Stephen Chow is the reigning box office star in Asia and has been for close to a decade thanks to antic comedies including The King of Cookery and Joker. If he’s known at all in North America it’s the result of an extremely limited release of his biggest commercial hit Shaolin Soccer.For the uninitiated, his new film Kung Fu Hustle suggests a kinship with Jackie Chan in its mix of martial arts and slapstick. In fact the movie is a significant departure for the filmmaker and star who was only able to realize this dream project because of the extraordinary success of his quirky, low-brow regional gagfests.General audiences will immediately grasp the fantastic, elaborate set-pieces and fight sequences on offer in Kung Fu Hustle. However, the revelation or shock factor is Chow’s penchant for staccato, toss-in-the-kitchen-sink humor—base, banal and rife with wordplay that’s lost on Westerners. It’s nonetheless possible to appreciate the film as a mild parody of a genre that embraces Crouching Tigers, Flying Daggers and Matrices.Chow arrives in the big city (presumably Shanghai) circa 1946 in hopes of joining a gang, getting rich and cavorting with fashionable ladies. It’s a character he’s played many times in his career but with considerably more modest physical resources at his disposal. He manages to get the attention of the powerful leader of the Axe gang and is told to come back when he’s killed someone. That path takes him to the city’s Pig Sty Alley where life is a very cheap commodity.Though not as consumed with historical accuracy, designer Oliver Wong’s tenement set is every bit as impressive as the central square in Gangs of New York and serves, as in the earlier film, a dramatic anchor to the piece. Dotted with apartments, shops and colorful characters, it’s a vibrant, bawdy hub where it’s easy for larger-than-life types to subsume the plot.Logic doesn’t play much of a role in Kung Fu Hustle as it segues from broad social comedy to the mystical world of “masters” with unique otherworldly talents. Pig Sty Alley has at least three denizens with super powers that were retired until the arrival of the Axe gang.The filmmaker is obviously well versed in martial arts mythology and employs two of Hong Kong’s most revered fight choreographers—Sammo Hung and Yuen Wo Ping—to create a handful of surreal, visceral and florid action sequences. However, the skillful work is muted in large part because it fails to dovetail with the narrative. Chow’s character disappears as the masters and assassins take center stage and a seemingly alternate story emerges to be jettisoned later for a conclusion obviously inspired by the films of Sergio Leone.Chow’s anarchic attitude toward story and character strikes a chord with Asian audiences that responded with record box office figures for Kung Fu Hustle. But it’s likely to leave Americans and Europeans mystified even as they’re entertained on a moment-to-moment basis by the energy and color, craft and artistry of this film.Woody Allen’s first movies were justly criticized for a scattershot approach that favored cheap laughs. Recalling the early work it’s amazing to see how quickly Allen evolved into a consummate filmmaker whose attention to physical detail was every bit as precise as his best scripts and often his attention to craft was superior to his cat’s cradle dramatic structures.Melinda and Melinda is the filmmaker’s most satisfying work in at least 10 years though not quite on a par with Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors or Husbands and Wives. The conceit of the piece is a dinner involving two playwrights told a personal story and them spinning out how to dramatize it for the theater—one as a tragedy; the other as romantic comedy. It’s a slightly more formal variation on the film Sliding Doors by Doug McGrath, an Allen protÃ©gÃ©.The basic story is rather banal. Both center on the character of Melinda (Radha Mitchell), a woman who enters the lives of a couple in either scenario and proves a disruptive force. And while one conclusion is decidedly more upbeat, both employ farce and dramatic tension to propel the story. The most significant difference between the two is in the casting of the couple to indicate the tone. The presence of Will Farrell is more than sufficient to convey a lighter touch.One must also accept that though proffered as a theatrical production, both scribes paint the story in cinematic terms. The settings are real and the autumnal glow affected by cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond has a warm, quiet authority underscored by Allen’s preference for lightly ironic songs and music from the jazz era and a variant of radio scoring that wafts through to convey the chill in the air and the rustle of leaves.Allen has made dozens of films with production designer Santo Loquasto and the collaboration continues to produce settings that look more authentic than actual locations. Loquasto has no equal when it comes to marrying character with environment and the assured comfort of one tale as opposed to the playful clutter of its opposite is the dividing line between imminent danger and working with a comfortable safety net.The film has the precision of a Swiss watch and the balanced visual composition of a Manet. And while that provides Melinda and Melinda with plenty to savor for the mind and the eye, it removes any real sense of threat that were the hallmark of the writer-director-performer’s most enduring work and signature talent.
Written by Len Klady