Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow [蛇形刁手] (1978)
AKA Eagle’s Shadow; Eagle Claw’s, Snake’s Fist, Cat’s Paw; Snaky Monkey
Starring Jackie Chan, Hwang Jang-Lee, Simon Yuen Siu-Tin, Dean Shek Tin, Fung Hak-On, Tino Wong Cheung, Peter Chan Lung, Hsu Hsia, Charlie Chan Yiu-Lam, Roy Horan
Directed by Yuen Woo-Ping
Expectations: Very high.
Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow is one of the most important and most influential kung fu films of all time, not only giving Jackie Chan his breakthrough hit, but also introducing the world to a style of kung fu film that had never really been seen before. Shaolin Wooden Men may have gotten us closer to a true Jackie Chan film, but Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow is the real deal. Free of Lo Wei’s authoritarian control, Jackie and Yuen Woo-Ping craft an incredibly enjoyable kung fu romp. I don’t think it’s a perfect film, but the positive aspects are overwhelmingly great, so they easily overshadow whatever problems I had with the film.
Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow is the story of the struggle between the evil Eagle’s Claw clan and their systematic murder of every practitioner of the Snake Fist style, but it’s also the story of a young man named Chien Fu (Jackie Chan). He’s a lowly kid that scrubs the floors of his martial arts school, without reward and without ambition to do much else. The current masters taunt him by purposefully stepping in chalk and tracking it all around the dojo, making him work needlessly. But when he befriends an old beggar (Simon Yuen), his life is forever changed as he learns Snake Fist style from the old man. Given the tools to make something of himself, Chien Fu — and Jackie Chan himself — rises to the occasion and shows us all what he’s truly capable of.
And the crazy thing about it (viewing these movies as history), is that this was only the tip of the Jackie Chan iceberg. To think that it almost never was! It’s one of those cosmic situations where everything comes together in one focal point, years of struggle all leading up to this one moment in time. Lo Wei’s rigid structure and control of Jackie led to his first few releases completely underperforming, thus giving Jackie something of a “box office poison” stigma in Hong Kong. After To Kill With Intrigue, Jackie had already made five more movies for Lo Wei (Snake & Crane Arts of Shaolin, Half a Loaf of Kung Fu, Magnificent Bodyguards, Spiritual Kung Fu and Dragon Fist). It sounds ludicrous, I know, but I checked multiple sources and they all confirmed this. Anyway, due to Jackie’s “cursed” nature, Lo Wei didn’t have the money to distribute these finished films, and no one was willing to take a chance on another Lo Wei/Jackie Chan film that would most likely flop. So when Ng See-Yuen from Seasonal Films asked Lo if he would lend out Jackie to him for a couple of movies, Lo graciously agreed.
Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow then became the biggest grossing film in Hong Kong film history (up to that point), outperforming even the mega-popular films of Bruce Lee! Jackie Chan had clearly arrived. Lo Wei then capitalized on his success by slowly releasing the films he had already produced (this is why Snake & Crane Arts of Shaolin was able to release just one week after Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow), but before I get too far down the JC history rabbit hole, I should probably rein myself in.
The comedic choreography of Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow is top-notch. Not only does it allow Jackie to be Jackie, it lays the groundwork for later kung fu comedies, broadening the martial genre out considerably. The fighters’ motions are still of a fantastic nature and not completely based in reality (would someone actually use chopsticks and a rice bowl as weapons?), but instead of directly applying the traditional wuxia techniques as Lo Wei would have in his films, Jackie and Yuen Woo-Ping morph them into something that works for the kung fu genre. The flights of fantasy involve using your surroundings, climbing up a sheer brick wall, or even something as simple as putting on your shoe mid-fight and working it into the choreography. It was daring to even attempt some of the stuff seen in Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, but Jackie had exactly the skills necessary to make it believable and incredibly fun to watch. It’s also interesting to note that the villains aren’t comical like many of the film’s other characters. They’re all business when it comes to eradicating the Snake Fist style, and this hard-nosed nature makes their appearances in the film quite intimidating.
It’s this ability to walk the line between seriousness and a light, fun tone that really makes Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow a success. The best example of this is the relationship between Jackie and the beggar Pai Chang Tien (played by Yuen Woo-Ping’s father, Simon Yuen Siu-Tin). The audience can identify with Jackie’s lowly, everyman character, and the two men bond as outcasts. This creates one of the most memorable master/student dynamics of all time, so great in fact that they brought it back for Drunken Master. They are a perfect matched pair, and the movie really hinges on the humanity of this relationship, which is enhanced at every opportunity with smart, fun, physical comedy.
Like many Hong Kong studios, Seasonal Films also had a Shaw Brothers pedigree behind it. The company was founded by Ng See-Yuen, an ex-Shaw Brothers executive who got his start as an assistant director to Jimmy Wang Yu on Jimmy’s final film at the Shaw Studio, The Chinese Boxer. His collaboration with Yuen Woo-Ping began shortly after on Ng’s directorial debut, The Mad Killer, an independent film that was also Yuen’s first work as a choreographer. Yuen would then work for a few years on Shaw Brothers productions, before his old friend Ng (who according to Jackie Chan liked to be called “N.G.”) gave him a directorial shot. Of course, busting out of the gate with Hong Kong’s most successful film up to that point pretty much solidified him in the history books, but fans will all know that Yuen had many, many more incredible cinematic experiences yet to share in the following years. And he continues to add to his impressive filmography with every passing year!
Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow is a joy to watch for kung fu fans, although I think at this point it does take some careful thought to understand just how revolutionary it was at the time. As one of the first films to seamlessly blend comedy and kung fu, it gave birth to a legitimate new sub-genre of Hong Kong films, it paved the way for Jackie Chan to explode the Hong Kong box-office (and later, the world), and it spawned a relentless sea of copycats. The industry had previously been focused on finding the next Bruce, but Jackie instinctively knew that audiences craved something fresh, new, and completely different. If you’re a Jackie Chan fan and you’ve never seen Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, get on it! It’s a joy to watch.
Next up in this chronological journey through the films of Jackie Chan: we’re back to the Lo Wei studios with Jackie’s second film with the more friendly director Chen Chi-Hwa, Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin. I don’t know that I ever saw that one, so I’m hoping it’s a good one.