Dragon Fist (1979)

dragonfist_4Dragon Fist [龍拳] (1979)
AKA Dragon Hero, In Eagle Dragon Fist

Starring Jackie Chan, Yen Shi-Kwan, Pearl Lin Yin-Zhu, Nora Miao, Hsu Hsia, Ou-Yang Sha-Fei, James Tin Jun, Eagle Han Ying, Ko Keung, Wang Kuang-Yu, Chui Fat

Directed by Lo Wei

Expectations: Way low.

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Dragon Fist opens like many kung fu films do. After a kung fu tournament to determine the greatest martial arts school in the region, the Tang San Clan is named the winner. The celebration is cut short by the villainous arrival of the leader of the Champion Clan. He wasn’t able to make it to the tournament, so he declares Tang San’s win false until he’s able to best his Snapping Kick technique. Jackie’s master puts up a valiant attempt, but the Snapping Kicks of Champion Clan prove too much, and he is mortally wounded. And if you assume that the next plot point is that Jackie Chan vows to exact revenge on Champion Clan, in the name of his master, then you’d be exactly right.

But what’s really interesting about Dragon Fist is that it after this clichéd opening, it largely diverges from and subverts the traditional martial arts plot. Wang Chung-Pin’s script (his only screenwriting credit) is exceptionally well-written, giving us a group of interesting characters all with their own desires and motives for the things they do. Don’t mistake this for some deep arthouse drama, but it’s definitely got a lot more going for it than I expected a late-game Lo Wei film to have. Dragon Fist is the last film that Jackie Chan made for Lo Wei before his two-film loan to Seasonal, and it’s easily the best film that Lo Wei directed Jackie Chan in (not counting The Killer Meteors, which features Jackie but is actually a Jimmy Wang Yu movie).

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Spiritual Kung Fu (1978)

Spiritual-Kung-Fu-001Spiritual Kung Fu [拳精] (1978)
AKA Karate Ghostbuster

Starring Jackie Chan, James Tin Jun, Mo Man-Sau, Li Tong-Chun, Lee Kwan, Dean Shek Tin, Ko Keung, Lee Hoi-Lung, Lee Man-Tai, Wang Kuang-Yu, Wong Ching

Directed by Lo Wei

Expectations: Moderate.

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Lo Wei’s Spiritual Kung Fu may have been released to the public just a month and a half after Drunken Master blew up the Hong Kong box office, but it was made well-before as an answer to Half a Loaf of Kung Fu, Chen Chi-Hwa’s kung fu comedy starring Jackie Chan. After many requests from Jackie to allow him to include comedy in his films, Lo Wei finally relented and let Jackie and Chen make Half a Loaf of Kung Fu. But upon seeing the finished film, Lo was furious and he shelved the film (until 1980). He didn’t find it funny at all, and he made Spiritual Kung Fu in order to show Jackie what a real kung fu comedy should be like. Spiritual Kung Fu lucked out being released after Drunken Master, because at that point the public craved anything Jackie Chan. It gave this film box office receipts that came close to equaling those of Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, and which also bested many Shaw Brothers films destined to be memorable classics (such as The Five Venoms & Crippled Avengers).

So I suppose knowing all that, the big question about Spiritual Kung Fu hangs around its comedy. Is it funny? Do the laughs feel similar to the kung fu comedy of the two Jackie Chan/Yuen Woo-Ping collaborations? The answer is a resounding NO! There’s a reason why Lo Wei wasn’t known as a comedy director. The first half of the film goes hard into Lo’s idea of comedy, with things like Jackie stuffing random animals down his pants (including a snake that finds “a nice, dark place to call home,” if you know what I mean!), punishments that include writing calligraphy with a gigantic brush, a mischievous ghost that farts in a monk’s face, and Jackie pissing on the ghosts as they shrink and try to hide in a corner. You get the idea; the comedy is really low-brow. It’s kind of interesting to watch because you never know what’s coming next, but it’s a stretch to call it funny. That being said, I can imagine children getting more laughs out of it than I did, but there are better films to get your children laughing.

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Magnificent Bodyguards (1978)

MagnificentBodyguards+1978-25-bMagnificent Bodyguards [飛渡捲雲山] (1978)
AKA The Red Dragon, Master of Death

Starring Jackie Chan, James Tin Jun, Bruce Leung, Wang Ping, Lau Ming, Wong Gwan, Wong Kwan, Wong Chi-Ping, Lee Man-Tai, Chui Yuen, Luk Chuen, Fang Fang, Ko Keung, Wong Ching

Directed by Lo Wei

Expectations: Low.

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Magnificent Bodyguards was the first Hong Kong film to be shot in 3D, and it never lets you forget that. It only takes 30 seconds for the first thing to be thrust directly at the camera, and this moment is but a drop of water in the tsunami of “things thrust directly at the camera” shots to follow. This might sound like a bad thing, and if you’re one to scoff at gimmicky 3D filmmaking then it definitely is, but I really enjoyed this aspect of the film. Kudos must be given to Jackie Chan for seamlessly working so many of these moves into his fight choreography for the film. I’m sure that was no small feat, and it really helps to spice up these fights.

“But,” you say, “a Jackie fight shouldn’t need spicing up with visual trickery!” And I would agree, but in Magnificent Bodyguards the fights, while good, are incredibly forgettable and without much passion. The actions are all performed well, and a lot of the choreography is well-done, but none of it feels especially exciting or interesting. I imagine this is the feeling non-martial arts fans have about every kung fu film. So while lots of individual moments within the choreography are good, the overall fights are largely uninteresting and pretty mediocre, except for those things coming at the camera, of course.

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The Hand of Death (1976)

KMJ0246The Hand of Death [少林門] (1976)
AKA Countdown in Kung Fu, Dragon Forever, Strike of Death, Shao Lin Men

Starring Dorian Tan, James Tin Jun, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, John Woo, Chu Ching, Yeung Wai, Wilson Tong, Gam Kei-Chu, Ko Keung

Directed by John Woo

Expectations: Moderate.

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From what I could gather, The Hand of Death was actually made well before New Fist of Fury, but for some reason it didn’t get released until after. According to his autobiography, Jackie Chan had made this film and then moved in with his parents in Australia, taking jobs as a construction worker. Months later, he received a telegram asking him to be the lead in New Fist of Fury. His father allowed it on one condition: that Jackie had a two-year time limit to “make it,” or else Chan must come back for good. And two years after New Fist of Fury, Chan had indeed become a star. But not with this film (and also not with Lo Wei), so I’ll hold that story for later!

The story in The Hand of Death is simple, yet multilayered and oddly structured. At the heart of the film is the often-told struggle between the Shaolin Temple and the Manchu. In this version, an evil warlord names Shih Shao Feng controls the region with an iron fist (not a literal one), and his group of eight badass bodyguards. The Shaolin priests know that he is looking to intercept a man named Zhang Yi (John Woo) who holds a map important to the cause, and who must not be allowed to land in enemy hands. So they send Yung Fei (Dorian Tan) to save Zhang Yi and kill Shih Shao Feng. Along the way there’s a number of sidetracks and flashbacks as new characters are introduced, but that’s the gist of it. The way characters were introduced and given ample time felt like a wuxia film to me, while the rest of the film is definitely straight-up kung fu.

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