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Kung Fu Dunk

Jay Chou     Charlene Choi and Jay Chou in Kung Fu Dunk

(left) Jay Chou takes it to the hole, and (right) Charlene Choi and Jay Chou.

Chinese: 功夫灌籃
Year: 2008
Director: Kevin Chu
Action: Ching Siu-Tung
Cast: Jay Chou, Eric Tsang Chi-Wai, Charlene Choi Cheuk-Yin, Wilson Chen, Shaun Tam Chun-Yin, Baron Chen Chu-He, Liu Genghong, Eddy Ko Hung, Ng Man-Tat, Leung Ka-Yan, Huang Bo, Wong Yat-Fei, Kenneth Tsang Kong, Yan Ni
The Skinny: Kung Fu Dunk tries to be a hoops version of Shaolin Soccer, but while they ape the concept, they forgot to ape the quality. An out-and-out terrible film, courtesy of director Kevin Chu. Don't blame the stars for this.
by Kozo:

Thus far, Jay Chou's movies have been good - or at least, they've aspired to be good. Initial D, Curse of the Golden Flower, and Secret were all solid productions that managed some if not a lot of acclaim, so one may think that Chairman Chou is at least gifted at choosing promising productions. It's time to scratch that assumption, because his latest film, Kung Fu Dunk, isn't just bad - it's insanely terrible, and is as transparent a money grab as you're likely to see this year. Maybe we shouldn’t blame Jay Chou, because Chou may have been looking for a fun picture to make, and Kung Fu Dunk combines martial arts and basketball - two of Chou's personal passions. The problem is that Chou allowed himself to work with Kevin Chu a.k.a. Chu Yen-Ping, the esteemed auteur of the execrable Shaolin Popey films, not to mention a zillion other Taiwanese cheapies that probably set the Taiwan film industry back a couple of decades. Basically, we're going to blame this entire mess on Kevin Chu. Jay Chou: you get a free pass.

Chou stars as Fang Shi-Jie, an orphan who was abandoned next to a basketball court while still a baby. Raised in a martial arts school, Jie becomes skilled at kung fu, but he unfortunately falls in with sleazy con man Zhen Li (Eric Tsang), who discovers that Jie has amazing accuracy with throwing objects and decides to use him to hustle people at darts. The gambit works, until it raises the ire of local gangsters - but that's okay, because Jie trashes them convincingly in a bar-set brawl choreographed with routine pop kung-fu flair by Ching Siu-Tung. Sadly, Jie's Road House impression gets him kicked out of school. However, Wang Li has a better idea: use Jie's object-chucking skills on the basketball court! In record time, Wang Li gets Jie enrolled at the imaginatively-titled First University, where he's supposed to be their new star player. But Jie only has the ability to shoot, and can't necessarily pass, steal, dribble, dunk, or play defense. Will he learn all these abilities in time to help the team win the championship in rousing sports movie fashion?

Well, partly. Jie does learn some of the necessary skills (dribbling and dunking, mainly) in a quick montage. Before you know it, Jie is tearing up the court along with team captain Ding Wei (Wilson Chen, in an unnecessarily intense performance) and star player Xiao Lan (Baron Chen, no relation to Wilson). Kung Fu Dunk steals some concepts from seminal manga/anime Slam Dunk, including some character traits and relationships, plus a few minor story details. Jie is taught that his leaping ability is most important because he can rebound, and "he who controls the rebound, controls the game". That bit of wisdom is a direct lift from Slam Dunk and is indeed very sound basketball advice, relating to how defense and team play can actually make the difference between winning and losing. This lesson also turns up in Kung Fu Dunk during a moment where Jie admits that learning to pass - and not shoot - is his true lesson on the basketball court.

