[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.]
I’ve been writing this column for two years now and all of the movies I’ve previously talked about I had some kind of recollection of. Even obscure stuff like 18 Bronzemen, I remembered small tidbits about why I even watched the film in the first place or how I managed to keep the DVD for more than a decade. When it comes to Operation Scorpio, I honestly don’t even remember why I bought it.
I’m guessing the reason was I got into Kung Fu films big time and loved legendary actor/director Lau Kar Leung. In my buying spree of Fox’s rather solid DVD releases of Hong Kong films, I likely bought it simply because the movie was $10. Whatever the reason, this is probably one of the films I’ve seen the least number of times and know next to nothing about.
The basic plot of Operation Scorpio is that of a coming-of-age story. It takes some twists and turns and isn’t exactly razor-focused, but main character Yu Shu (Chin Kar Lok) starts off as a lowly nobody before transforming into a martial arts hero by the conclusion. In a weird way, you could call the movie China’s answer to The Karate Kid, even if that 80s delight borrowed liberally from martial arts history…and was about a Japanese man teaching an American kid.
Anyway, Yu Shu is a budding artist who draws comics about a Kung Fu hero. While daydreaming in class one afternoon (of which we get a rather incredible opening fight), he gets reprimanded by the teacher for being absent-minded and is ridiculed for his love of artistry. Once class is over, some bullies begin picking on his friend, Hsing (Lawrence Lau Sek-Yin), and Yu fights back. He promptly gets his ass handed to him and the two need to make a retreat.
As can be seen right from the start, Yu fancies himself a hero. While he doesn’t have the skill to actually perform martial arts, he tries his best to protect the people he cares about. It eternally frustrates him that he can’t do more, but he won’t stop when his friends are in trouble. Sadly, his uncle (Wu Fung) doesn’t agree with fighting and scolds him for getting beaten up. Hsing tries to cover, but Yu’s uncle shrugs it off and tells him to get his head out of the clouds.
Later that night, Yu is out running some errands when he happens upon a young woman screaming for help. As he looks up the hill, he sees Jade (May Lo Mei-Mei) attempting to flee from some dangerous-looking men. Yu steps in to help, gets his ass whooped for a second time, but does manage to help Jade escape. With bodyguards chasing him, Yu coincidentally runs into his teacher who promptly expels him from school. Yu’s uncle then shows up to scold him, but the bodyguards aren’t having any of that. They attack Yu’s uncle and force the two to flee.
As I said, the plot is lacking in focus. So many things are thrown at the viewer in the first 15 minutes that it’s hard to make heads or tails of where the film is going. It’s not like this is an especially deep movie, either, but it requires set up before you can just dive in. Once over that initial hurdle, I wouldn’t say Operation Scorpio becomes a masterpiece, but it’s easy to see why this has amassed a cult following.
Released in 1992 after the runaway success of Once Upon a Time in China, Operation Scorpio makes liberal usage of wirework. Referred to as Wire Fu, the more intense action moments in this film see characters making absolutely impossible spins in the air that result in devastating hits. The final showdown, for example, sees the main villain getting kicked and launched roughly 15 feet across the arena. It’s very over-the-top and definitely doesn’t look realistic, but it’s a hell of a blast to watch.
The villain angle is where some more explanation is needed. While the main bad guy would be Mr. Wang (Victor Hon Kwan), the real adversary is his son, aptly named Sunny Wang (Kim Won-Jin). A Korean actor that obviously took inspiration from the magnificent Hwang Jang-Lee, Kim basically steals the show here. He’s where the weird Scorpio title comes from as his style is that of Scorpion Kung Fu. With a mixture of fast movie feet and impressive aerial kicks, it comes off through most of the movie that he is an unstoppable force of nature. That he transitions between those Wire Fu acrobatics and more grounded martial arts with ease just sells the whole larger-than-life thing.
As for why he is the villain, Mr. Wang is the head of a prostitution ring. Jade is one of the girls that escaped Wang’s grasp and Yu happened to ruin his plans. Since he obviously can’t have ladies running around, Wang is on the hunt for Yu and it leads him to a group of Chinese burly men that pick up a damn car with their hands. Even I don’t know what that has to do with anything, but it’s rather amusing to see dudes with bulging muscles absolutely destroy smaller guys in fights.
With the assistance of those burly men, Yu and his uncle go into hiding and wind up at his uncle’s friend’s restaurant. An old man named Master Lo (Lau Kar-Leung), initially seems like a timid old guy that is rather strict when it comes to cooking noodles. Wouldn’t you know it, he’s secretly a Kung Fu prodigy.
While re-watching Operation Scorpio, I was constantly surprised at how subdued Lau’s role is here. His heyday may have been with Shaw Brothers in the 70s as one of the greatest directors in the studio’s history, but he did star in a bunch of films over the years. Here, he is definitely present, but his role is more secondary to Chin’s. Chin wasn’t new to the scene (and actually starred alongside Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao in a number of movies), but his presence is that of a newbie. For Lau to step aside and let him take the spotlight is awesome to see.
What’s more, is that Kim actually puts up a good fight against such an icon of Hong Kong cinema. Part of the final duel is Lau Vs. Kim and it never looks like Lau is just dominating him. It does start off that way, but the two eventually go blow for blow and the sequence is thrilling. Even in his older age -Lau would have been 58 at the time-, he still had the moves.
The plotting may not be consistent, but Operation Scorpio more than makes up for it with consistent pacing and a mostly lighthearted tone. There’s obviously Mr. Wang’s horrible business, but his presence in the film is minimal. He appears in the beginning, middle, and end of the movie, but doesn’t have more than maybe five scenes in total. The majority of the runtime here is spent on Yu’s training, which is where I drew comparisons to The Karate Kid.
Master Lo had developed his own style of Kung Fu from being a restaurant owner for decades. Dubbed Noodles Kung Fu, it harkens back to classic Hong Kong cinema where a mere gimmick was all that was needed to create a film. Do you build scaffolds? Scaffolding Kung Fu. Are you a fan dancer? Fan Kung Fu. Are you injured? Crippled Kung Fu…which is a bit yikes of a name, but still; the idea follows.
The individual parts of Operation Scorpio are certainly not revolutionary, but they add up to a rather interesting whole. At this point in China’s film industry, things were moving away from the old-school style and were going more for a John Woo approach. You needed big action, lots of destructible sets, and stone-cold heroes. Seeing a film like this marry the old with the new would have been refreshing, even if nothing about it is exactly unique.
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