Chinatown Kid [唐人街功夫小子] (1977)

Starring Alexander Fu Sheng, Sun Chien, Shirley Yu, Susan Shaw Yin-Yin, Kuo Chui, Lo Meng, Wang Lung-Wei, Jenny Tseng

Directed By Chang Cheh


I’m afraid that this review was a little bungled from the start. This is what happens when you wind up with a bad copy of a film slated for review and are left with no alternatives but to move ahead…

Any true old school kung fu movie fan has no doubt been in sustained elation since the Shaw Bros catalog had been obtained and dramatically restored by those fine folks over at Celestial Pictures almost ten years ago now. It’s been a nice decade of film viewing for fans of the legendary studio, no longer forced to waddle through 7th generation muddy pan & scan copies of their favorite martial arts classics. It’s a win-win situation for all parties involved, as I think nobody can complain about the work done on preserving the integrity and beauty of these fine films.

Then we have Chinatown Kid, which proves to be the proverbial one that got away when this whole deal went down. Not to say that the film doesn’t look amazing, the restoration here is every bit as beautiful as Celestial’s other remastering efforts. The problem is that Celestial went through its arduous, painstaking lengths only to wind up remastering THE WRONG FILM!

DOH!! You see, Chinatown Kid previously existed in two forms. The original 116 minute Cantonese print, and a severely truncated 86 minute print which was shipped overseas for international theaters to presumably slip on the bottom of a double bill in order to pacify hungry kung fu film fanatics jonesin’ for a fix. This butchered print is the one that Celestial eventually got their hands on and subjected to their thorough remastering process. In their defense, this was the only print that the Shaw Studios supplied to Celestial and they did good work with what they were handed.

The dwarfed version still remains interesting because it contains snippets and extended scenes that are missing from the full-length cut, but it comes at the cost of entire subplots and characters being completely excised. While the film contains what is probably the immortal Alexander Fu Sheng’s greatest performance, this movie is also chock full of interesting characters played by a who’s who of Shaw’s finest at the time, most of who are reduced to mere cogs of the plot device machine in this 86 minute cut. Fu Sheng’s real life wife Jenny Tsang is introduced as a potential romantic interest, only to never be seen again in the film. Imagine my surprise when looking at Chinatown Kid’s IMDb entry and seeing the charismatic Kara Hui listed in the credits! I bet she was great… too bad she was missing from my copy. Probably the greatest tragedy is in Sun Chien’s character, whose story was obviously intended to be every bit as significant as Fu Sheng’s in the film. He plays a naïve, bookwormish student who nearly becomes a drooling cocaine addict when faced with the harsh realities of being a struggling expatriate in a strange land. Sadly, the jumpy nature of this truncated print tosses his near tragic skirt with addiction into the realms of ham-fisted preachiness usually reserved for afterschool specials.

Due to this version’s accelerated storyline, these great characters are never truly given a chance to shine. Damn near all of them show interesting potential, which unfortunately is never explored due to theater business politics.

Now listen, I understand the essential reasoning behind these malignant cuts. If you are faced with the task of trimming this sucker down for repeat screenings, you have to go with the bread and butter, that being Fu Sheng’s interesting bumpkin-turned-triad character and his magnificently diverse performance. But I guess what I’m trying to say is that there is a really great kung fu film under the surface here that is sadly obstructed by erratic cuts and half-developed characters that ends up presenting only a slice of the whole pie.

Perhaps in a few months I can get my hands on the real version of Chinatown Kid and give it the fair review that it so rightly deserves. This is a landmark in the Shaw Bros timeline for many reasons including the first exterior scenes (That I know of) of a Shaw Bros film shot in America. Just watching Fu Sheng tooling along the busy streets of San Francisco was a sight to behold. Also notable is that this film marks the first appearance of all five venoms together (granted Chiang Sheng and Lu Feng are reduced to tiny “blink and you’ll miss ‘em” bit parts, but interesting nonetheless). Argh! I can’t wait to watch Chinatown Kid instead of the 90-minute trailer I was treated to tonight. I’m filing this one away as a non-review for now, a glimpse at the theater politics surrounding the grindhouse era, and how often times it spelled doom for a little movie like Chinatown Kid.