[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.]
If there is one thing you can normally count on with Kung Fu sequels, it’s that the action sequences will be dramatically better. A lot of Hong Kong cinema in the 1970s and 1980s was people figuring out how things worked and applying them on the fly while filming. There weren’t meticulous storyboards or drawn-out rehearsals to ensure strict continuity. Actors would come on set, learn the moves they needed for the next few days of shooting, then perform them in front of the camera.
That kind of fly-by-night nature is what made this particular era of Kung Fu cinema so special. In scenes that feel like they were honed to perfection after weeks of planning, it’s startling to learn that the action choreographers were often walking onto a set, seeing what props and structures they had to work with, and adapting on the fly. Despite knowing this and wrapping my head around this process, I still can’t believe Martial Club wasn’t a more structured production.
Acting as a semi-sequel to Challenge of the Masters, Martial Club reunites Gordon Liu with his godbrother Lau Kar-Leung for another tale of Wong Fei-Hung’s escapades. Instead of focusing on Fei-Hung’s personal growth or even attempting to tap into the modern mythology of the character, Martial Club is more of a series of elaborate action scenes that are tied together by a light, comedy-laden plot that feels like a response to Drunken Master.
The gist of this story is that two rival schools team up against a third school in an attempt to better them in martial arts prowess. The inciting incident of the film happens in the first five minutes with both Master Lu (Jue Tit-Who) and his son Lu Shanhou (Lee King-Chue) interrupting Master Zheng (Wilson Tong) and his students during a lion dance. Attempting to broker peace, Wong Kei-Ying (Ku Feng) invites both masters to his estate and hosts a dinner. His son, the rambunctious Wong Fei-Hung (Gordon Liu), can’t help but spout off a bit and it sets off Master Lu.
From there, the movie mostly drifts between sequences that show Master Lu plotting with Northerners to better his school’s style while Fei-Hung and his friend, Wang Yinlin (Robert Mak), goof around town. An early brawl sees the two face off in an alleyway and injure each other, but attempt to hide the pain. They even get the bright idea to masquerade as Kung Fu masters and are promptly handed their asses by a real master. It’s funny if a bit disconnected from the opening.
The real surprise with Martial Club, apart from having outstanding action, comes from Wang Lung-Wei’s character, Master Shan Xiong. At this point in his career, Wang Lung-Wei had become the go-to bad guy for Shaw Brothers productions. In the years before this film’s release, he had been featured in 40 films and was a villainous character in 95% of them. Even in the roles that you wouldn’t classify as stereotypically evil he was on the opposing side of the hero. For Martial Club, Wang Lung-Wei’s character is actually heroic.
It’s not immediately revealed and the gimmick is really only there for Hong Kong audiences and aficionados of Kung Fu cinema, but it works as an expertly played subversion of typecasting. Shan Xiong is seen teaming up with Master Lu, severely hurts Wang Yinlin in self-defense, and even brawls with Fei-Hung before the curtains get pulled.
Special mention also needs to be given to Kara Wai (credited here as Kara Hui), who had worked her way into numerous Shaw Brothers productions at this point. Hot off the success of My Young Auntie in the same year, Wai plays the sister to Wang Yinlin and is actually more skilled than him when it comes to combat. Lau Kar-Leung took a particular interest in her talents after Dirty Ho and would go on to feature her prominently in his films. She gets some standout moments against both Gordon Liu and an entire school of students.
A lot of the plot details don’t really matter when it comes to Martial Club. That’s maybe a step down from Challenge of the Masters, which did an excellent job at extrapolating and expanding upon Wong Fei-Hung’s legacy. Here, the film’s goal is to continuously one up the last action scene to create entirely unique moments every few minutes. I actually lost track of how many battles occur during the film, but the runtime of 102 minutes doesn’t feel bloated or unjustified. The pacing is generally exemplary and once one sequence ends, it’s not more than five-ish minutes before another begins.
While the overall story might be lacking, the film isn’t devoid of character development. Fei-Hung starts off more like Jackie Chan’s take on the character (which belies the semi-sequel status with Challenge of the Masters) and eventually starts to act with more dignity by the end. In the climactic battle against Shan Xiong, he is acting and speaking exactly like his older incarnations. It’s more the process of that evolution isn’t entirely clear.
I could count that as a negative, but then this movie features a few battles where there are maybe 100 people on screen at once. While Golden Harvest was moving in the direction of more contemporary settings for its films in the 80s, Shaw Brothers dug into its deep pockets to puff up the production of its films to include casts of dozens with extras in the hundreds. It could come to a head in 1985’s Disciples of the 36th Chamber, but you can see the seeds being planted here. Towards the end, a rather long battle in an opera house has so much information on the screen that it can be hard to keep up with things.
A lot of this I had forgotten since watching the film nearly 20 years ago. I also forgot the Wong Fei-Hung connection, but that is kind of because Martial Club could be about literally anyone. The classic Fei-Hung theme doesn’t even play a single time during the film. That strange omission aside, the way the action starts with relatively small stakes and a minute scale and progresses over the film to include more actors and more styles reminds me of the progression in Resident Evil 4. Each scene has something new that it shows to the audience and it reveals the creativity that Lau Kar-Leung brought to every project.
Do you want a sequence where Fei-Hung battles an entire school? Check. How about that opera house brawl? Check. Why not cap things off with a duel in an alleyway that gets increasingly smaller and forces the actors to utilize new techniques in each shot? I’ve always wanted to see someone do a wall split and dodge attack with their waist.
It might be hard to properly explain what makes Martial Club so special because its treasures are more visual in nature. What it lacks in nuance or depth of storytelling, the film makes up for with sheer spectacle. This isn’t some crappy production where I’m excusing bad plotting, either. The acting is generally solid and each set has the expected Shaw Brothers sheen. It’s more that conveying why each brawl is so different and engaging is to rob someone of experiencing the movie for the first time.
While Martial Club might be overshadowed by both Lau Kar-Leung’s earlier and later work when it comes to influence, it stands out as one of the best of his entire filmography from a pure production standpoint. Revisiting the film was a real joy because I had forgotten a lot about the film. Thankfully, there’s enough creativity here that my nostalgic memories didn’t betray me.
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