Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: The Iceman Cometh


[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.]

It’s sort of odd how I haven’t managed to feature The Iceman Cometh on Kung Fu Corner until now. As you may or may not have read in my Top Five Yuen Biao Movies list, I consider it Biao’s best film and it stands as one of my favorites from 80s Hong Kong cinema. It so deftly mixes different genres and styles together in a manner that only HK films can. At the same time, I guess I was maybe scared I couldn’t do the film justice simply by writing about it.

There was the happy accident of re-learning that the film takes place at Christmas time. I was banking on the title of Iceman to carry the winter theme, but then multiple shots show Christmas decorations, and an early scene at the beginning has a Church going Santa giving food to the homeless. Kung Fu Christmas it is!

The Iceman Cometh - HK Theatrical Trailer

The Iceman Cometh begins in the late-Ming Dynasty as a way to differentiate itself from typical Hong Kong fare. For the majority of Shaw Brothers productions and even most historical action flicks, the predominant subject was that of the Qing Dynasty as it was the closest to modern history. Having fallen in the early 20th century, it was much easier to depict the Qing Dynasty as relics from it were readily available. It also made for a great parallel to Hong Kong’s independence, which had an expiration date that wasn’t going away. The Iceman Cometh winds it back further to provide a more fantastical approach, which helps with its genre-blending narrative.

Following the story of royal guard Fong Sau-Ching (Yuen Biao), he is tasked with bringing in the fugitive Feng San (Yuen Wah). At the very opening of the film, Feng raped and murdered several court maidens and since it happened to fall on Fong’s clock, the emperor threatens to execute Fong’s family should he not bring the criminal to justice. This leads to an early battle where the two are evenly matched. In an act of desperation to prevent Feng from killing anyone else, Fong tackles him off a snowy mountain and accepts his death.

We catch some early glimpses of mystical powers, but the movie goes full sci-fi by having both characters get encased in ice and thawed out 300 years in the future. The remainder of the film takes place in 1989 with Fong struggling to adapt to modern technology while Feng’s lawlessness sees him readily take up a life of crime. Feng’s entire character arc is a critique of where many saw Hong Kong going in this era, which was a life of excess and no accountability.

The Iceman Cometh

© Golden Harvest

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Like most “fish out of water” stories, the first act of The Iceman Cometh features a lot of comedy based on Fong being so antiquated. He freaks out about cars on the highway, fails to understand what modern religion is, and can’t accept the fact that the Ming Dynasty fell. He thinks this is all some wild dream that he has yet to wake up from.

During the scene when scientists unthaw Fong and Feng, there is some really crude and poorly dated joke about homosexuality. As film historian Samm Deighan mentions in her commentary on Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-Ray release, jokes about AIDS and homosexuality were rampant in category-III films (something similar to an R or NC-17 movie). The Iceman Cometh constantly straddles the line between being a more typical Kung Fu comedy and a darker, more violent cat-III production. It’s the only time this film doesn’t hit its mark.

Following that, Fong eventually gets some clothes from the Church Santa once he encounters a group of homeless men. With more appropriate attire, he goes to seek shelter and happens to overhear the “screams” of a woman. He looks from afar to see a woman being raped in a car, so he steps in to chivalrously save her. The woman is named Polly (Maggie Cheung) and the specifics of her situation are completely lost on Fong. She is actually a prostitute who owed money to a gang, but Fong believes her to be a regular citizen. Enamored with how stupid Fong is, Polly takes him to her house for the night so she can figure out what to do with him later.

© Golden Harvest

The majority of the film follows these two characters, with misunderstanding after misunderstanding stitching scenes together. Unlike earlier Sammo Hung efforts or Jackie Chan’s more experimental films, the plot and comedy don’t feel like disconnected here. You could reasonably call each scene a skit, but it slowly builds on the relationship that Fong and Polly have. Having become jaded by the life she lives; Polly is ready to exploit Fong’s naivety for her own gain. Fong being a loyal guard and someone from the past feels it is his duty to ensure Polly remains safe from the horrors of the world. It’s a classic odd couple pairing.

During his first night in the future, Fong drinks from a toilet, is surprised by the very idea of electricity, and nearly has a breakdown watching a reenactment of the falling of the Ming Dynasty on TV. It’s not revolutionary stuff, but the committed performances from everyone sell the plot. Maggie Cheung, in particular, really shows how deftly she can handle comedy. In a nice role reversal, too, she isn’t a damsel in distress until very late in the film. For the majority of The Iceman Cometh, she is the one leading Fong around and taking center stage.