However, that lesson is delivered in only one line and at a single moment, and is never foreshadowed or elaborated on during the rest of the movie. This is bad scriptwriting, plain and simple. If a character is supposed to learn that selflessness is the key to winning, then shouldn't selfishness be a part of his game up until that point? Slam Dunk had characters butting heads over pride and star status before finally learning how to work together as a team, but Kung Fu Dunk has clichéd lip service and absolutely no development whatsoever. Jie is a likeable, dopey fellow and Jay Chou gives him a winning comic charm. However, he's too likeable a fellow and doesn't possess anything resembling pride, selfishness, or complexity. As such, it's too easy to root for him and it's also easy to be bored by his complete lack of a character arc. The other characters don't fare much better, and are given nominal backstory that's usually dispensed in quick flashback or even not at all. Add to that some unfunny comedy, annoying side characters, and an insipid "looking for my parents" subplot, and you have a film that could have used some imagination, if not actual writers.

Also lacking is the film's hoops action. There's wire-assisted dunking and some energetic fast breaks, but nothing resembling actual basketball play exists. There is zero on-court tension, abundant traveling, almost no defense, no shifts of momentum - hell, there aren't even coaches in this movie's version of the sport! Games are also stopped for impromptu kung-fu action, which is only marginally entertaining and mostly superfluous. One comparison to Kung Fu Dunk could be Shaolin Soccer, because it also presents a mixture of sports and martial arts action, but in Shaolin Soccer, director/star Stephen Chow created a movie-specific logic that seemed to align with, if not actually fit real soccer rules. Kung Fu Dunk breaks rules all over the place, and uses basketball as a way to simply string its jokes and unconnected wannabe touching scenes together. The result isn't just an inconsistent mixture of sports movie and Lunar New Year comedy, it's a complete and unconvincing mess.

The excuse that could be brought up here is, "Well, it's a Lunar New Year movie! It's supposed to be silly and stupid!" Granted, Lunar New Year movies have a long history of being generally silly and stupid, but that excuse doesn't fly for Kung Fu Dunk. For one thing, there are publicly-reviled Lunar New Year movies too (see Himalaya Singh for a recent example), showing that just intending to be stupid doesn't give you an immediate pass on quality. Also, the best Lunar New Year comedies usually possessed some spark or surprise that made them fun. Kung Fu Dunk possesses no such spark, and doesn't provide enough surprise or amusement to cover up its illogical, hackneyed, and insipid plot and story. If someone is a Jay Chou fan, then sure, they have a right to enjoy Kung Fu Dunk just for Chairman Chou's likeability. But pretending the film is good is another story entirely. One would hope that collective audience taste has not devolved to such a point that they'll defend bad moviemaking just because they like someone in the film. It's possible to support a star and also disapprove of the movie he's starring in. Now would be a good time to exercise that discretion.

The ultimate killer here is Kung Fu Dunk's love story. Charlene Choi co-stars as Ding Wei's sister Lily, who causes Jie's heart to beat wildly when he first sees her. Lily has a thing for Xiao Lan, and it's not until some exposition rather than action that she turns her adorable eyes towards Jie. Choi looks quite fetching in her pigtails and glasses costume, and gives her underwritten role more photogenic charm than is probably required. Still, she is not a part of Kung Fu Dunk's love story. The love story here isn't between a spunky, adorable young girl and a likeable, dopey young guy, but between said young guy and a sleazy, middle-aged agent. Yep, the audience is subjected to not one but two scenes of Jay Chou and Eric Tsang sharing wine by candlelight, plus all the longing gazes and teary farewells are saved for the interminable emotional climax between the two. I think I'm safe in speaking for Kung Fu Dunk's target audience when I say that this, most definitely, is not a pairing that they want to see - not now and not ever. Chu Yen-Ping does a lot wrong with Kung Fu Dunk, but denying an overt romantic connection between his two young stars is probably his largest error. Hell, Chu probably could have left out any inkling of romance and the audience would have been okay. But to replace possible gooey-eyed young love co-starring a pretty young girl with a teary, eerie, and frankly creepy pseudo-father-son sobfest co-starring a man with the physique of a barrel? There's only one word for this: crap. (Kozo 2008)



DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin and Cantonese Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc

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