The Champion of Champions [大地龍蛇] (1972)
AKA The Dragon and the Snake, The Dragon Snake, Hero of the Earth
Starring Chin Han, Lily Li Li-Li, Suen Liu, Suen Yuet, Lau Lai-Lai, Chui Fook-Sang, Hon Siu, Sek Fung, Miao Tian, Lee Yan-Wa
Directed by Lee Ga
Shaw Brothers productions usually come with a base level of quality that is able to make even the most mundane of stories into an OK movie. The Champion of Champions is the exception to the rule and easily the worst film I’ve seen from them, proving that the Shaw studios did indeed produce at least one horrible movie during their long run in the business. And I’m a big fan, I can only imagine what a non-fan would think of this movie. I do have to give the movie the benefit of the doubt, as the print isn’t ideal and the subtitles were cut-off and especially hard to follow. But no amount of remastering and removable subtitles can fix all the problems with The Champion of Champions.
Due to that subtitle issue I mentioned, I’m not exactly 100% on the plot of the film. The opening credits play out over a couple of guys killing an entire government mansion full of people, everyone from the guards to the guys working the printing presses. But then no one mentions this ever again, and the two guys doing this weren’t even main characters. It’s possible that it’s related to another flashback we see about another character’s past and motive for revenge, but I honestly don’t know.
So anyway, after the credits we meet a team of acrobats who get bullied by the son of the leader of a local martial arts school. Our hero, Mr. Chiang (Chin Han), and his girlfriend ride up and save the day. I don’t know what Mr. Chiang’s motive is in all of this, but he does a lot of this kind of heroism throughout the film. The acrobats are actually in town for a specific purpose, though: to kill the leader of the martial arts school! The girl with them was hiding under a bed as a child while her parents were murdered by this man, and now she wants revenge! This description makes it sound somewhat coherent, but trust me, it’s not. It took a lot of talking to myself, re-watching sections and deep thought to uncover what the hell was going on in this movie.
Martial arts films can survive without a great story (or even great storytelling), as long as their action sequences are good. Unfortunately, the action scenes in The Champion of Champions are some of the lamest I’ve ever seen. These fights are worse than even those rudimentary ones seen in Temple of the Red Lotus, the first color martial arts film produced by the studio. Seven years and tons of films later, all working towards more realistic fights has led us to this? There’s a reason why Ng Tung-Kiu only choreographed the action on a few other films. His work here is so lackluster and lame that without hyperbole I can honestly say that I think I could have done better. I don’t claim to be any kind of choreographer, but I at least have an idea of what looks good on-screen. But I do have to say, many of the films he worked on have incredibly intriguing titles, things like: Duel in the Tiger Den, Gecko Kung Fu, Cold Wind Hands, Murder Masters of Kung Fu, and Twister Kicker. If I ever run into those, I don’t think I’ll be able to resist, even knowing that the action will most likely be awful.
But it’s not just lame fighting that sinks these sequences in The Champion of Champions, it’s also lame camera placement. Director Lee Ga is clueless when it comes to the action, so instead of hiding the bad choreography with careful editing and advantageous angles, he instead just shoots it straight on in the most boring and obvious way possible. He also chooses to shoot every jump anyone makes in super slow-motion, without any reason or purpose (other than lengthening the runtime of the film to feature-length). It’s insane. This does lead to a couple of good slo-mo jump kicks, but the moments carry no impact with such poor filming. Again, the film would look and play a lot better if it had been remastered, but you can’t fix fundamentally bad filmmaking. For those who don’t regard the top martial arts directors in the same breath as more artsy world filmmakers, I propose watching this movie in a double feature alongside a film from a master like Chang Cheh or Lau Kar-Leung. Where The Champion of Champions fails in many ways specifically due to its direction, in a great martial arts film the opposite is true, and the film is elevated far beyond its simple genre roots.
There are a few good moments in the film, but they are quick and largely not worth sitting through the film for. My favorite was when Mr. Chiang fought a karate master who attacked by jumping through the air and striking as he sailed by, every time letting out a loud “E-yah!” I also enjoyed when Mr. Chiang was trying to quietly eavesdrop on the villains but instead he steps on a cat and knocks over a potted plant. I guess that’s why it’s not called The Ninja of Ninjas! Shaw completionists might want to see this one regardless, but I say stay away! There are much better Shaw films to waste your time with.
Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog: it’s another rare one, director Ho Meng-Hua’s The Black Enforcer! See ya next week!