It’s this dynamic that helps differentiate the film from the average Hong Kong comedy of the time. While there was a shift in play with the advent of the “Girls with Guns” sub-genre a few years earlier (starting with Yes, Madam, which propelled both Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Rothrock to stardom), women during 80s HK films were not usually leading characters. Maggie Cheung, in particular, had only played ditzy roles where some strong guy needed to save her. Starting with this film, she completely changed her image and would become one of the most respected and recognized actors ever.

© Golden Harvest

With Fong still unaware of Polly’s true identity, he inadvertently helps her swindle money out of customers. She calls him with comically oversized cellphones to storm hotel rooms and beat Johns to a pulp. In her eyes, they were bad people anyway, so she doesn’t feel remorse. She even convinces Fong that women hold the power in this modern society, leading to him being her indentured servant. Polly really does start off as a bitch, but Fong’s gentle nature slowly changes her attitude.

On the flip side, Fong simply doesn’t enjoy his time in modern Hong Kong. Despite having so much violence, The Iceman Cometh is a surprisingly conservative film. Fong doesn’t outright condemn sex work when he eventually discovers Polly’s nature, but the film repeatedly shows that he believes her life would be better if she followed the straight and narrow path. This is contrasted with Feng, who deviates from that path wildly and winds up killing practically everyone he meets (including numerous prostitutes).

Under normal circumstances, I’d be saying Feng is an incredibly weak villain. He doesn’t have much screen time and is pretty one-note. He almost entirely leaves the film for an hour before appearing right before the end of the second act and winds up killing one guy and raping/killing a woman. His speech at the beginning about being tired of rigid training and vows of obedience is almost the entirety of his character arc, but Yuen Wah just sells it. He is so deliciously campy and outlandish that he comes off as a cartoon villain. It lends a further layer of fantasy to this film.

© Golden Harvest

So, what about the action? You may have noticed that I’m not talking too much about any fisticuffs, but The Iceman Cometh doesn’t actually feature many brawls. It’s maybe a larger quantity than a Hollywood production during the same time period, but this movie is more of a character film. When the battles do crop up, they are expertly choreographed and echo stuff seen in Highlander. You have displaced people in a modern era using old technology to do battle. The final fight even features two giant swords with lightning and clashing aesthetics.

It’s very interesting to see the character’s own personalities come out in the way they battle. Fong is almost rigid to a fault while Feng tends to be underhanded. In one particular scene, Fong gives chase on a horse while Feng is in a Jeep, subtly showcasing how both have adapted to modern Hong Kong. Fong Fong later strolls up to Feng with a sword while Feng is dual-wielding pistols. There are lots of small touches like this that don’t beat you over the head with character motivation and style.

The stunt work deserves heaps and heaps of praise. Yuen Wah jumps from a height of at least 100+ feet off a car onto a cargo ship. Yuen Biao gets thrown through glass windows and dives from various heights with ease. These are two actors at the top of their game pulling off things in their sleep. It looks so effortless and, again, plays into them being from another era where gravity maybe didn’t pull as hard.

© Golden Harvest

That’s the final piece of the puzzle to The Iceman Cometh. In addition to its comedy and performances, it sort of adapts and tweaks ancient stories for the modern era. The whole plot is kicked off by a mystical device known as the Black Buddha. I guess time travel has existed for centuries and we didn’t know about it. Either way, the film weaves between these genres without breaking a sweat. The whole production is like that.

I believe that mash-up of styles is what draws me to The Iceman Cometh. Years ago, when I started this column, I attempted to explain how The Prodigal Son is an example of Hong Kong films juxtaposing slapstick comedy with brutal violence. The Iceman Cometh is the apex of that style, signaling how experimental HK filmmaking was. Not that other industries didn’t tinker with this same kind of setup, but it wouldn’t be until the latter half of the 90s that Hollywood would really embrace multiple genres in one film.

The successes of this film would carry into the 90s when Hong Kong would finally become more globally recognized. I truly do believe that the likes of Wong Kar-Wai and John Woo were directly inspired by films such as this. Both have managed to not only direct-action films but experiment with other genres and mash them together in a smorgasbord of films. On its surface, The Iceman Cometh might seem basic, but there is tons of depth when you go looking for it.

If you’d like to read more of Peter’s Kung Fu Corner, you can do so by clicking here.

Peter Glagowski
Peter is an aspiring writer with a passion for gaming and fitness. If you can't find him in front of a game, you'll most likely find him pumping iron.