Half a Loaf of Kung Fu [點止功夫咁簡單] (1980)
AKA Karate Bomber
Starring Jackie Chan, James Tin Jun, Doris Lung Chun-Erh, Kim Jeong-Nan, Kam Kong, Lee Hoi-Lung, Ma Ju-Lung, Miao Tian, Lam Chiu-Hung, Dean Shek Tin, Julie Lee Chi-Lun, Lee Man-Tai
Directed by Chen Chi-Hwa
Expectations: Interested. I remember this one being good.
Originally shot between Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin and Magnificent Bodyguards, Half a Loaf of Kung Fu was shelved by Lo Wei after screening it and deeming it unfit for public consumption. But a few years later, when Jackie Chan shot to superstardom, Lo Wei didn’t care so much about it not being up to his standards. When it was released, it was a pretty good hit, even outgrossing Jackie Chan’s far superior film from earlier in 1980, The Young Master. But while I can understand the intent of Jackie Chan and Chen Chi-Hwa with the comedy of Half a Loaf of Kung Fu, I’m honestly more on the Lo Wei side than I would’ve thought I’d be prior to re-watching this one for the first time in probably 15 years.
Half a Loaf of Kung Fu is not a traditional kung fu film, it is an active attempt to parody and make light of the stoic seriousness that the genre is generally built upon. It does a fair job of that, but at the same time it’s also fairly subtle in how it does this. The plot points are essentially the same as they are in many other similarly themed films: a highly sought-after treasure (here it’s the Evergreen Jade and the Elixir of Life) is being transported by a security bureau across the country, and every bandit on Hong Kong’s side of the Mississippi is out to claim the treasure for themselves.
In place of our hero is the bumbling Jackie Chan character, Yang Tao. He’s an unskilled guy who dreams of being a great martial artist. He’s not smart enough to just join a school, so he goes around attempting to get security jobs, perhaps in hopes of some high-quality on-the-job training. One thing leads to another and his ineptitude and curiousness has led to the death of a co-worker at an especially evil clan, so now Yang Tao must run for his life. In every other movie, Yang Tao is a character that wouldn’t have made it past the first sign of bloodshed; he’s the type of guy to take an arrow right at the beginning of a battle. But in Half a Loaf of Kung Fu he has a few guardian angels who pop up and save him in the nick of time. And Yang Tao, being the cocky dummy he is, boasts of his skill in battle instead of wiping his brow and bowing out of the limelight.
What this means is that Half a Loaf of Kung Fu shares more in common with modern Jackie Chan films where he plays a character who doesn’t know how to fight than it does with other films made around this time, especially something like The Young Master. In fact, for the first two-thirds of the film there’s very little in the way of action at all. What’s there is good, but it’s nothing special. When Jackie does find himself in a scrape, it’s interesting to see him choreograph around his character’s inability, weaving some nice laughs into what would just normally be basic, uninteresting fight scenes. But for me, the laughs weren’t big enough to override my feeling of something missing.
It is with this same sentiment that I think Lo Wei was right not to release the film at the time it was shot. The meandering plot feels similar to how later Jackie films such as Drunken Master and The Young Master are structured, and Half a Loaf of Kung Fu skillfully parodies many kung fu conventions. But the balance between comedy and genuine martial skill doesn’t feel quite right. It’s enjoyable, especially for someone like myself that likes these early period Jackie films, but it just doesn’t have the oomph necessary to sell itself as something different. So what am I getting at? It’s not funny enough to satisfy your comedy urges, nor is it impressive enough on a martial arts level, so it ends up just being vaguely disappointing. I question if audiences would’ve responded as well as they eventually did (for reasons unknown to me) if it had come out when initially intended, and that’s why I’m kind of on Lo Wei’s side.
But that being said, there are some great comedic moments in Half a Loaf of Kung Fu. I don’t know about you but raw eggs straight from the nest thrown into a fat dude’s face in slow motion is pretty entertaining stuff, and there’s a lengthy scene of that in Half a Loaf of Kung Fu. The intro credits sequence also houses some of the film’s best jokes, including Jackie playing a Zatoichi-like blind swordsman, and later Jackie training with a woody dummy that is soon revealed to be only one foot tall. By far my favorite sight gag was when Jackie rips off a dude’s wig and ponytail and then uses it as a wig nunchaku in the style of Bruce Lee.
The intro also shows Jackie using a sword with such skill that it filled me with an intense sadness. He exhibited so much grace and style, he clearly could have been one of film’s greatest wuxia heroes. Too bad Lo Wei presided over his wuxia films and he did everything he could to stifle Jackie’s creativity. Sigh. But Half a Loaf of Kung Fu was made without any control exerted by Lo, and while it allowed Jackie to branch out his character work and his emotions far more than the Lo Wei films usually let him, it’s still not that great of a movie. It’s more interesting as a glimmer of future successes than as a true success in its own right. But if you’re a big Jackie fan, then I still recommend it. Just don’t expect a full loaf of kung fu.
Next up in this chronological journey through the films of Jackie Chan is Jackie’s first attempt to crossover to the US film market, Robert Clouse’s The Big Brawl AKA Battle Creek Brawl! See ya then!