe just this once) with the cartoon refrences, over-the-top comedic CG, and the mystical aspects of the superpowered characters, but these are all interlaced inspirations for Chow that bring his creation to startling life. Like 'Shaolin Soccer,' this is an authentic masterpiece of genre dramedy that is accessible even to those who never dabble in martial arts movies. When my wife has a great time with a flick like 'Kung Fu Hustle,' I instantly know someone's doing something right. I would recommend this film to anyone -- fan of the genre or not -- and suggest approaching it with an open mind that's prepared to enjoy a riotous, original, satirical vision genuinely infatuated with its classic inspirations.
This single layer BD-25 Blu-ray boasts some high quality visual bang-for-your-buck, despite sharing disc space with a large selection of supplements. Presented in the now standard 1080p utilizing the MPEG-2 codec, 'Kung Fu Hustle' may surprise you. Nice texture detail, deep black levels, clear shadow depth, excellent sharpness, and a palette of vibrant primary colors and softer earth tones blend together to craft a consistently bold picture. All of this is used to great effect, matching the film's constantly shifting tone - cartoony scenes pop like old "Looney Tunes" episodes, heavier scenes are weighed down with grim dimness (the initial fight between the Axe Gang and the village trio of masters), and moments of friendship are healthily lush and serene (the last five minutes in the candy store -- sigh). On top of this, the film shows off a few, highly detailed cityscapes that extend forever into the horizon, sharp dust clouds and gravel storms, and a collection of nature's most beautiful residents looking as if they're housed neatly inside your HDTV.
Looking for a few showcase sequences that demonstrate the range of this transfer? Head for the scene in the nightclub, steeped in neon blues, deadening blacks, and burning oranges. Check out the nighttime attack by the musical assassins and gorge your eyes with the detail present in the darkest corners, the well rounded inclusion of CG, and the pulsing air ripples that engulf the battle. Watch any scene featuring the Landlady and marvel at her ever-present cigarette, a character in its own right, with its wispy trails of smoke rising and falling with each breath. Finally, take in the final battle between yin and yang and pay particular attention to the grass, leaves, dirt, smoke, and magical effects that pepper the epic struggle and sway with its power. Very appreciated -- especially considering (with no maliciousness implied) that most martial arts films are lackluster visual affairs that rely on their action scenes above their technical video prowess.
Not to spoil your fun, but there are some distracting issues present in the Blu-ray edition of 'Kung Fu Hustle' -- visual snags that also sometimes appear on the dull, highly compressed standard DVD. CG effects used during daytime scenes are noticeably disjointed from nearby natural elements (worsened by the high-def presentation), cartoon inspired antics show off some below average green screening, and a few scenes have a cloud of grain in the bright blue sky (particuarly during the "Road Runner" chase sequence). In the end, while these flaws keep the visuals from leaving you consistently breathless, the visuals were very impressive considering the film's lower budgeted, martial arts roots.
The original Chinese surround mix is an impressive uncompressed PCM 5.1 track that will certainly wake up the neighbors. A boisterous, orchestrated score ricochets richly around the soundfield, a bass thumping sound design will have the heaviest subwoofers seizing in fits, and a soft subtlety layers the vocal ranges with warmth and stability even when reproducing hushed whispers, wind, and settling dust. Fans of the film should skip to the aforementioned nighttime attack by the musical assassins. Every channel stirs with movement and soundfield accuracy, technical prowess, and intense but measured sound design with each strum of the assassins' harps. The hair on my arms was at attention every time a volley of melodic swords would launch at the village kung fu masters and the scene became as hauntingly beautiful as it was dangerously dissonant.
The sound effects are punchy and exaggerated, but compliment the parody of the genre in comedic scenes and quietly restrain themselves in more dramatic moments. Still, audiophiles looking for a natural soundscape will need to look elsewhere as the film falls into many auditory traps of the martial arts genre -- treble heavy environmental breakage, clangy impacts, and an increased volume to unusual sound sources like limb movement, fabric fluttering, and water splashing.
Pitch is dead on and the sounds effects are harsh and dirty, despite the at-times cartoon-like subject matter. I always listen to impacts and blows in fight scenes to see if sound designers take muscle type, clothing, and environmental material into account, and I'm happy to say this martial arts masterpiece doesn't falter in its attention to detail.
