[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.]
Since deciding to end this column, I’ve wondered what films I should tackle to finish things off. There are some pretty big-name movies that would make sense to feature (and will likely be part of the final few months), but everyone and their mother has spoken about those to death. One film I don’t see brought up often is The Victim, an independent production directed by Sammo Hung and starring himself along with Leung Kar-Yan.
It’s interesting that I haven’t really featured any films with Leung Kar-Yan on the site. While he wasn’t a trained martial artist before getting into acting, his incredible athleticism and extreme memorization were able to lead him to a fruitful career. The man could move and since he was able to take directions well, he became a staple of Sammo Hung’s films. He normally took a background role, but his most prominent films before The Victim were Warriors Two and Knockabout. Both of those films were foundational in setting up Hung as a force to be reckoned with in Hong Kong cinema. The Victim is not Leung Kar-Yan’s first starring role, but it’s probably his most important.
The basic plot of The Victim is purposely confusing until the very end. The story follows the struggles of Chung Yau (Leung Kar-Yan) and his wife Yuet Yee (Fanny Wang) as they try to escape the forces of his evil stepbrother Jo Wing (Chang Yi). Many years ago on the couple’s wedding day, Jo Wing attempted to rape Yuet Yee and has been on a warpath ever since. In his mind, seeing as how Chung Yau was adopted by Wing’s father (Cheung Hei), everything that belongs to Yau belongs to him. Yau was also partially responsible for the loss of one of Wing’s eyes, so that doesn’t help things. It’s not unlike a twisted Shakespeare drama, but the plot is merely a vehicle to get you from fight scene to fight scene.
Along the way, Yau runs into Chang Wing (Sammo Hung), a goofball who believes he’s the best fighter in the land. When he sees Yau saving a person in a local village without breaking a sweat, he becomes determined to brawl him and prove his dominance. After he loses, he changes gears to wanting to become Yau’s student, which Yau rejects. It’s roughly 80% of this film we see the two at odds with each other until Yau eventually relents.
Having forgotten a majority of this film, it is interesting to see certain elements that Hung would reuse for The Prodigal Son. The reluctant teacher aspect would be further expanded in that subsequent film while certain comedic beats would also be repeated and refined. Hung’s earlier work is still somewhat rooted in the operatic style of old and The Victim is one of the best examples of that style.
The fights here don’t showcase any one particular style. Leung Kar-Yan, as previously mentioned, didn’t train in martial arts, so he’s almost making up moves as he goes along. You can see some influence from Hung Gar Fist here, but most of the brawling is a mixture of various actions to create something wholly original. The Victim feels like a film Bruce Lee would have made if he had the chance to do a period piece (I believe this film takes place in the early Republic of China era).
A lot of the antics and setups for fight sequences follow the same steps you would have seen in Hung’s previous movies. The Victim feels maybe a little too derivative at times, even if the choreography is solid. The one true standout is a brawl in a bathhouse that is likely inspired by the Zatoichi series -and would go on to inspire the Like a Dragon games-. It’s really a trip seeing Chang Yi portray a villain after his magnificent turn in The Bells of Death, though I’m not sure how I didn’t piece together it was him here. Where the film really comes alive is in the last 20 minutes, however.
I’ve said time and again over the course of this column that many people proclaim Kung Fu films are only about the action, but The Victim really is something more. Once Yau accepts Wing as his student and begins to teach him, we get a rather truncated training sequence that ends with Chang Wing stabbing his new teacher. It’s honestly shocking that the film would even go in this direction as it makes no sense, but the truth comes out. During the opening scene of the movie, we see Jo Wing talking to a silhouetted figure about tracking down his step-brother and killing him. It turns out that man was Chang Wing. For leverage in the deal, Jo Wing had kidnapped his mother and was forcing him into committing murder.
Chang Wing delivers Yau’s body to Jo Wing, but then another twist happens. As Chang Wing explains, when he met Yau and was defeated by him, he understood the power of his martial arts. Instead of wishing to harm him, he explained everything that Jo Wing was planning and sought a pact with him. The two would deceive Jo Wing and his men and would train each other to eventually take on the rotten bastard. Sadly, during the course of their deception, Yau’s wife winds up killing herself after Jo Wing takes her hostage.
It’s an incredibly interesting way to reconcile the somewhat questionable decisions these characters made across the duration of the film. As I said above, the plot in The Victim is deliberately obtuse for most of its run time. There is no real reason why Yau is so adamant about rejecting Chang Wing other than it being a ruse. There is no reason why Chang Wing would need to learn so much about Yau’s life other than for the duo to form a deeper bond. It’s not pulled off with particular finesse but elevates the otherwise average story to new heights. You start to look back at the film and deduce when Yau and Chang Wing’s partnership actually began.
Right after Chang Wing explains the truth, Jo Wing has one trick left up his sleeve. Guards from behind the door stab spears through Chang Wing and his mother, killing them. With nothing left for him now, Yau finally puts aside the promise he gave to his stepfather and battles Jo Wing with all of his force. Sadly -which is something you’d think I wouldn’t say about a Kung Fu film- there is one last guard to get through before the true finale starts. Yes, The Victim falls victim to a bloated runtime, and Hung throws in one extra duel against a random jobber to pad things out.
That awkward blemish aside, the brawl between Yau and Jo Wing is brutal, visceral, and kinetic. The two throw each other across the room, into furniture, up against walls, and eventually into each other. The penchant for fast-hitting violence Hung would pepper his 80s output with starts here and it’s a hell of a way to close the movie.
There is one last gag at the end when Yau is visiting the graves of his wife and Chang Wing, but I won’t spoil it. The Victim may not necessarily hold up under scrutiny and against some of Hung’s other masterworks for Golden Harvest, but it is yet another example of his immense talent for creating something from nothing. While all of Hung’s Golden Harvest films could be considered “big-budget,” the man would occasionally break away from the studio system to produce something wholly his own. The Victim is just that and having rewatched it finally, I’m reminded of why I kept hold of the awful bootleg DVD I have.
If you’d like to watch the film for yourself, there is a decently restored version on YouTube that is at least in HD. For reasons beyond my comprehension, the film has been stuck in distribution hell and there isn’t any official way to watch it. That might change in the near future, but we’ll need to wait and see.
If you’d like to read more of Peter’s Kung Fu Corner, you can do so by clicking here.