The first thing you see in this rock'em-sock'em kung fu picture is a butterfly. Lilting toward earth against a delicate blue sky, it offers a few brief -- very brief -- moments of quiet. And then the mayhem starts.
While the butterfly is striking for its seeming fragility, its buffeting by sheer breezes, it is also a familiar emblem of transformation. And that is exactly what Stephen Chow's "Kung Fu Hustle" is all about. On one level, this transformation seems regular enough: a young man, Sing (Chow), is called on to defend a community, and in so doing, he becomes the hero he was destined to be, the butterfly born of the proverbial caterpillar.
But on another, the transformation is meta, concerning a shift in understanding and appreciation of that most chop-socky genre, kung fu movies. Sing's transition from boy to man, gangster-wannabe to full-on master ("The One") occasions a speedy, entertaining, wholly convoluted and often quite brilliant run through genres and conventions ranging from Bruce Lee to Looney Tunes.
Set in Canton, China in the 1940s, Kung Fu Hustle begins with a scene of outsized corruption and violence, establishing the near-hopeless world that Sing will change even as it changes him. An initial city-street face-off between rival gangs establishes the dominance of the Axe Gang -- the action so hectic and ferocious (the film's fights and wirework are choreographed by the brilliant Yuen Wo Ping and Sammo Hung) that you fully appreciate their reputation by the time you meet Sing, who wants to become a member.
He wants this so badly that he and his running buddy (Lam Tze Chung) pose as members in order to harass Pig Sty Alley, a small community, into paying up big time. They hope to impress the head of the Axe Gang, but the townspeople prove remarkably resilient, to the point that they are harboring, even unbeknownst to themselves, a crew of hardcore kung fu masters -- each with his or her own style, part classic and part antic.
The movie's delightful mix of action and comedy -- cartoonish, Jackie-Channish, fantastic -- makes these fight scenes little stories all their own, as if each kick or leap was an adjective or a verb, in precise and thrilling relation to the one before. The newly aroused Pig Sty Alley fighters are the tailor (Chiu Chi Ling), the coolie (Xing Yu), and baker Donut (Dong Zhi Hua), all pleased enough to discover one another that in between battles with the bad guys, they test one another, because, of course, that's what they do: fight.
Also enlisted are the lascivious Landlord (Yuen Wah) and his money-mongering wife, the Landlady (Yuen Qiu, returning to the screen after almost 30 years). Introduced as supporting-character stereotypes, they soon become part of Sing's emergence process, helping him to achieve his various ends -- to defend the town, find himself, and of course, defeat the bully Axe Gangers. Landlady's skills include the Lion's Roar, whereby she opens her mouth and lets loose, blowing down everything in front of her ("That fat lady can really sing, and she deserves to die," reads the translation of Sing's initial reaction).
When she takes off after him, chasing him down the road away from Pig Sty Alley, they run as if in a Roadrunner cartoon, their legs churning into dusty circles, as they pass vehicles and zoom out of frame. And for all her fierceness, when Landlady works in tandem with her husband, they form a stunning and loving pair of fighters, old schoolish and raucous at the same time.
Their opponent, the smooth and smug Axe Gang leader, Brother Sum (Chan Kwok-kwan), is predictably ruthless, but his efforts to hang on to his power are anything but typical. When his initial effort (sending an army of black-suited minions against the town) fails, he calls in eerie reinforcements, a pair of harp players (Jia Kang Xi and Fung Hak On), whose music turns into physical forces, hurtling through the air to pierce enemies' bodies with all manner of pain.
At last Brother Sum calls on the most insidious, awesome kung fu killer on the planet, the Beast (Leung Siu Lung), so terrible that he's been incarcerated for years ("I've killed so many," he mutters, "Just trying to find a worthy adversary"). The Beast's style (Toad Style) creates a neat aesthetic tension with Sing's (Buddha Palm Kung Fu), and their conflict takes up much of the film's final half-hour. Sing, who has come on board by now with the Pig Sty Alley denizens, including the Landlady, must battle the Beast. But can he muster the courage and focus to win?
Such a question is, of course, the precursor to climax in all such genre films. Nodding to the Shaw Brothers, Bruce Lee, and other artists who have come before, Kung Fu Hustle is something of a grab bag of fighting styles and narrative threads (including Sing's longstanding affection for a mute girl he knew as a child, now grown up and selling candies on the street, Fong [Eva Huang Sheng-yi]).
It might appear freewheeling, but the film's combinations of spoofs and homages are well wrought, sometimes cunning. The stunts and physical jokes are brutal, the conventions alternately tired and twisted, and Chow finds a way to pull all these disparate bits together, in a kung fu movie about kung fu movies.