Kung-Fu Marathon

A few weeks back, I received a visit from some poor villagers, who had heard about my legendary kung-fu prowess. They begged me to return to their village with them to help defend it from the regular raids by bandits from the neighbouring province. I was moved by their plight, so I accepted and returned to their home, dispensing words of wisdom as I went. Once there, I found it to be a relatively straightforward assignment. The bandits were fierce and numerous, but were untrained in the ways of hand-to-hand combat and were very obliging in attacking me one at a time, so I disposed of them with nonchalant ease. It was as I was breaking yet another neck that it occurred to me that I hadn't actually watched that many kung-fu films, despite being an accomplished martial-artist myself. It was something I vowed to rectify, so I took my leave from the grateful villagers, taking my bags of rice as payment and leaving many young ladies in the village heartbroken. On the way home I swung by the video store and selected a half-dozen titles to check out some kung-fu fighting. To help me review them, I rang up my old sparring partner, number one super-guy Hong Kong Phooey, to select his favourite line and fight from each film. Here's how we got on.

Before he gained fame in Hollywood as the fight choreographer on The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, martial -arts legend Yuen Woo-Ping was responsible for launching the career of Jackie Chan with an influential double kung-fu whammy at the tail end of the 70s. Drunken Master (Woo-ping Yuen, 1978) has the usual generic action sequences, but a real freshness was injected into the genre by combining it with a broad comedy element as newcomer Jacky Chan (as he is billed here) is taught the 'Drunken Fist' method by a hard-drinking old beggar. It was a big box-office success and paved the way for Chan's comedic kung-fu career. However, despite his obvious talent for clowning around, Chan displays some highly impressive feats of athleticism in the training montages. It's undoubtedly rough around the edges, but good fun. 
HKP's Favourite Line : "Your father's kung-fu is shit, I wouldn't pay him to wipe the shit of my damned arse!" 
HKP's Favourite Fight : The 'Head-fu' fight. Now I know where Zinedine Zidane got his ideas. 

Snake in The Eagle's Shadow (Yuen Woo Ping, 1978) has a virtually identical plot but I liked this better than Drunken Master, because it has more chop-socky action sequences and because it has a kung-fu fight between a cat and a cobra, complete with 'hi-ya!' sound effects. You know you want to see that.
HKP's Favourite Line :  "I'm not actually a preacher........I'm the best fighter in Russia!"
HKP's Favourite Fight : Obviously the cat vs cobra smackdown 

Special mention in both these films must go to Yuen Siu-Tien  (father of Woo-ping) who co-stars in each as Chan's grizzled old mentor and who shows some impressive moves for a 66-year old. Although he died the year after making these, so maybe he should have taken it easier.

If you like Mr Miyagi's 'wax-on, wax-off' training approach or Rocky's training montages (and who doesn't?), you'll love The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Liu Chia-Liang, 1978). In it, everybody was definitely not kung-fu fighting, but our hero San Te (Gordon Liu, in the role that inspired Tarantino to cast him in the Kill Bill films) does a hell of a lot of kung-fu training, as he works his way through the 35 imaginatively torturous training chambers of the Shaolin temple, strengthening every part of his body, EVEN HIS EYEBALLS!!!, to become a truly great kung-fu expert. It's good fun, the production values are good and the crash-zoom shot is employed with dangerously reckless abandon throughout. Apparently the Wu Tang Clan were inspired to name one of their albums after this. But don't let that put you off. 

HKP's Favourite Line : "I wish I had learned kung-fu, instead of studying" 
Don't we all, don't we all.
HKP's Favourite Fight : San Te shows his prowess with his new invention, the three-section staff.

To date, there are six films in the Once Upon a Time in China series, which all set their stories against the epic sweep of Chinese history, particularly the clash between Eastern and Western cultures at the turn of the 20th century. Once Upon a Time in China II (Tsui Hark, 1992) is apparently the best, but I was disappointed in this. It has lofty ambitions in its story of but it didn't manage to keep my interest or stir my emotions. However, it does have a cracking final fight between Jet Li and Donnie Yen, but I suppose I could have watched that on YouTube. In fact, you can too - I've included it below.
HKP's Favourite Line : Not a line, but the opening theme song, warbled by man-of-many-talents Jackie Chan. 
HKP's Favourite Fight : Obviously, Jet Li vs Donnie Yen. Not much competition elsewhere in the film.

It's not all about the boys though. Supercop (Stanley Tong, 1992) is the third film in the Police Story series, which sees Hong Kong cop (Jackie Chan again) travel to Shanghai for some drug-related investigations. It's a pretty muddled action-comedy which may not have much of a plot, but it does have super-sexy Michelle Yeoh, who out-acts, out-fights and out-kicks everyone in the film, including Chan, (although he may have been handicapped by the alarming amount of denim he is wearing in this). And as the customary Chan end-credit out-takes show, she's pretty tough. Go girl! 
HKP's Favourite Line : Not a line, but the final theme song - Tom Jones singing Kung Fu Fighting. Funky.
HKP's Favourite Fight : Michelle Yeoh's first display of her prowess. 

So far, these have been good fun, but where's the heart? Enter Ip Man (Wilson Yip, 2008). This is loosely based (ie mostly made up) on the experiences of the real-life Yip Man, a martial arts teacher who taught Bruce Lee amongst others. Set during the Sino-Japanese War, this provides a much more realistic setting than many kung-fu films that lends it a certain gravitas, all of which is handsomely staged in a way you would expect from historical epics, but not kung-fu films. But never worry, this IS undeniably a kung-fu film as well, featuring about a dozen fantastic fight sequences. Not only do they have a undeniable wow factor, but they are all the more impressive for being edited smartly, rather than frantically, allowing the full extent of the movements to be appreciated. And Donnie Yen really does deserve to be appreciated here, with a dazzling array of skills. That gif below isn't actually speeded up - that's how fast he is. 
HKP's Favourite line: "There are no men who fear their wives. Only men who respect them."
HKP's Favourite fight: Donnie Yen versus 10 Japanese kung-fu experts. Poor buggers. 

So it's been a fun few films, but no doubting Ip Man as the worthy winner from this bunch. Must call up Donnie to see if he fancies a little sparring for exercise - he may be up to my standard on this evidence. Anyhow, I bid farewell to Hong Kong Phooey, who's off on a date with Rosemary the Telephone Operator, and promise to do this again some time soon. SHIT! Must go, folks, I see one of the girls from that village coming up the front path - guess she wasn't too impressed by my quick moves when I left in a hurry that morning. That's one fight I could do without. Until next time, grasshoppers, stay young and learn much.

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