Friday, June 11, 2010

Kung Fu Hustle

Looney Tunes, at its best, is animated slapstick comedy. Taking full advantage of animation, it takes a blend of likable characters and allusions to other work, and shoves them in a blender with some comedic violence and visual trickery. It is a series of visual jokes, animated ridiculousness, violence and pure energetic joy. So, if someone were to make some sort of live action Looney Tunes, it would be impossible. Luckily, CGI was invented and as a result, Stephen Chow could pull it off with Kung Fu Hustle.

The story is a little strange, designed seemingly to string along the endlessly inventive and wonderful sight gags. Stephen Chow - who also directs, and who can probably kick Ralph Macchio's ass - is Sing, a generally disreputable character who tries to make a few dollars by pretending he's with the scary Axe Gang. In the end, he manages to do little more than make the Axe Gang angry and get them to pay attention to smelly little Pig Sty Alley, with it's disproportionately high number kung fu masters. Hilarity and awesome ensue.

I compare it to Looney Tunes because it has the same sense of visual wit, though a bit more grown up. It also uses a number of the same tricks. Characters have an unnatural elasticity to them that recalls Daffy Duck's beak spinning around after being shot in the face. Physics here play by a unique set of rules designed to make things a little bit more funny and emphasize that this world just isn't real. That aspect helps things that might otherwise be kind of terrible - like a cat getting cut in half - into something hilarious, since the film doesn't pretend to be remotely realistic. Even the more brutal scenes are emphatically not real, which allows you to have a bit more fun.

Not that Looney Tunes is the only film that comes to mind here. Chow is clearly a fan of movies, since anyone who has watched far too many can spot subtle allusions and references - and blatant ones too - and can tell that some bits are clearly inspired by old Chinese pictures I have never seen but now want to. It's just in love with the possibilities of the screen, both in the unique ways it can use it and in the ways others had used it beforehand.

I often prefer practical effects to CGI, and in the hands of an incompetent filmmaker CGI can be a crutch or a distraction. Chow, however, has found the perfect use for it, to make live action cartoons and just have fun with the possibilities that film can bring. There's a joy here that translates through the screen to the viewing audience, and that's fantastic, it's always a pleasure to see a director/star clearly thrilled to be doing what he's doing.

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