Expectations: None. I guess I expect the fellow to be big, but beyond that…
1973 was a great year for Hong Kong films, but that’s no thanks to The Big Fellow. It’s not that it’s especially bad, it’s just incredibly generic. There is absolutely no attempt to develop the main character; he is merely a dude that knows kung fu who wants a job. That’s literally all we ever know about this guy! They don’t develop the other people either, but for a main character I thought it was quite a feat to go through 90 minutes and still only know the one thing you learn about the guy in the first minute. To say The Big Fellow isn’t intellectually stimulating is a major understatement. The film exists purely to guide this shapeless character through a series of fights, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing in a kung fu movie, it’s hard to sit through 90 minutes of that when the choreography is less than stellar.
There is a story here, though, it’s not much of one, but it is present. Basically, our hero gets a job on the docks and he angers the triad guys there, so they frame him for murder. Pretty standard stuff. It also rips off The Big Boss a bit by having a big boss orchestrating everything that must be defeated at the end. The major difference is that the big boss here is present throughout nearly the entire film. The film also seems to be titled after him, but when you plug the film title’s Chinese characters into the always completely accurate Google Translate it comes out as Dragon and Tiger Snakes. I’m gonna guess the English title was mistranslated/specifically changed to emulate The Big Boss.
The choreography was handled by a couple of the henchmen actors in the film, Ching Kau-Lung & Lee Yung-Wai. Both of them had limited careers as action directors (5 films and 2 films, respectively), and their work in The Big Fellow illustrates why. At a time when the best Hong Kong choreographers were really starting to refine their work and deliver exciting battles that dwarf past achievements, The Big Fellow feels like a film that’s a few years older than it is. They’re punching and kicking but somehow it only rarely looks like martial arts. It’s not without its charms; there’s a great sequence where a villain shows off his pole work, and another when our hero arms himself with an umbrella and takes on this pole-tastic villain, but these are mere flashes of charm amidst 90 minutes of rote story and arm-flailing action. It’s not bad for what it is, but when you’re graced with the wealth of kung fu films like we all are these days, it’s hard to cut slack for something like this.
The most interesting thing about The Big Fellow was that it is one of the first films of Charles Heung. Acting wise he never made a big splash; he’s probably best known for his supporting role in four God of Gamblers films (and he just made an appearance in From Vegas to Macau 3, after a 12 year absence from the screen!). But in the late ’80s he co-founded Win’s Entertainment Ltd., and founded China Star Entertainment Group a few years later. With these production companies, Charles Heung was responsible for producing a bunch of your Hong Kong favorites featuring Chow Yun-Fat, Stephen Chow, Jet Li, Andy Lau, as well as many films from director Johnnie To. To see him in The Big Fellow, he doesn’t make much of an impression, but he went on to be one of the most successful producers in the Hong Kong industry!
The Big Fellow also has some slight touches of wuxia abilities that added a fair amount of ridiculous fun. No one’s flying, but people get punched and fly across the room (or into the ocean) a fair amount; it’s more exaggerated strength than anything else. The movements of the fighters’ arms and legs were also exaggerated by way of the wind sound effects commonly heard in kung fu movies. But — and I may just be having a brain fart here — it seems to me that I don’t remember hearing these kinds of wind sounds in other Shaw movies before this. I have no clue if this is the first movie to use such iconic sound effects, but it’s one of the first, I’m pretty sure.
Produced in Taiwan using a similar model to what Golden Harvest was doing at the time — outsourcing production to capable independent producers for later distribution — The Big Fellow has a different feel than the usual Shaw film. That being said, of all the Shaw-distributed films I’ve seen so far, this one comes the closest to replicating the general Shaw look and feel (it even has an appropriately abrupt ending!). Director Wu Min-Hsiung does a good job with the image composition, and there were some great moments where the camera would seamlessly move between a couple of different fights happening simultaneously.
The Big Fellow was a big flop in its day, coming in 75th out of 87 HK films released that year. The only Shaw films to do worse were Ho Meng-Hua’s Ambush (which is a big surprise), the lost film The Boxers, and a romance film Love Across the Seas. I’m a very dedicated and open-minded genre fan so I enjoyed The Big Fellow for what it was, but there’s very little here to get excited about.
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is the Kuei Chi-Hung film Payment in Blood! See ya then!