[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a bi-weekly 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.]
After nearly three years of writing about Kung Fu films, I’ve noticed something of a pattern for me: I don’t really talk about objectively obscure films. There is some precedent to say all of these films are obscure to American audiences, but if you wade into HK film circles, a lot of what I’ve highlighted is fairly well known. Ask any fan of HK’s glory days if they’ve seen Wing Chun or Love on Delivery and they’ll probably be able to tell you exactly where they were when they first saw it. Something like Hell’s Wind Staff, though, has mostly flown under the radar even in HK-fan circles.
Why is that, exactly? It’s probably for the same reason that I’ve not really seen many of the lesser-known movies from this era. Hong Kong was pumping out films at a rapid-fire pace to capitalize on the craze that Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest had started. There are a ton of films that either played only for a few weeks, or managed to get some kind of home video release, but were quickly forgotten. It’s practically impossible to have seen literally everything that hit theaters in the 70s and 80s.
Anyway, Hell’s Wind Staff is one of the more obscure films that I happen to own, so I wanted to bring some attention to it this month. I can’t only cover Jackie Chan films for the rest of eternity otherwise my column would be no different from the thousands of others online who claim they know everything about martial arts cinema. That and it would actually get kind of boring and sad as we progressed in Chan’s Hollywood days, so let’s talk Hell’s Wind Staff.
It should come as a surprise to absolutely no one, but there is hardly any information available about this film. Wikipedia and IMDB are no help when looking up the main director, Tony Lou Chun-Ku, but the Hong Kong movie database does give us an outline of his career. Mr. Chun-Ku was a rather prolific actor during the Kung Fu boom, reportedly starring in 54 films (some of which were Sammo Hung productions) and directing 42 others. There is, surprisingly, not much overlap here, so it seems Chun-Ku was very busy. The other director, Tony Wong Yuk-Long, worked on far fewer projects but did somehow manage to work with Jackie Chan twice.
What does this tell us about Hell’s Wind Staff, specifically? Well, after rewatching the film for the first time in maybe 18 years, I’d hazard a guess that Chun-Ku saw what the likes of Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest were doing and decided he’d like to copy some of that. While not a direct remake or anything, Hell’s Wind Staff plays remarkably close to the story outline of both Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master. Longtime Jackie Chan collaborator Mang Hoi even has a role in the film, acting as one of its two leads.
The general plot couldn’t be more basic for the era. You have a student getting thrown under the bus by his teacher for betraying his school’s code of honor that then winds up losing an eye as punishment for his crime. Swearing revenge against his ex-master, he teams up with a deadly assassin and trains in martial arts until he eventually kills both his attacker and master. During this, two friends train under an unlikely sifu to become masters of styles that are able to thwart the titular wind staff.
That’s all fine and dandy, but you clearly are not checking out this film for its character development or plotting. At a few points, the movie practically ignores what just happened and moves on to the next scene like it was spliced from a different film. I did find it amusing to see some antics from Drunken Master pasted here, especially during a training scene where the hero is balancing bricks on plates and strings.
Where the real meat and potatoes of Hell’s Wind Staff comes into play is during its action sequences (shock and awe). A quintet of action directors is listed on HKMDB, but one of those is the venerable Corey Yuen Kwai. Having a penchant for taking relatively low-scale films and injecting them with kinetic choreography, you see a lot of his soon-to-be trademark flourish here. The acrobatics would give even Jackie Chan a run for his money and the addition of Hwang Jang Lee as the villain (which is yet another pull from Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master) provides an absolutely thrilling finale to close off this film.
Before Jang Lee is introduced, the choreography feels a little slow. The first battle showcases the traditional Shaw Brothers style of stiff, well-telegraphed fighting, but that gives way roughly 20-minutes in when all hell seems to break loose. Once we are introduced to our leads, everything speeds up and most fights come off as not even having been staged. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn these were all filmed on the spot with no prior plan. They look absolutely real.
That doesn’t hold for the entire film, as an impromptu finale would kind of suck, but the direction starts to mix things up. I’m not sure how many films before the 80s I’ve seen where two fights are going on in the same shot and they both are focused and individual. The camera work here is seriously impressive stuff, even if the dialogue sequences stick to the shot/reverse shot formula. There’s a lot of attention given to mixing up the on-screen proceedings so as to keep you engaged.
That’s especially true in the finale, where Jang Lee wields the titular staff and we get a slow-motion sequence where everyone gets to put their Peking opera training to work. There’s a neat effect placed on the staff where it seems to cut through the air and leave trails while the two heroes make commendable use of the widescreen presentation. On a technical level, Hell’s Wind Staff is great.
I just wish there was more to glean from this film. I don’t know the circumstances it was made under or whether or not it was successful at the box office. Most of these films were made on shoestring budgets, so everyone probably made their money back and just went on to the next thing. As I said above, Mang Hoi would wind up collaborating with Jackie Chan on many other films and would become a staple at Golden Harvest for stuntmen. Hwang Jan Lee is also notorious for his high-speed kicks, which could come to define this on-screen presence.
Apart from Corey Yuen Kwai making a name for himself and Tony Lou Chun-Ku having worked on a ludicrous number of productions, everyone else here sort of faded into obscurity. That’s a shame. Hell’s Wind Staff may not be the most original film around, but it has a high level of competence that could have easily been followed up with an even better movie. Maybe the rise of Jackie Chan sank those plans, especially considering that Chan’s directorial debut The Fearless Hyena had been released a few months prior.
Whatever the case, I was surprised to come back to this obscure film and find that it really shouldn’t be as overlooked as it is. Maybe the lack of any quality home release has kept it from spreading, but I’d sincerely recommend martial arts film buffs seek it out. A mostly high-quality restoration on YouTube in original language exists, so you can give that a watch.
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