Rivals of Kung Fu [黃飛鴻義取丁財炮] (1974)
Starring Shut Chung-Tin, Sek Kin, Lily Li Li-Li, James Ma Chim-Si, Bruce Le, Ricky Hui Koon-Ying, Sharon Yeung Pan-Pan, Cheng Miu, Kam Kwok-Leung, Kong Ling, Chan Shen, Lin Wen-Wei, Tong Chung-San, Keung Hon
Directed by Wong Fung
Expectations: Low. The title sounds good, but I’m wary.
Rivals of Kung Fu feels like a film that could have been made a few years earlier, especially in terms of how it focuses on story over action. Not that Shaw films of 1974 don’t have good stories, but Rivals of Kung Fu exhibits a unique quality that sets itself apart from just about every Shaw film I’ve seen. It is a cause-and-effect story that slowly moves forward on small details and slight misunderstandings, telling of a rivalry between your favorite Chinese folk hero Wong Fei Hung (Shut Chung-Tin) and nearby school leader Master Shen Chiu Kung (Sek Kin). It’s very deliberate and purposeful, and I don’t think it’s something that will appeal to everyone. There’s no action whatsoever until a little over 30 minutes in, and after that extended sequence, there’s not a lot that would fall under the traditional umbrella of what we think of when we think “action movie.”
The key to understanding this difference lies in the film’s writer/director, Wong Fung. By this point in his career, Wong had been active in the Hong Kong film industry for nearly 25 years. Many of those years were spent as a screenwriter on over 100 films, with around 40 of these scripts for the original Wong Fei-Hung film series starring Kwan Tak-Hing. Wong Fung directed a few of the later films in that series, as well! I haven’t seen any of those films, but it’s probably not a dangerous stretch to say that Rivals of Kung Fu is probably a stylistic continuation of the series. Also of note: Sek Kin seems to have been the villain in most, if not all, of those Wong Fei-Hung films, so his presence as the villain in Rivals of Kung Fu here is significant.
What I imagine really sets this one apart from those earlier films — other than being shot at the Shaw Studios — is the technicality of the martial arts sequences. Most of the older Wong Fei-Hung movies don’t have a choreographer credited on the HKMDB, but the later films that Wong Fung directed list the trio of Kwan Tak-Hing, Sek Kin, and Simon Yuen Siu-Tin. I’m sure these three legends created great sequences for their time, but in 1974 the revolution happening at the Shaw Studio — spearheaded by the work of Lau Kar-Leung and Tang Chia — was to attempt to capture a more realistic impression of kung fu on-screen. Rivals of Kung Fu has Leung Siu-Chung, Lee Ka-Ting, and Huang Han-Chieh to thank for its martial arts and they did a fantastic job (with Huang specifically serving as the Hung Gar consultant). I didn’t notice anything you could call “shapes,” like the stuff clearly on display in Heroes Two, but the fighting remains realistic, potent, and more reactive than older films.
But as I mentioned before, there’s not a lot of martial arts in this one. The first sequence of fighting is over 10 minutes long, but don’t let that fool you. After that, all you get is an extended lion dance sequence (that’s very entertaining), which in turn leads to a relatively short final battle (in comparison to the first sequence). But thanks to the tight plot and the amount of fun stuff packed into that first kung fu sequence, I didn’t finish the movie disappointed. The first fight morphs a lot, starting out as a fight between Wong’s students (including a young Bruce Le) and Sek Kin & his cronies. Later, Wong Fei-Hung arrives and shows off his skills in hand-to-hand, bench, and staff. I think this might be the first appearance of a bench used as a weapon in a Shaw film, but as always with these declarations I make, I may have forgotten something earlier (so feel free to correct me). In any case, the weapon work in the film is exciting and excellent, elevating both the scene and the film as a whole.
Shut Chung-Tin plays Wong Fei-Hung in Rivals of Kung Fu, and while he does a great job as Wong Fei-Hung the kung-fu master, he’s quite hard to like the rest of the time. He plays the character without much charisma, so he doesn’t make an impression. The rest of the characters, who are all far more colorful, are left to carry the film. Shut’s best non-fighting moment comes right before his first kung fu, as he arrives at the scene of the fight and confronts Sek Kin and the other villains. As soon as they see Wong, they stop in their tracks, and when Wong steps forward they all take a step back. Their eyes never leave Wong Fei-Hung as they are backed all the way up the staircase to the second floor they were attempting to leave. Shut’s Wong Fei-Hung may lack charisma, but the character’s revered martial abilities are communicated here without a single word or strike. It’s a brilliant moment.
Rivals of Kung Fu isn’t a stunning martial arts film, but regardless, it’s really well-written and features sub-plots (specifically the grave-robbing bits and the effeminate son) expertly woven around the main plot. It wasn’t exciting enough for me to flat-out love it, but I respect it a lot, and it’s a unique film among the Shaw catalog. When it goes for humor, it’s pretty damn funny, too. Rivals of Kung Fu won’t make any new fans, but definitely give it a go if you have patience and you don’t mind a quiet, reserved Wong Fei-Hung.
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is a Shaw Brothers film produced in conjunction with a West German studio! That means it’s time for Kuei Chih-Hung & Ernst Hofbauer’s Virgins of the Seven Seas! See ya then!