[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.]
As I sat down to rewatch SPL: Sha Po Lang for this particular column, I came to something of a realization: I haven’t covered many modern Kung Fu flicks. I understand that’s because when I was a teen, we were at the cusp of the Hong Kong film industry getting back into gear, but I’m surprised by the lack of 90s and early 00s content in this blog. Anyway, that’s just a random aside for why I chose to focus on SPL.
The main significance of director Wilson Yip and actor Donnie Yen’s first collaboration is that it kicked into gear a resurgence of sorts for Kung Fu films. When Ong-Bak hit the scene in 2003, it was almost like Tony Jaa was pointing at legendary figures such as Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Donnie Yen and proclaiming, “I can do this better.” Well, Wilson Yip seemingly took it as a personal challenge to prove him wrong, which gave us the absolutely kinetic and visceral SPL.
Titled after three stars from Chinese astrology, SPL is a crime drama first and foremost. I do remember being in high school and being absolutely stunned by the amazing-looking DVD case. The black slipcover with its shiny red lettering was captivating and I had read all kinds of praise for this project. People were saying that Kung Fu films were back and that this was one of the best films in decades. I think that hype was maybe a little overblown because I came away a bit unimpressed with the whole thing.
It’s funny how nearly two decades later, my opinion kind of aligns with what everyone was saying back in 2005. I suppose my expectations were more in check since I had previously watched the movie. Going in this time, I expected more talking and fewer fisticuffs. I then got blindsided by how many fights there are, even if the number isn’t extreme.
On a very basic level, there is nothing exactly original about SPL: Sha Po Lang. It’s a story about dirty cops trying to take down a crime lord who keeps slipping through the cracks. Willing to go to extreme lengths in the delusion that they are doing good for the citizens of HK, the story gets darker and darker until the ending hits and you’re left with nothing. It’s bold, in that sense, for not trying to sugarcoat anyone’s intentions.
Most of the world now believes that cops aren’t good, but that opinion wasn’t widely held in 2005. From the plethora of American media showing the armed forces and the boys in blue as unsung heroes to decades of cop procedurals painting those with the badge as infallible, it’s shocking how SPL just says, “These guys suck and they’ll continue to suck.” Even Donnie Yen, here playing a powerhouse investigator named Ma Kwun, eventually succumbs to the corruption inherent in the HK police force. His men have died and he’s done playing by the rules.
What makes this otherwise generic premise work is a mixture of solid direction, incredible acting, slick editing, and some absolutely brutal fights. It helps that legendary actor/director Sammo Hung is involved because he not only lends legitimacy to this premise but provides some of the best choreography of his career. Building off of what we had seen in films like The Pedicab Driver and Skinny Tiger, Fatty Dragon, you’d swear that the actors in this film were actually dying on-screen with how vicious some of the hits are.
It’s all because of some excellent sound design, but the framing for shots is positively old-school HK cinema. There are extended takes for wider combat scenes and then close-ups for when actors get socked in the face. Since both Yen and Hung are notorious for doing their own stunts, the final brawl is loaded with lots of painful throws, flips, sucker punches, and beatdowns.
What really pulls this all together is that SPL is the start of Donnie Yen flexing his MMA abilities on screen. While the action might be framed as an old-school flick, it certainly doesn’t have any qualms with upending old-school sensibilities. This isn’t a “one style fits all” film or even a movie about how a particular style is better than another. Yen gets into brawls and uses whatever move works best to end them.
Going back to that final battle -which is absolutely the highlight of the picture-, both Yen and Hung are seen grappling with each other, using Jiujitsu takedowns, and incorporating professional wrestling into their repertoires. When they aren’t rolling on the floor, there’s an emphasis on Muay Thai and Kickboxing thrown in. Being that this is primarily a cop film, gunplay does show up, but the majority of the fights are mainly hand-to-hand.
It’s funny that I haven’t mentioned much of the story, but SPL isn’t exactly about the plot details. There’s neat stuff like Hung’s drug lord having a wife and child and Simon Yam (who plays the deuteragonist of the film) adopting his former boss’s daughter while dealing with a malignant brain tumor, but it more plays into the central theme of the movie: love.
That sounds bonkers as hell after everything I’ve described, but SPL: Sha Po Lang is a film about the love one has for his brothers and the lengths he is willing to go to defend/protect them. In a short “behind-the-scenes” featurette for the film, Donnie Yen describes how these hyper-masculine men are battling to show that they care for one another. Everyone in the film has something he is willing to fight and die for, which leads to these ridiculous clashes that end in violence.
By the time we get to the final fight, Yen has lost most of his colleagues and is rushing to save the last one left. Hung is fighting to get back to his wife and child, a miracle kid that came about after several miscarriages. When the two butt heads, neither one is going to back down.
All of that interpersonal drama is what makes the conclusion so effective. Having only ever seen the Hong Kong version of the film, I’ve been somewhat haunted by the fate of Yen’s character. He basically puts Hung down for the count and is taking a second to catch his breath. As he pours a glass of vodka, Hung gets up and runs Yen through a window of the skyscraper they are fighting in. Yen plummets to the ground below and lands on a black car which happens to be housing Hung’s wife and child.
It’s not only devastating, but it doesn’t even let the “hero” of the film have any glory. I was so caught off guard as a teen that I think the dramatic turn of events may have even put me off the film a little. When most of the Kung Fu fare you’ve seen results in the hero walking away from a pile of bodies, it’s shocking to not only see a protagonist who is a piece of garbage but one that doesn’t emerge victorious.
In the time since SPL: Sha Po Lang’s release, we’ve seen other films copy the formula to much lesser success. There are even two semi-sequels (SPL 2: A Time for Consequences and Paradox) that share thematic elements, but don’t quite nail the same aesthetic, style, or finesse that the original captured. For as typical of a premise as this film has, there’s a certain quality to its execution that not only pulled everything together but made it stand out as a bonafide classic.
Maybe I’ve spent a decent portion of my life not really liking SPL, but I’m happy to say that this latest rewatch made me appreciate everything this film stood for. Without the success of SPL, we wouldn’t have gotten the Ip Man series or major Hollywood crossovers like Tony Jaa being in Furious 7 or Donnie Yen starring in Rogue One. The impact of Yip and Yen’s first collaboration can still be felt to this day, which is remarkable.
Thankfully, finding a decent version of SPL isn’t hard to do. While the US version swaps the title to Kill Zone (ugh), you can find a sealed copy on Amazon for not that much cash. That name will always make me cringe, but I definitely recommend you check it out if you’ve become a fan of Yen in recent years.
If you’d like to read more of Peter’s Kung Fu Corner, you can do so by clicking here.