A review dedicated to T. Rice, as part of the to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

In 1966, stand-up comic and television comedy writer Woody Allen wrote a new dub script for the 1965 Japanese spy comedy Key of Keys, at the behest of U.S. distributor American International Pictures. The result (somewhat disingenuously referred to as Allen's directorial debut - and aye, he did direct his friends and colleagues in the dub cast, but really now...) was What's Up, Tiger Lily?, among the earliest exercises in the "making fun of bad movies is fun" genre comedy that has turned up this or that form through the years. Take one evolutionary branch, and you meet up with Mystery Science Theater 3000; take another, and you get deliberately bad films like Psycho Beach Party from 2000 and The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra from 2001

The most direct line of descent, simply redubbing movies with comedy scripts, has remained largely silent down through the years. Counting Tiger Lily itself, the IMDb identifies a mere 18 feature-length films as "redubbed with comedy soundtrack", and I'm pretty sure at least a few of them don't actually exist. As far as actual prominence with any kind of audience of size, that list of 18 winnows down to two: Tiger Lilly, and then, in 2002, Steve Oedekerk's Kung Pow: Enter the Fist. The latter film is a re-cut and re-dubbed version of the 1976 Hong Kong action film Tiger & Crane Fist, with Oedekerk inserted bodily into the action of the movie after the fashion of Tom Hanks shaking hands with John F. Kennedy in Forrest Gump. He also personally overdubbed virtually every character, taking great pains to make them all sound very fake and bad. And it's... the thing is, the first time I ever saw it, it was in the company of a fellow who was so head-over-heels in love, laughing so hard at everything, I know that people adore the movie (it is the very model of a cult film). I admire that people love the movie, since it seems to be an excessively pure love. I myself find it to be rather tedious for the most part. But this is the ineluctable truth of comedy: sometimes one person can be laughing so hard they're choking, and on the very same couch somebody else can be watching the very same jokes, silently praying for death.

So anyway, in its revised form, Kung Pow is the story of a chosen one, so immaculately special amongst  all men that he's never even given a name other than Chosen One (Oedekerk). The plot is, by calculated design, a bit nonsensical and hard to follow, but the essence is that the Chosen One is seeking revenge for the death of his parents at the hands of Master Pain (Wong Fei-lung, in archive footage - as are most of the people onscreen, so I'll stop mentioning it), an evil martial arts master. Accordingly, he has come to train under Master Tang (Chen Hui Lou), a great genius and also something of a demented pervert. He also meets the beautiful Ling (Hsieh Ling-Ling), herself the daughter of a master who has long gone missing. At a few points, the Chosen One is given advice by a mysterious woman with a single, central breast, Whoa (Jennifer Tung, who is the only other person besides Oedekerk to speak with her own voice, and one of the few actors who filmed their scenes directly for the 2002 footage).

There's some definite sparkle to all of this, and I will absolutely give Oedekerk credit: he passes my Rule of Parodies. That is, the parody only works if the person making it deeply and truly love the thing they're making fun of. Kung Pow is in every way the product of an adult who spent his childhood watching tacky old kung fu movies with incomprehensible re-edits and godawful English dubs on American television. There are not complicated, sophisticated gags here: a dog moves its mouth, and several seconds later we hear the bark, a character visibly speaks an entire sentence, but the only word we hear is "Yes", that kind of thing. It's not, by any means, a highly creative film, relying on most of the most obvious humor, but it is an overeager one, hoping to make up for its lack of wit in the sheer volume of good-spirited, look-at-how-nuts-I-can-be jokes. This is pretty much exactly what one should anticipate from a director who got his start as a hanger-on to 1990s Jim Carrey (Oedekerk wrote several episodes of In Living Color, before jumping into feature directing with 1995's Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls). And really, I do admire Kung Pow on this level: while it may be pretty dumb in almost all of the ways a comedy can be dumb - in case you missed me mentioning that one character is a woman with a solitary breast, and that's like, the only thing about her, I will happily mention it again - it is thoroughly free of pretentious to being anything else. It's the goofball idiot in middle school who has so much fun coming up with jokes that he doesn't mind that other people thing he's an off-putting weirdo.

That being said, the off-putting weirdo is still off-putting, and weird. The simple fact is that for me anyway, none of the jokes in Kung Pow land: they're all lowest-common denominator "silly voices being hostile" humor from the same generation of American comedy that produced Carrey and Adam Sandler, and while the film's acute disinterest in making sense results in some fun juxtapositions - at its best, a certain MST3K-level disjunction between image and word can crop up - far too much of it is one kind of joke, told exactly the same way. The worst part is Ling, saddled with Oedenkerk's aggressively bad falsetto, which is by itself not funny; then, for reasons unknown, he decides that her verbal tic will be to go "wee-oh-wee-oh" at the end of sentences. How this even rises to the category of "a joke", I cannot confidently say, but there you have it.

The film also rests a bit heavily on easy references, the bane of good comedy: there's an extensive Matrix parody with a CGI cow that I would unhesitatingly call the worst part of the film, for all sorts of reasons: the fact that parodies of The Matrix were beyond tired in 2002, the fact that the cow is a shockingly bad visual effect in a movie whose effects work is generally quite excellent, especially considering the budget, the fact that it boils down to "huh, udders!" visual gags by the time it runs out.

Generally speaking, and Ling notwithstanding, the original material is the worst part of Kung Pow, and when it remains a strict exercise in re-dubbing, it at least has some kind of discipline forced upon it. Oedekerk's sense of humor tends towards the deliberately repulsive: the Chosen One's mark is a little face on his tongue that speaks gibberish (an effect ported directly from Oedekerk's "Thumbation" television parodies, in which he re-enacted movies by dressing up his hand in costumes and putting faces on the thumbs; they are slightly terrible, but in a remarkably fascinating way, and unlike Kung Pow, they're only half an hour long), and it somehow never manages to stop being disgusting, regardless of how often we see it. We see it very often. The point being, whenever Oedekerk is hemmed in from indulging in that kind of excess and has to actually use writing for his jokes, Kung Pow benefits. It doesn't benefit very much; its best gags are great, but they make up something like 5% of the whole, and its middle-tier gags are pretty mediocre. But, y'know, Tiger Lily isn't really all that great either, so it could be that the form is inherently limited to simplistic, one-note comedy.