Magnificent Wanderers [江湖漢子] (1977)
AKA Magnificent Kung Fu Warriors

Starring David Chiang, Alexander Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-Chun, Li Yi-Min, Shan Mao, Yeung Chung-Man, Lee Ying, Lam Fai-Wong, Han Chiang, Wong Cheong-Chi, Yu Heng, Cho Boot-Lam, Chiang Sheng, Phillip Kwok Chun-Fung, Lu Feng

Directed by Chang Cheh (with Wu Ma)

Expectations: Moderate.

Ever the innovator, Chang Cheh’s final film under the Chang’s Co. banner was new ground for the director. Magnificent Wanderers brings together “Chang Cheh” and “comedy,” two concepts that seemingly couldn’t be further apart. I love a good kung fu comedy, but I never imagined Chang Cheh would throw his hat into that ring. Nothing about Chang’s films suggests he had any interest in making a comedy, in fact, the kung fu comedies that arose from this era seem like a specific reaction to the ultra-seriousness of Chang Cheh’s genre-defining work. I don’t know what compelled him to attempt a comedy, but judging from Magnificent Wanderers I think it’s safe to say it wasn’t a great fit.

Lin Shao You (Fu Sheng), Shi Da Yong (Chi Kuan-Chun), and Guan Fei (Li Yi-Min) are three poor nomads who make a living by hustling with a rigged fortune-telling stand. After a successful day, Lin suggests they all visit a real restaurant for once. They are stopped before they can sit down, but the well-known millionaire, Chu Tie Xia (David Chiang), claims they are his friends and invites them to dine with him. So begins a friendship upon which the rest of the film is built. There isn’t really much of a plot to the film; it’s more about the general struggle between our heroes (who are attempting to meet up with the rebellion) and the Mongols. This doesn’t accurately represent the movie that well, though, as the tone is always lighthearted and jovial. It’s a comedic struggle with bungling, farcical Mongol villains.

Comedy is obviously a subjective thing that people will respond to in their own way. I can easily see this film having its cult of fans who love it. I definitely enjoyed it, and I think it’s a well-made film, but the comedy was more amusing than funny. It creates an entertainment vacuum where you want to laugh, and you’re waiting for the laugh, but it never pushes past a certain level of amusement. It doesn’t feel like it was Chang’s intention to make a laugh-out-loud comedy, but perhaps that’s just me missing the jokes. Who sets out to make a comedy that only mildly amuses its audience, anyway? Whatever the case, it’s a misguided script from Chang and co-writer Ni Kuang, but there’s one way for the film to succeed in spite of this: making sure the other half, the kung fu, was enough to hold the weight of the film.

Unfortunately, nothing about the film’s kung fu is capable of doing that. Everything is well-choreographed and performed, and it’s all entertaining, but like the comedy it’s mostly just mildly amusing. The final 20 minutes or so are definitely the highlight of the film, but even then the fights are staged as exhibition battles so the stakes are always low. I never knew just how much I value the tense drama of Chang Cheh… until I saw a film where he specifically avoided utilizing it! It’s a shame that the fights aren’t better, but in a way this helps to highlight why the breakout 1978 Jackie Chan films (Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master) were such huge successes. By integrating the comedy into every element of the film, most especially the fight choreography, Jackie’s films soared where previous films (like Magnificent Wanderers) largely kept the two worlds apart. I don’t want to sound too down on Magnificent Wanderers, though. I enjoyed it for what it is, and it is unique in Chang Cheh’s filmography.

For a filmmaker who made so many similarly themed films, each one has its own identity, and in many cases each new venture spawned more than a few imitators. Chang’s artistic spirit was somewhat crushed when Boxer Rebellion was drastically edited before its release (and was only released uncut after his death). This gutting coincided with the public’s affection swaying away from Chang’s style, as the martial films of Chor Yuen and Lau Kar-Leung (as well as those of other studios) dominated over Chang’s at the box office. After Magnificent Wanderers he returned to Hong Kong with a new five-year contract with Shaw, but he was no longer the influencer he was upon leaving. In his memoir, Chang barely mentions this five-year period (1978-1983), saying the years “warrant little mention” due to the “lack of new genres and recycling of tired, worn-out wuxia and fist-and-kick action films.” Magnificent Wanderers could be included in this, falling into a Lau Kar-Leung sort of framework that didn’t really fit Chang. His first film back in Hong Kong was The Brave Archer, and as well-loved as the film may be, it shows Chang following trends (the Chor Yuen-fueled wuxia resurgence) instead of forging his own path. The upcoming five-year period is full of fan-favorite delights, but making it here in my chronological series I finally understand why Chang felt so defeated and disinterested in his output during his final years at Shaw.

As much as I feel Magnificent Wanderers is a flawed, mediocre film from one of my favorite directors, it’s hard for me to say that it’s not worth watching. It’s unique and entertaining, and next time around, knowing full well what I’m in for, I’ll probably like it a bit more.

Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is a box office hit for context: Li Han-Hsiang’s The Adventures of Emperor Chien Lung, the second of the Chien Lung series! See ya then!