Production values of dubious resources. Acting worse than community theater auditions. Music stolen wholesale from contemporary albums. Dubbing so awful, it borders on sheer genius. Yes, for the generation who visited 42nd Street grindhouse theaters back in the day and the generation who followed, viewing the same titles on home video, these were just some of the rewarding elements of the classic (usually bad) kung fu movie. Recently, the folks at Shout! Factory decided to take a trip back in time with this two-disc set of four vintage Golden Harvest features which essentially serves as an homage to this bygone genre.
Disc One begins with The Manchu Boxer (Qi sheng quan wang, 1974), which focuses on a lead boasting the personality of a wet mop and the élan of a brick. Ku (Tony Liu, aka Anthony Lua Wing) begins the feature as a strong kung fu protégé with the mildest of manners and the dullest of wits – and whose hopes of whatever the heck he had in mind with his dynamite skills coming quickly to an end when his powerful punch accidentally kills his opponent (who, mind you, had already lost the match and was planning on knifing our hero in the back), which forces Ku’s father (the Chinese Mel Brooks) to disown him (though, in reality, he’s only pretending to do so in order to save his son from certain death, as the cheater he killed was the son of a prominent military figure!).
The then wandering Ku stumbles upon an old man named Shen who also tries to knife him (it’s his personality, I guess), but whose advanced case of impending death leaves the kind-hearted Ku with a message for his estranged wife and daughter. So, Ku tracks down Shen’s family (being as overly friendly as can be before breaking the bad news), making up a falsehood about owing the late Shen some money so that he can stay with the near-dead wife and her hot young daughter. No wonder people try to stab the dumb bastard, eh? Meanwhile, the resident villain Chin (one of many in the Chinese phone book, as you may recall, played here by Kim Ki-Joo) is determined to win a local martial arts contest by literally killing off the competition – which is done via the employ of two henchmen (Sammo Hung and Wilson Tong) and even a dreaded Japanese bloke.
As if being an idiotic, cowardly liar wasn’t complicated enough for Ku, the addition of an actual heroic fighter who keeps trying to bring out his fighting skills for the benefit of the seemingly-doomed community makes things more stressful for him. Will the fool come to his senses before he too becomes a victim? Only some stolen musical cues from Pink Floyd’s “Time” and multiple selections from Once Upon a Time in the West – which, naturally, adds to the overall enjoyment – might be able to help in this delightfully silly chop socky flick with choreography by Sammo Hung himself.
Also on Disc One is The Skyhawk (Huang Fei-hong xiao lin quan, also ’74), which is a considerably better motion picture. Sammo Hung is once again on-board here, though this time in the supporting role of a good guy, and plays a student of the legendary Wong Fei Hung aka Skyhawk (played by the equally legendary Tak-Hing Kwan, whose martial arts skills and remarkable resemblance to the historical figure endowed him with a career of playing the same part in well over 100 movies). Traveling through Thailand, the pairing encounters a heap of trouble at the hands (and hired fists) of a gangster named Ku – who is in no way to be confused with the Ku of the previous picture. But they also meet an ally in the form of a young fighter who goes by the name of Little Lion (the great Carter Wong).
Despite all the peril at play, Wong Fei Hung refuses to get involved. But when Ku’s nefarious plans finally border on complete domination of the small Thai town and far too many good men are murdered by the baddies, the legend and his remaining protégés take a stance and decide to issue a plethora of ass-whoopin’. And it is here that The Skyhawk really pays off. The fight scenes are truer to the more revered classics of the era and, despite the traditional bad English dubbing, the actors display a greater intensity and overall seriousness (Tak-Hing Kwan is particularly amazing to watch, especially as he was pushing 70 at the time). Sure, we still get some of those needledrops from albums that nobody owned the rights to in the first place, but of course they just wouldn’t be old school kung fu movies without ’em.
Disc Two of this set full of fists and fury begins with The Association (Yan ku shen tan, 1975). Clearly inspired by works of film from abroad – especially those made for urban theater audiences, as a particularly slimy rape/murder scene in the beginning flashback, wah-wah pedal-heavy theme music, and a hard-to-look-past Jheri curls our lead sports will no doubt reveal to imply – the film focuses on Byong Yu as a contemporary police officer who doesn’t play by the rules. When he is forced to execute his own former girlfriend for murder – a trumped-up charge put into motion by a corrupt military bastard who has greased his way up the ranks – our hero winds up getting involved in all kinds of weird shit.
Prostitution rackets. Sex clubs. And an abortion clinic whose patients go through one of the funkiest warming up procedures ever committed to film – wherein a white blonde chick in a see-through négligée go-go dances around her patient to a disembodied orchestrated disco score! Corruption and vice are all over the place, and only our nipple-electrocuting, testicle-crushing Asian Shaft is determined to do something about it – but the filmmakers take plenty of time to go out of their way to include a lengthy softcore sex scenes (lesbian and straight, kids!), voyeurism, gratuitous nipple licking, and boobies galore (God bless ’em) just in case the title comes too dangerously close to living up to its classification as an action film.
As close as you can get to a 42nd Street grindhouse flick without having to re-cut and re-edit it. In fact, it’s just possible the great Chang-hwa Jeong (Five Fingers of Death struck oil with this incredibly wacky film which truly must be seen to be believed. Sammo Hung (again), Angelo Mao, and Carter Wong (again, albeit in a cameo so short and devoid of any martial arts skill whatsoever, you have to wonder what he’s doing here), and just about every other supporting character player from the previous two films are also featured in this violent and highly unusual entry to the genre.
Concluding the set is – or should I say “are” – The Dragon Tamers (Nu zi tai quan qun ying hui, also from ’75), which once again features Carter Wong (back in a starring role, which is a good way to finish up a slew of films). The movie opens with the female factions of two martial arts schools meeting out in the mountains to beat the shit out of each other. You know, to show the other who’s more better and stuff. And, like one would naturally expect when a group of women get together to fight, it’s only seconds before shirts are ripped off and they’re mud wrestling. In fact, I have expected a caption to pop up reading “The Batley Townswomens’ Guild Presents the Battle of Pearl Harbour“. Instead, however, you can imagine my surprise as I learned this one was the second film directed by John Woo.
Remember him, kids? He used to be all that and a bag of tea until he made several godawful films in America during the ’90s like Face/Off. Prior to that, he made several positively kickass Hong Kong action films in the ’80s, such as The Killer. Here, however we get to see Woo’s humble beginnings as a visionary – and it was already clear even at this early stage that he knew how to handle action. The funky theme music sure doesn’t hurt any, either. And when you get Carter Wong amidst a parade of fighting women, well, you can rest assure that everybody will be kung fu fighting!
Sorry. Had to.
Shout! Factory brings us this enjoyable set to DVD via prints made available from Fortune Star. While all four films are presented in an anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the overall quality varies from title to title, and are most understandably unrestored (I mean really, who’s gonna shell out to preserve a Hong Kong chop socky flick featuring an Asian actor with Jheri curls?). But the inclusion of not only the wacky English dubbed audio (which only add to the awesomeness, whether it be hysterically or otherwise) and their native Mandarin soundtracks (which can be viewed with removable English subtitles) and the original theatrical trailers for all four films in a modestly-priced, two-disc, four-film pack of forgotten martial arts motion picture mayhem is quite a gem unto itself.