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.