Kung Fu Hustle and Save the Green Planet (review)

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Due East

If you’re looking for some real verve at the movies right now, you’ve gotta head east… waaay east, to a place where if the filmmakers are working within their own traditional framework and structures and dealing with their own hoary clichés and tropes, those building blocks are all at least fresher to those of us weaned on Hollywood flicks and getting tired of seeing the same old thing.
Of course, some clever Western film fans have been into the Asian stuff for years and so won’t be as enthralled, perhaps, by the latest offerings from that part of the world to make it to our shores, but let us neophytes enjoy the thrill of discovery. A lot of newcomers to Asian action flicks will likely head to see Kung Fu Hustle, what with it getting a wide American release and all, and they’re in for an especial treat, because you don’t need to have any interest in martial arts to get an enormous kick out of this one. Hong Kong’s Stephen Chow does his Shaolin Soccer brand of goofy insanity one better with this wonderfully demented flick, combining wild cartoon defiance of physics with such unexpected elements as an Old West-style showdown, a Busby Berkeley-esque musical sequence, and outrageous caricatures that bring to mind the satire of Fawlty Towers. It’s all completely pointless except as a silly diversion… and that, when you need to check out from the all-too-palpable insanity of the real world at the moment, is a very good thing.

The plot, such as it is, concerns the poor schlubs of Pig Sty Alley, who are too destitute even to attract the interest of any of the gangs who run the rest of Shanghai. (This is supposed to be taking place in the 1930s, but the flick inhabits a pseudo Depression-era movie fantasia world that exists in its own timeless dimension.) But a young wannabe gangster and all-around loser, Sing (Chow), shows up, swaggering around and pretending to be part of the scary Axe Gang, which in turn finally brings the mob down on the citizens of Pig Sty Alley.

As nonsensical as the film really is, it’s not worthy spoiling the fun by revealing how the cartoon shakes itself out. But suffice to say that the poor schlubs of Pig Sty Alley turn out not to be as helpless as they’d like us to think they are. Some of them — including the hilariously bitchy Landlady (Qiu Yuen), who’s like Sybil Fawlty without the fawning obsequiousness — have hidden talents that would make Bruce Lee and the Roadrunner green with envy.

Global warning
Save the Green Planet, from Korea, is equally eye-popping and just as breathtaking, but in an entirely different way. Writer/director Jang Jun-Hwan throws elements of movie science fiction, Internet conspiracy theories, murder mysteries, revenge dramas, and misguided romances into a blender and comes up with a highly disturbing, superviolent look at the legacy of human violence throughout history, and where it’s leading us: to the destruction of the planet.

Lee Byeong-Gu (Shin Ha-Gyun) is a troubled young man who thinks his old boss — Kang Man-Shik (Baek Yun-Shik), the big cheese at a major chemical corporation — is, well, an alien from the planet Andromeda who’s part of a global alien conspiracy to experiment on humans. (Jang was inspired by Internet nutball David Icke, who has similar ideas.) So he kidnaps the “alien,” because the Andromedans are going to destroy the earth at the next lunar eclipse, just a few days away, and Byeong-Gu is the only one who can stop it from happening. He is assisted by his girlfriend, Sooni (Hwang Jung-Min), a sad grownup little girl who spends much of her time — when she isn’t helping to torture a confession of alienness out of Kang — ironing her Barbie dolls’ clothing and isn’t really quite sure she believes this alien stuff.

Just when you think you’ve got a grip on what Planet is, Jang switches gears, while always maintaining an astonishing discipline, as the film morphs from incisive drama to hilariously gory splatter and into an extended parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But Jang never merely pokes fun at all these genres — all of which have, at their hearts, something to say about the human propensity for nastiness. He wields his film like a saber, slicing through concepts of justification and defense and explanation that these genres have explored in an attempt to figure out why we’re so bad so often, and comes to the conclusion that it’s all bullshit and we’re irredeemable. You don’t have to agree with him to find his argument startling and compelling.

Kung Fu Hustle
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated R for sequences of strong stylized action and violence
official site | IMDB

Save the Green Planet
viewed at home on a small screen
not rated
official site | IMDB

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