[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a monthly column dedicated to retrospectives on the martial arts films I grew up watching. We’ll be covering all kinds of Hong Kong action films from Bruce Lee all the way to Joseph Kuo. Get ready to be introduced to some weird, wacky, and utterly badass films.]
A little over a year ago when I covered 18 Bronzemen for this column, I started off by saying how I actually wanted to rewatch Dragon’s Claws, another one of Joseph Kuo’s forays into Kung Fu filmmaking. At the time, I hadn’t gotten into ripping my films from discs to make digital copies and none of my Blu-Ray players were playing nice with the DVD I had. With that finally changed, I figured now was as good a time as any to go through some of Kuo’s filmography to see if my love for Kung Fu went beyond mainstream appeal.
So at the start of 2023, I spent the first 10 days watching all of the films in Eureka’s Joseph Kuo boxset as well as a couple of the DVDs I had that haven’t been remastered in HD. The consensus? I’ve been horribly mistaken about the quality of Dragon’s Claws. It’s most certainly not a masterpiece and Kuo’s one true standout film is still 7 Grandmasters, but this particular film is a decent copy of the stuff Jackie Chan had shot to popularity just a year prior. It still has some questionable comedy elements (kids dropping trow and pissing into a pot is one of the more out-there comedy bits I’ve ever seen), but I’m surprised more people don’t bring this film up in low-budget discussions.
For years, I was under the impression that this film was garbage. I’m not sure if it’s because of one of my old friends from high school that managed to poison my thoughts for a very long time -I also believed Zhang Ziyi was a crappy actress and that’s absolutely not true-, or that I had a stick up my ass as a teenager. A lot of the films I thought were “ridiculous” or “unrealistic” have become favorites of mine as I’ve grown older. There’s just something about a genre film not taking itself so seriously that works for me nowadays. I love parodies more than the real thing, it seems.
At any rate, Dragon’s Claws is definitely not a bad film. It could certainly do with some actual character development and an excising of the aforementioned kids pissing in a jar thing (what a bizarre sentence), but this is Kuo at his most comfortable behind the camera. Genuinely, the action choreography is solid here thanks to the inclusion of the legendary Hwang Jang Lee as the villainous Ling Ko Fung and the oft-overlooked Yuen Qiu (the landlady from Kung Fu Hustle) as the protagonist’s ass-kicking mother, we get a lot of creative and fun duels to maintain interest between “story beats.”
Truly, the plot is the worst thing about Dragon’s Claws. That should be expected from Joseph Kuo, but this is a film where the protagonist’s mother will tell him she doesn’t approve of his martial arts training, then proceeds to duel him with a staff and ridicule him for not being better. Didn’t you just say you didn’t want him fighting? Li Hua (Yuen Qiu) is really an enigma as her motivation seems to change on the fly.
The backstory here is that Ling Ko Fung and protagonist Lung Hsia’s (Lau Kar-Yung) father were defectors from China to the Qing Dynasty. Hsia’s father ends up raping his mother and that eventually results in his birth. Unaware of this, he seeks vengeance on Ling Ko Fung when the man suddenly returns seeking the coveted Dragon Claw Golden Tablet and kills his father. At the same time, Li Hua was planning on killing him anyway, but then gets sad when he turns up dead. Is she upset that someone beat her to the punch?
So, Li Hua commences training with her son despite the aforementioned reluctance and things are going decently enough. His friend, A Tsai (Hon Kwok-Choi), challenges Hsia to a duel and promptly beats his ass. Hsia is surprised since he actually learned martial arts, but it turns out his friend has been training in the not-actually-drunken-fist-but-clearly-drunken-fist style from a sloppy beggar on the streets. This beggar (Pak Sha-Lik), not actually given a name in the film, holds knowledge of the style that can topple the Dragon’s Claws.
It’s all really convoluted, which is actually a running theme in Kuo’s movies. Throughout my journey into his filmography, I noticed that Kuo likes to spend a good portion of the early parts of his films dumping exposition onto the viewer’s lap so that the finale can be completely unadulterated violence. While that is an understandable strategy, it often means that certain twists and turns come out of nowhere in the end just so we can have a thrilling climax. I assume this is a side effect of a lot of these movies being written as they were getting filmed.
How do we get to the kids peeing in a jar, then? Well, Hsia thinks he’s hot shit after training a little bit with his new master, so he attempts to challenge Ling Ko Fung. This results in him suffering a deadly blow that slowly kills the receiver over time. During training with his mother, Hsia starts suffering chest pains and she reveals her backstory to him. It turns out that the beggar is actually Hsia’s uncle and he holds the cure for the deadly Dragon’s Claw strike. That cure, as you may have guessed, is drinking a jar of children’s urine.
My memories of this scene are actually from the English dub of the film. Done in the 80s when nobody took these movies seriously, the reading of the line, “Children’s urine! Is it good?!” was so absurd to me that I didn’t know how to process it. I will say, whatever good I do see in Dragon’s Claws now, this sequence is still asinine. Most of the comedy in Kuo’s other films is very lackluster, too, but it seems he got inspired by the slapstick antics of Jackie Chan in the wrong way. I’m also pretty sure that owning a DVD where kids get naked to challenge each other to a piss-off puts me on some watchlist.
So while none of that even really adds up and is funny for the wrong reasons, the rest of Dragon’s Claws is a decent enough riff on Drunken Master and Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow. It has very similar training sequences, setups to fights, and the same actor as the villain. It’s surprising how competent the direction is here considering Kuo probably had next to nothing for a budget. His incredible use of outdoor scenery is put to full effect and it results in some excellent cinematography.
I also mentioned how the action is quite good and it’s because Kuo leans into the natural talents of Jang Lee and Qiu. Jang Lee is known to fans of classic Kung Fu films for having astonishing kicks and he doesn’t disappoint here. Qiu might be better known for her more recent role in Stephen Chow’s legendary comedy, but her acrobatic talents get a thorough workout. Having trained under the same master as Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao, she is every bit as flexible and agile as them. She’s also practically the main character here, though a late-stage death unceremoniously removes her from the plot.
When it comes to Joseph Kuo, you’re never going to get a masterpiece. He was a talented director but seemed to be mostly content with making schlocky action films. There’s a rich history of movies he directed in Taiwan that have become lost to time, but the films we have represent an entirely different stage of his career. Whether that is better or not, I do have a better understanding and appreciation for what he offered.
Dragon’s Claws is maybe the most underrated film in his entire filmography, even if it doesn’t rise above being merely okay. It’s kind of hard to track down nowadays, but I do have some hope that Eureka might take a stab at remastering it. If so, I’d highly recommend fans of Kung Fu with a penchant for B-grade silliness to give this a go.
If you’d like to read more of Peter’s Kung Fu Corner, you can do so by clicking here.