Last but not least, I can't move on without pointing to the movie's musical score one more time. Dynamic, complicated, and skillfully composed, this sort of all encompassing composition does exactly what a great score should -- enhance its source material without ever distracting the listener from the feature itself.
The large downside to all of these compliments is that the sound designers craft a crowded mix where there's a lot going on at once. There are some prioritization issues, occasional muffled bass from the sheer amount of sound pumping through at once, and the dialogue is often softened and lost in the chaos. While the audio is definitely impressive for a martial arts film, it shouldn't be mistaken for a benchmark presentation on the Blu-ray format.
Kicking off a nicely rounded series of supplemental features on this Blu-ray release is the pleasantly robust and sincere "TV Special - Behind the Scenes of Kung Fu Hustle." At a whopping 45 minutes, this documentary begins with intentionally awful video and a biting comic wit that suddenly evolves into a quiet and thoughtful examination of Chow's inspirations for the film. While it never turns completely serious, it does reflect his intentions to create something that speaks to a larger audience than those just looking for a belly-laugh romp through an homage to kung fu. This feature is entertaining throughout, diving deep into the cast, the writing, the direction, and the shooting of the film. There is little left to the imagination and it's easily one of the most effective "Making Of" docs I've seen on a foreign film release.
Less impressive, but still appreciated, is a duo of Deleted Scenes -- one more serious than the other -- that add little to the story, but do highlight the comedic and dramatic talents of some of the lead actors. Unfortunately, the producers have layered these cuts with the same pulsing, repetitive background music that appears in the disc menu, but feels tonally disjointed from these scenes. The audio track overpowers the "Outtakes and Bloopers" featurette as well and a good time is crushed beneath the drone of the same four-measure, percussion melody repeated again and again. If you can get past the music, the outtakes are especially amusing and it's clear that Chow runs a tight, but fun-loving set that keeps his actors motivated and fresh.
Next up is an "Inside the Actors Studio" style interview with Stephen Chow by the well researched and respectful Ric Meyers, author of "Great Martial Arts Movies" and a writer for "Asian Cult Cinema" and "Inside Kung-Fu." For the most part, his inquiries tend to be too genre specific for my taste. The opening question, "why did you open this film with violence when your other movies did not?" may interest longtime fans of Chow's work, but I really wanted a more accessible exploration of the man as a filmmaker. Having only been introduced to his body of work with 'Shaolin Soccer,' I felt lost in the heavy details of the interview. Even worse, Meyers sems to be infatuated with his own voice and views, spending most of the interview educating the audience about the nuances of the genre. On the plus side, Meyers does treat Chow with a level of awe that makes the conversation very friendly, if largely one-sided. It's certainly not a waste of time, but it will bore some viewers and a subtitled interview (rather than an attempt at an all-English discussion) might have accomplished a lot more.
Of note, while all of the features are presented in anamorphic widescreen, they're not all in high definition and suffer accordingly. The visual quality varies, but never falters to the point of ruining the experience -- just to the point of feeling unpolished. But it's a concession I'm more than happy to make. I'd much rather retain the picture quality of the feature film than see prettier supplements throughout the disc.
My last main stop was the subtitled commentary track with Chow and cast members (Chan Kwok-kwan, Lam Tze-chung, and Tin Kai-man) that have appeared in several of his movies. Aside from being tough to discern who's speaking at any given moment, the track is a blast with a lot of laughter and good times had by all. There are some great anecdotes, some good professional ribbing in the vein of a Kevin Smith commentary, and some careful examinations of the themes and influences of the film. Every subtitled commentary track should have the speaker's name present with each line to help sort out the conversation, but despute this compaint, it's still overall an entertaining listen.
Stephen Chow has earned a lifelong fan in me. His films are so genre-bending, so amusing, and so perfectly packed with equal parts drama, comedy, and action, that I can't help but declare that he's in a completely different league than most other filmmakers -- domestic or foreign. 'Kung Fu Hustle' is a value-packed steal of a Blu-ray release, boasting a nice picture, a great genre audio package, and a suitable set of supplements that will hold you over until a larger anniversery release in the future. Do yourself a favor and skip the three or four bucks it would take to rent 'Kung Fu Hustle' and just pick up a cheap copy from Amazon.