‘Kung Fu Kun’

When kids are united adults are defeated

by Mark Schilling

A “kids movie” in the current Japanese film business almost always means anime. It wasn’t always thus — kids were the biggest fans of the Godzilla series and dozens of other nonanimated homegrown monster movies now vanished from the screens. They’ve also flocked to the “Spy Kids” films and similar fare from Hollywood.

The current rarity of Japanese live-action films for under 12s is therefore something of a puzzle. One factor may be the scarcity of local live-action TV shows for the tween demographic — especially ones with the ratings punch of “Hannah Montana,” the wildly popular Disney Channel show, which has generated a hit concert film, about a schoolgirl who leads a double life as a pop singer.

Issei Oda’s “Kung Fu Kun (Kung Fu Kid)” attempts to fill this lacuna with a pint-size kung-fu expert, computer-graphics effects that range from the cutely comic to thunder-and-lightening operatic, and samplings of everything from Hong Kong martial-arts epics to James Bond pics — or rather the “Austin Powers” parodies. Screened in the Generation section of the 2008 Berlin Film Festival, “Kung Fu Kun” may not break new action ground, but it’s also not going to make mom and dad count the endless minutes until the lights go on. Instead, it’s charming, clever and energetic enough to win over all but the most confirmed kiddie-pic haters (including those under 12).

Kung Fu Kun
Director Issei Oda
Run Time 98 minutes
Language Japanese

The main reason is its star, Zhang Zhuang, who won the title role over 2,000 competitors in an audition. A fan of Jackie Chan, Zhang attended the martial-arts school of the storied Shaolin Temple and truly knows his chop-socky stuff. He’s also an acting natural whose lovable-but-feisty persona is the real, unaffected deal. Nearly all the female characters, save for the evil ones, react to this kid with smiles, squeals and embraces, while rubbing his round shaven head as though he were a living good luck charm. And I’m sure Oda didn’t have to prompt them.

A visual-effects whiz who made his feature debut in 2006 with the comic action flick “Warau Michael (Arch Angels),” Oda has joined with action director Kenji Tanigaki to keep the gags and action sequences coming at a brisk clip. Some of the former, such as a boy’s embarrassing bout of diarrhea at a restaurant, are pitched squarely at a grade schooler’s sense of humor, while many of the latter, such as Zhang’s comic battle against a pudgy bully, are spot-on parodies of Jackie Chan’s on-screen antics. The film’s more serious action scenes, which try to replicate the apocalyptic atmospherics of “The Matrix” and other heavier Sci-Fi/fantasy films, fall short. However, it succeeds at its main aim: entertaining children without playing down to them — or playing up to their teenage siblings with kiddie-inappropriate sex and shocks. In other words, mom and dad can sit through it without worrying about traumatizing little Taro for life.

The hero, Kung Fu (Zhang), begins the story as a junior monk/martial-arts student at the Shaolin Temple. He quickly rises up the ranks by beating adult monks with dazzling displays of fighting prowess. But before he can win his coveted expert license, his white-bearded master tells him he must journey to the “land of the samurai” to face his “last opponent.”

Before Kung Fu can learn the identity of the opponent, the master sends him hurling across the sea to Tokyo’s shitamachi (old downtown), where an elderly lady practicing tai chi saves him from a hard landing. She is Izumi (Pinko Izumi), the proprietress of a Chinese restaurant, the New Koraku, where she uses her martial-arts skills to send dishes of food literally flying to the tables of astonished customers.

She takes in the boy, who speaks not a word of Japanese, but is wearing a wrist band with a magic bell that will tell him when the “last opponent” is near. Izumi’s granddaughter, Reiko (Nanami Fujimoto), takes Kung Fu to school, where he becomes a hit with the other kids, save for the above-mentioned bully, whom Kung Fu handily defeats when he tries to hassle Reiko.

The film’s real bad guy, though, is the Black Minister of Education (Masahiko Nishimura), the mustachioed leader of a plot to take over the nation’s education system and brainwash kids with his evil computer games. To that end he sends his “teachers” to Reiko’s school, where they recruit the weak-willed principal (Takashi Sasano) and install themselves in the classrooms.

Most of the kids happily adapt to the new all-play, no-study regime, but Reiko resists — and Kung Fu, sensing that something is amiss, comes to the rescue of her and the other kids who haven’t been brainwashed.

The plucky-kids-battle-adult-evildoers plot is hardly new, but kids who rarely see their nonanimated age-mates as heroes on the big screen will find fresh thrills as Kung Fu and his pals take on the Black Minister and his minions. And they will get a message that goes against the grain of their all-digitalized, instant-gratification culture: Books-and-pencils learning is cool. What, mom and dad, is there not to like?