The artistic solemnity of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Hero and House of Flying Daggers has been ripe for parody. Wire-fu farce has always been around — Cf. Jackie Chan’s drunken boxing movies — but parody is a more subversive form. There were the inklings in the new Zatoichi of kung fu parody — with its ‘one hit kills’ rejection of drawn out fist- and swordplay. Now true kung fu parody has exploded into theaters this weekend under the name Kung Fu Hustle (simply titled Kung Fu in Chinese releases).

Paper Football, Very Clever

Kung Fu Hustle aims to be for martial arts action movies what Blazing Saddles was for Westerns. It doesn’t quite achieve that, although it sounds a death knell: we will never watch a kung fu movie so seriously again.

Hustle‘s wildly parodic opening gives it a hurtling momentum for the first 45 minutes or so. After the plot kicks in, and we are asked to rationalize the motives of characters who are mere excuses for cool visuals, the movie takes on a sort of entertainment-by-rote. Perhaps it was the strange reference to The Shining or the ever-escalating series of kung-fu masters that finally exhausted me. In any case, I think the genre reached its acme somewhere between the bamboo battle from House of Flying Daggers and the marvelously deflating dagger attack in Kung Fu Hustle — a mixture of Looney Tunes and Jaques Tati.

Mark my words. The demise of this genre is visible from the rearview mirror in my shoulder.

UPDATE: More on Kung Fu Hustle and Stephen Chow’s first cross-cultural hit, Shaolin Soccer here.