[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 was probably pretty easy to guess that I would feature Sammo Hung for my next “Top Five” list. After showcasing what I consider to be Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao’s best movies, I’ve saved big-big brother’s movies for last. Sammo Hung has a much wider range and breadth of films than both Chan and Biao due to starting his career earlier. Not only that, but Hung had been directing for much longer than Chan, allowing him to innovate on a more regular level.
Whether or not you feel Hung or Chan is better, it’s impossible to deny that Hung’s work has had a tremendous impact on the world of action cinema. Even beyond the boundaries of Hong Kong, Hung’s movies have remained influential to this very day. His work isn’t always great, but it never fails to entertain or get creative.
Similar to how I did Chan’s list, this will be pure Sammo Hung roles. If I stuck to solely things he directed, we’d end up having The Prodigal Son and Eastern Condors on this list twice. For this, I’m going with films where Hung is either the undisputed lead of the film and not a part of an ensemble or a major figure in the story. I think that will give us some different answers than what has been featured before.
The Magnificent Butcher
It might seem odd to start off this list with what is often considered Hung’s best classical Kung Fu film, but I do believe Hung would continue to grow as a director in the years following this movie. Directed by Yuen Woo-ping following the success of Drunken Master, this film feels almost like a natural evolution of the work Woo-ping did with Chan. Instead of pure slapstick, we get more of a focus on martial arts brawls and it helps differentiate the two projects.
Hung is also, without a doubt, the main character here despite Chiang Kam having significance to the plot. I can’t verify this anywhere, but I believe I’ve read Chiang was Hung’s real-life brother and the two have a great report together. That they are also playing brothers in this film seems like fate and the dynamic they have elevates a ton of the comedy.
The biggest drawback to The Magnificent Butcher is a completely out-of-place rape sequence. Similar to Hung’s directorial debut, The Iron-Fisted Monk, Fung Hak-On plays a bad guy whose only characterization is that he likes to rape. The sequence is arguably more disturbing than the one in the aforementioned film, but it does lead to a glorious beating of the man. Also, shout out to Kwan Tak Hing donning the mantle of Wong Fei-Hung after a decade or so of not reprising the role.
As far as acting roles go for Sammo Hung, his villainous turn in S.P.L. stands as one of his greatest performances throughout his entire career. Hung had started off in films portraying a variety of villains but didn’t shoot to prominence within the industry until having a baby face turn. Once he was the good guy, his influence as a filmmaker seemed to explode. After many decades of not being an asshole on film, in comes S.P.L. and suddenly you’re rooting against Hung.
I’ve already covered the film on Kung Fu Corner, so I won’t waste too much space recounting why this movie is great. It’s one of the films that helped the Hong Kong film industry regain its footing after the handover of Hong Kong to mainland China in 1997. It also seems like a direct response to Ong-Bak, which practically put every country to shame with how good its action was. Just a really solid crime-thriller that, while technically not a Kung Fu movie, features just enough high-quality action to be considered a must-watch.
Two in a row of films I’ve already covered in this column, but Spooky Encounters really is a joy to watch. Part parody of the genre, part elevation of horror to new heights, this film was a stark departure from what Hung had done in the 70s and even created its own sub-genre of Kung Fu films. Surprisingly, Hung would not follow up this movie with any kind of sequel until 1990’s Spooky Encounters 2 (which was directed by Ricky Lau), but the success of this horror/Kung Fu hybrid had nearly instantaneous effects on the Hong Kong film industry.
Classics such as A Chinese Ghost Story and Mr. Vampire wouldn’t have come to fruition had Hung not taken the first step. You’d expect the first attempt at such a mash-up to be lacking in retrospect, but Spooky Encounters really shows how far Hung had come in the last decade. He was a master of his craft at this point and could practically throw together any random ideas into a successful formula. It also proved to HK film executives that audiences did have a hunger for horror films, which hadn’t really been featured in Hong Kong cinemas up to this point.
While I absolutely consider The Prodigal Son to be Sammo Hung’s best film about Wing Chun, I disqualified it earlier since Hung doesn’t play the main role. He is in the movie and his grasp of the language of film and martial arts choreography gives the picture its distinct flavor, but it’s not a “Sammo Hung vehicle.” That’s where Warriors Two comes in. Taking place after the events of The Prodigal Son (which was released three years later, making it technically a prequel), Warriors Two follows the exploits of two of Leung Jan’s disciples as they train in the ways of Wing Chun.
The plot in this film isn’t exactly the focus as it is mostly a bog-standard revenge tale. Wah (Casanova Wong) watches his entire family get killed and vows to take vengeance. He then wiggles his way into Leung Jan’s (Leung Kar-Yan) good graces by pestering his friend, Gei Cheun (Hung). From there, the movie practically plays out like an instructional video on the methods and philosophy behind Wing Chun.
The fight sequences are on another level for 1978 and are one of the first true steps we’d see away from overly choreographed fighting. Shaw Brothers can sometimes feel stilted with how things play out whereas Warriors Two moves so swiftly and naturally. Hung was just ahead of the curve when it came to what audiences wanted and this movie is a prime example of that.
Without a doubt, Pedicab Driver is Sammo Hung’s finest accomplishment when it comes to action cinema. Even more so than The Prodigal Son, Eastern Condors, Dragons Forever, and the rest of the films mentioned in this list, Pedicab Driver is a distillation of what Hung excelled at and a perfection of the elements he had been tinkering with during the 80s. This is basically a greatest-hits of what Hung did best wrapped into an outstanding hour-and-a-half package.
While major hits at the Hong Kong box office, films like My Lucky Stars and Skinny Tiger, Fatty Dragon just did not translate well across international borders. A lot of the comedy was very of its time and is harsh on cracking jokes about rape or violence against women. While Pedicab Driver threatens to go to places like that, Hung had refined his craft enough to know when to pull back. Instead, we get a rather touching story of a sex worker falling in love with a man that doesn’t know how to fight society to share his true feelings.
Then there is the choreography, which is so fast and furious that you wince in pain when seeing stunt doubles take falls. Hung also gets put through the wringer, too, when he faces off against Hong Kong industry legend Lau Kar-Leung. Kar-Leung has nothing to do with the plot, but watching the two brawl is simply mesmerizing. As I said, this is Hung having mastered his craft and basically showing off to the world how good he is. It is a must-see for fans of Kung Fu movies.
Starting next month, I’ll be going back to a single column per month. We’ll be hosting features on each of Hayao Miyazaki’s films in the lead-up to How Do You Live? In an effort to not spread myself too thin, I’ve decided that just one movie per month will be good for the time being.
If you’d like to read more of Peter’s Kung Fu Corner, you can do so by clicking here.