This 1971 Shaw Brothers martial-arts flick is definitely full of action — energetic camerawork, gallons of stage blood, and a widescreen frame full of gracefully choreographed movement on the part of dozens of performers wielding an impressive variety of weapons all contribute to the film’s sense of urgent forward motion.
It pains me to note that The Forbidden
Kingdom has the feeling of a valedictory about it. The film is a
generally westernized recitation of archetypal martial-arts legends
and themes that uses an alternate-realities hook to palm off its main
character arc on Michael Angarano, a good-looking kid who comes off as a variation on a theme by Shia
LaBeouf, in a bid to give a generation of teenaged American
moviegoers a point of emotional entrée to the story of the
Asian other. That director Rob Minkoff had the sense to retain the
great Asian martial-arts choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping and lyrical
cinematographer Peter Pau is to his credit – they give the
film notes of beauty and authenticity that play against the inevitable Hollywood gloss slathered across the story (think
Karate Kid: The Next Generation) and characters.
Stephen Chow’s newest — about a small town in pre-revolutionary China populated by kung-fu masters who are drawn out of retirement by the arrival of a criminal gang — is being compared to Buster Keaton and Chuck Jones, correctly enough, but its cartoon-come-to-life visuals put me in mind most immediately of Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen. Then again, it’s clearly a Stephen Chow film more than anything else, with broad slapstick undergirding typically impressive martial-arts choreography by the amazing Yuen Wo-ping and Sammo Hung.
By itself, the opening sequence — a near-musical set piece involving a group of well-dressed, ax-wielding thugs that come on like the gangs in “Beat It” — is pretty amazing, but the rest of the film is an ever-escalating, near-joyous expansion of the possibilities offered by Chow’s particular brand of homage and parody coupled with a willingness to try anything with CGI. (If you’re watching carefully, you might notice an actor transform into a digital double right before something terrible happens to him.)
Like the other Chow films I’ve seen (only Shaolin Soccer and God of Cookery) Kung Fu Hustle is a fresh, contemporary take on Chinese storytelling traditions, and few directors in world cinema are working so competently and consistently in any mode as Chow is in this one. A really good time.