“Kung Phooey!” marks a shrewd first project for writer-director Darryl Fong, who sends up not just martial arts movies but a whole galley-full of Chinese and East Asian cliches in a way no Anglo director could. Individual jokes stand out well after the pic has begun to wobble under its own weight, but overall premise is on a par with “Fear of a Black Hat,” which similarly skewered African-American cultural standards. After a good run at specialized and smaller fests, pic will have a summer U.K. release; Stateside prospects other than homevid seem unlikely.
Bathed in spoofery but clearly pitched to an aud hip to its racial politics, the movie knowingly begins as a deliberately bad-looking rip-off of King Hu adventures. Art Chew (vet H.K. thesp Michael Chow) gains spiritual and martial arts mastery at the Shur-li Temple (get it?) and goes on a quest to the U.S. to find the Ancient Peach, reputed to contain the nectar of eternal youth. He picks up two hapless buddies on the way, Waymon (Fong) and Roy Lee (Colman Domingo), a black dude who thinks he’s Bruce Lee come back to life.
Meanwhile, Charlie Chanesque archvillain Helen Hu (Joyce Thi Brew) wants the peach as badly as does Art. Visual jokes pile up like the bad guys but never at the kind of crackling pace this brand of spoof demands, and the verbal ripostes tend mostly to be of the groaner variety.
Fong, a vet Asian-American actor who can’t get a role that isn’t a waiter, servant or geeky student, has fashioned his frustrations into comedy, and though pic is several steps short of a fully accomplished indie work, it’s a well-targeted slap at Hollywood’s mistreatment of Asians and a fine way to employ as many Asian-Americans, both above the line and below, as possible.
Fong’s fellow cast members have fun, and Wallace Choy provides a droll spirit as well-meaning restaurateur Uncle Wong, who’s under Helen’s thumb. A slicker production wasn’t affordable, but it would have been wrong for this scrappy foolishness.