Kung Fu Divas is a tricky little film. Behind the broad humor, the kung fu antics and the heavy use of VFX lies this fairly subversive take on the pressures put on women to be a certain kind of beautiful. It ends up mocking beauty pageant culture, plays around with cinematic gender roles, and just touches on the current popularity of body enhancement. It’s all pretty clever. The reliance on visual effects does create a bit of dissonance, but overall, Kung Fu Divas is much more interesting than the average local comedy.
Charlotte (Ai Ai de las Alas) is from a family of beauty queens, but she has yet to win a title of her own. Her final chance is the Hiyas ng Dalampasigan Pageant, and her mother has taken steps to make sure that she wins. But her chances are dashed when the mysterious Samantha (Marian Rivera) suddenly joins the contest. The two become bitter enemies following the contest, but they are soon forced by destiny to team up. It turns out the two have a hidden connection to a mystical past, and must work together to discover the truth about their heritage.
It’s actually a pretty twisty plot, with as many strange turnarounds as some of those classic Shaw Brothers wuxia pictures. The delivery of the plot can get a little clumsy, with the film losing its momentum as it stops to narrate all of the backstory of the characters. The film ends up feeling a tad long because of this. Still, there are quite a few clever turns, and the themes are pulled off with panache. The film builds this completely absurd reality that applies the heightened aesthetics of kung fu cinema to the already strange world of beauty queens.
These two sides may seem incompatible, but the film manages to blend them quite well. It just commits to the absurdity of both sides of the equation. Everything is approached in the same way, with the same outsized emotions and flair for the ridiculous. The reality of the beauty pageant is taken to such an absurd state that it only makes sense that the two contestants would just leap into the air and fight with electricity coming off their skin. That sense of unreality brings into focus the insanity of our culture’s obsession with beauty, and the film cleverly explores this idea through the story of the two main characters.
The film relies heavily on visual effects to help build this sense of unreality. The approach is completely understandable, but it still doesn’t look very good overall. The film might have been better off scaling back a bit, and leaning more on the talent of the cast. Ai Ai de las Alas and Marian Rivera are perfectly capable of selling the heightened reality all by themselves. Rivera is particularly great in this film. She really is much better in a comedic context, especially when playing a character that gets to abuse people. She just pulls it off with such flair. The fights are pulled off pretty well, despite obvious limitations. The entire cast is pretty great as a whole, all of them just as committed to building this grand portrait of absurdity.
Kung Fu Divas is definitely worth a look. The VFX are a tad clunky at points, and there are a few odd choices (among them, a cameo by a personality associated with many of the terrible things the film is satirizing), but the overall effect is quite winning. It’s just a lot of fun, with a sense of humor that skews just a little stranger than the average local comedy film. And in its heart, it actually finds something interesting to say about our culture. This film is really worth considering.