[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.]
With this month’s first column of Kung Fu Corner dedicated to my favorite Jackie Chan films, I figured I would follow that listicle up with arguably the most important film in Chan’s filmography: Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow. After the major success of Bruce Lee in the early 70s, many producers were looking to capture Lee’s magic in any fashion they could. That desire to snatch lightning in a bottle exploded exponentially when Lee suddenly passed in 1973.
Having worked on the first two major Bruce Lee films, director Lo Wei thought he had what it took to mold actors into another icon like Lee. This led to him casting Jackie Chan in a series of films that could best be described as generic as hell. One of Chan’s first major starring roles was in New Fist of Fury, a sequel to Lee’s film that saw Chan’s character attempting to avenge the death of Lee’s character. It’s all a bit convoluted in its setup, but it also does nothing to showcase why Chan would have been a suitable replacement for Lee.
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That sounds so weird to type in 2022 when Chan has firmly cemented himself as a global superstar, but audiences really had no idea who Chan was or what set him apart from the dozens of other copycats out there. This would go on for a few years as Chan starred in a number of Lo Wei-directed projects that simply refused to play to his strengths. Chan was hungry to make a name for himself, but he was seemingly stuck in a bad position with no real exit.
It wasn’t until a chance deal came about that Chan would finally get his opportunity to differentiate himself from the pack. Producer Ng See-Yuen had been making a name for himself with his company Seasonal Film Corporation and was looking to help bankroll the next big thing. Having gotten in touch with action choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping, he was ready to let Woo-Ping direct his first film with his support. They just needed a star and weren’t sure whom to go with.
There are many different legends about what happened next, but reportedly the legendary Jimmy Wang Yu apparently fought some triads off to get Chan out of his contract with Lo Wei for a bit. I’m not exactly sure how true that is, but the result was that Chan was loaned out to Seasonal Film for a few movies and Woo-Ping was eager to work with him. This collaboration resulted in Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow.
I stated in my retrospective of Dragon Lord that it was “probably the first true Jackie Chan film in his filmography.” I do still stand by that statement, but we wouldn’t have ever gotten to that point without Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow. After supporting roles in roughly 30+ films and a handful of failures in lead roles, this movie showed people that Chan had the potential to become a bona fide star in his own right. It also revealed that Woo-Ping was more than just a stunt coordinator, even if he would eventually fall back into that role in the 90s.
The plot of Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow is fairly basic, even for its time. Chien Fu (Chan) is an orphaned man that has been adopted by the master of a small Kung Fu school. Since he isn’t blood-related, he winds up being treated like garbage his entire life and is forced to mop the floors, cook the meals, and take a beating when demonstrations are happening. All Chien wishes is to learn martial arts and make a better life for himself, but he’s stuck at an impasse.
During a chance encounter, Chien runs into Pai Cheng-Tien (Yuen Siu-Tien) while he is dealing with some bullies. Chien helps Pai thwart their advances -though it’s more like the other way around- and the two form a friendship. Pai notices how Chien wants to strengthen himself, so he offers to teach him the secretive Snake style of Kung Fu. While he forbids Chien from revealing these talents to the world, he does say that they may be used in self-defense should the need arise.
As should be clear from the brief description, a lot of the plot mirrors the trials and tribulations that Chan and Woo-Ping were going through. While it takes the form of a typical underdog story, it’s not hard to draw parallels to Chan’s stint under Lo Wei and Chien’s servitude to an uncaring boss. It’s never been stated what Lo Wei thought of this particular film, but he was reportedly furious with it becoming a major success after his repeated failures.
What sets all of this apart is that the film is mostly lighthearted. It has moments of intense drama (as is typical with Kung Fu movies), but Chan’s natural charisma comes out in spades. He makes funny faces, showcases excellent acrobatic abilities, and demonstrates that he isn’t some invulnerable force of destruction. These are the hallmarks of what would come to define his career, but he was simply never given the chance to showcase them.
As stated by director and HK film expert George Clarke on 88 Films’ excellent Blu-Ray release, everyone involved with Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow was hungry to prove themselves to the world. Ng See-Yuen had been moderately successful with his independent company, but he never even breached the same audiences as Golden Harvest or Shaw Brothers. As detailed above, Chan was stuck in a rut with a director that didn’t care about him. Woo-Ping had been mostly involved with stunt work and coordination and was eager to show he could be more. It was a perfect recipe for talent and crew that knew they could do better if given the chance.
While they maybe didn’t put as much effort into the plot, the quality of the fight sequences is ridiculously high for such a small production. Not only is there an abundance of them and many are loaded with slapstick comedy, but everyone worked through tremendous pain to get these scenes filmed. One of the villains in the movie, Roy Horan, had actually dislocated his shoulder performing a tumble from a trampoline and performed the next sequence with a sword to mask it. Chan, as well, lost one of his teeth after Hwang Jang-Lee accidentally kicked him in the mouth. People were putting their blood, sweat, and tears into this film in a very real capacity.
Then there is the rapid pacing of the movie, which moves deftly between fight scenes and dialogue. The story might not be loaded with depth, but there is a very real sense of passion there and you never linger on anything too long. Chien and Pai will be goofing off with bowls of tea, then the next scene features some incredible training montages. Right after that, another fight will break out and the cycle will repeat.
Speaking of those montages, the soundtrack for this film is often brought up in discussions and there is a good reason why: it’s so eclectic. Due to how fast and loose producers were in Hong Kong, a ton of copyright-fringing songs appear here and they contribute to an atmosphere that very much falls in line with how Clarke described the cast and crew. Ng See-Yuen clearly wanted you to remember this movie, so he nixes traditional Chinese music for some very synth-heavy tracks. During one training scene, you almost feel like you’re taking off in a spaceship, which has nothing to do with the film but leaves a lasting impression on you.
That’s really the best way to describe Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow: it makes a lasting impression. It’s not Chan or Woo-Ping’s best film as the two were just beginning their careers, but it stakes its claim as being memorable and important just by the sheer dedication poured into it. The trio of Chan, Woo-Ping, and See-Yuen would collaborate again a year later for Drunken Master, which is arguably even better and firmly established them as forces to be reckoned with. Still, none of that would be possible without this first film, which has held up 45 years later as an outstanding example of the Hong Kong industry for its time.
If you’d like to read more of Peter’s Kung Fu Corner, you can do so by clicking here.