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This week:
Kung Fu Hustle

Filthy says:
"It's not so fucking bad."

There's a big difference between the way Steven Chow, the director and star of the Hong Kong comedy Kung Fu Hustle, and uberhacks like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez pay homage to movies. The results are superficially the same, a buttload of movie references sprayed over a thin plot. Like Tarantino and Rodriguez, Chow seems to get pretty wrapped up in imitating what he loves, and the results are insular. You either love Looney Tunes, Bruce Lee, Michael Jackson videos and old soundstage musicals, or you're sort of on the outside of Kung Fu Hustle.

Here's the big difference between Chow and those other guys, though: Chow doesn't come off as a self-absorbed asshole. In his martial arts movie, Kung Fu Hustle, when he imitates some old movie, it's because he loves it, not because he wants you to know he loves it. The shit Tarantino and Rodriguez rip off from other movies is never about their love of great cinema; it's always about them. Look! Look how fucking cool I am! No, really! I'm cool now. I'm making up for my high school years, big time! In fact, I bet Rodriguez and Tarantino have already gone on the record declaring Kung Fu Hustle cool, not because they think it is, but because they want you to think they do.

And that's fine for some people. It's exactly why Worm peels one leg off the vinyl and duct tape on his barstool whenever he lets loose his thunderous gas. Not to relieve the pressure in his ass, but because he wants everyone to know he has. So, I guess what I'm trying to say is Kung Fu Hustle is more like a silent fart than a raspberry of film tribute: it's the artful elegant way to get the stink out of your system.

Even at that, I think homage is frequently just a lazy way for writers and directors to weasel out of creating anything new. An imitation of something great is not equally great. It's all about how you use what you've borrowed. It's always been this way, if you think about it. The caveman who invented the spear probably impressed the ladies. But the first guy to make a copy didn't see nearly as much action. No, the next guy to get laid was the one who figured out the spear was great for stabbing your neighbors. Here's another analogy: I didn't invent the work fuck. This kid named Mike Kenner that I was in third grade with did. He also invented Slime and his dad was in the CIA. But he told me he invented fuck. Where is Mike now? Well, according to his Christmas newsletter he is now a top secret CIA agent himself, owns eight mansions and has only a few top-tier openings left in a multi-level online marketing program, and he'd let me have on for a large franchise fee. He invented fuck and now he's a god damn superstar. I keep using his word and where the hell am I? Eating raisins out of the crevices of a thrift store couch in a basement apartment.

Chow adds to his homage to make Kung Fu Hustle. Not a lot, but enough to create a new product that's better than imitation, and cooler than the forced hipness of his American counterparts.

In Kung Fu Hustle, a small tenement called Pig Sty Alley is tormented by a gang of bespoke gangsters wielding axes. But different heros keep coming to the aid of the tenement and making things hard for the gangsters. The fights escalate like the guns in a shootout between Bugs Bunny and Marvin the Martian. At the same time, Chow plays a bum who once tried to be good, but found that being bad was more rewarding.

In trying to destroy Pig Sty Alley, Axe Gang discovers that it is home to five former kung fu masters among its poor, working schlubs and each one gets his licks in one the gang and its assassins before being taken down. Chow, at first wishes to be in the Axe Gang, but has a change of heart and discovers that he is not a loser after all. He's the One, the ultimate kung fu master and the only one who can save the tenement.

Kung Fu Hustle is sloppy and cheap, and it's a little with characters and fights. So many fights start to feel similar to a guy like me who doesn't really see much kung fu. Maybe it's like when people complain to me that pornos are always the same. Sure, to the untrained eye every anal double penetration may look the same but, shit, they're having sex on camera. So, fuck it, it's not the same. Shirtless guys fighting gets older way faster. Especially if you try jerking off to it.

This movie also loving and sincere. It could have been really fucking funny, I guess, but it is only amusing sporadically and with little consistency. Chow amps up the action in places--giving characters cartoon whirls of legs as they run, and cracking flower pots over head-- but he mostly just imitates the tradition of the cheesy kung fu movies of the 70s.

The movie opens in pretty cool style. It's a city clearly built on a studio backlot, like the one at the beginning of Touch of Evil, and gives the sense that this is all artifice. At other times Kung Fu Hustle has the colorful fakery look of Babe: Pig in the City, but it doesn't stick with the theme and slowly wanders off to long stretches with no discernible style. Throughout the movie, Chow relies heavily on digital effects that he must not have been able to afford. they look cheap and distracting.

There are a shitload of characters in Kung Fu Hustle. Too many, really, and it makes the heart of the matter sort of hard to get to. It feels like a family reunion, you know, where all these people are talking at you and you wish there were fewer and they'd shut up more often. Except, if they shut up, then you wouldn't understand how Aunt Lodi got those knife scars on her cheeks, and learning that is the only reason you came in the first place.

The acting is pretty bad. I don't know if this is also a tribute to old kung fu movies, but if Chow wants to make a real emotional statement, this cornball shit undermines him. I think part of the movie's appeal is how naive and amateur it feels. Well, the high spirit and sincerity are there, but if I wanted amateur I could have watched the second graders Easter play at Lawrence elementary. And that has two distinct advantages: first, it was free; second, it's easy to make those kids cry. I have yet to make characters in a movie cry, but as long as Ben Affleck keeps making movies I'll sure as hell keep trying.

Three Fingers for Kung Fu Hustle, a decent movie, certainly sincere and that counts for something. By the way, Mrs. Filthy is back with a weekly column, and she's dishing the gossip about her job at Hancock Fabrics. Check it out.

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Filthy's Reading
Peter Biskind - Easy Riders, Raging Bulls

Listening to
Hot Snakes - Peel Session


Beat the Devil