Reviewed by James Chang
Bravo! This production from Yuen Woo Ping may
well be thus far his best film and greatest masterpiece. The breathtaking
action scenes, the exceptional (nearly perfect) cast, the entertaining
story - every single element of a mainstream entertainment film is here
under the direction of Yuen. It is arguably much better than The Drunken
Master (1978) and The Magnificent Butcher (1979).
It is the story of Wong Fei Hung (1847-1924),
a legendary martial artist and militia leader of modern Canton, who participated
in the Sino-French War (1884-1885) and the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895).
In local Cantonese folklore, Wong was depicted as a chivalrous hero and
in real life he was a master, a rightist, a man of honour and a man of
integrity. This is why many local film viewers consider the late Kwan Tak
Hing as the perfect candidate for such a role. Kwan, an elderly gentleman
himself, was good-hearted, conservative and righteous and some people have
compared him to John Wayne.
It is a simple story, about the adventures of
Mousie (played impeccably by Yuen Biao), who is chased after by a cruel,
maniacal bandit (Yuen Shun-yi). This bandit is being used by a local scoundrel
(Philip Ko) to fight against Wong Fei Hung, his top enemy. In order to
save his own life, Mousie begs Leung Foon, Wong ' s top pupil (played by
Leung Kar Yan) to introduce him to Master Wong and have him learn martial
arts. In the end though it is up to Mousie who knows nothing but washing
clothes to protect the injured old master (Kwan was 75 at the time) from
The action scenes are simply astonishing (I would
even say flawless). Look at the Lion Dance and how authentic it is! First
we have the Southern Lion* exquisitely dancing above loosely balanced storys
of 'golden' and 'silver benches', making use of the principle of lever,
then we have the Northern Lion* played by our equally tactful villains
who use steel claws and fire to assault their enemies. It is much better
than the similar scenes in OUTIC III that even showed Southern Lions being
utilized in Beijing! The scene in which Wong Fei Hung uses fire to heal
his patient was also a treat to watch. It will leave the viewers' mouths
wide open by showing them how limber a 75 year-old man can be.
Yuen Biao and Leung Kar Yan, who are buddies,
play the main characters. Leung was surprisingly good in playing a rather
comedic character who always convinces Yuen to do stupid things --- such
as telling him how to chase after a girl by pretending to be Wong Fei Hung!
Veteran actor Fan Mei Sheng is also terrific in playing a rough version
of Detective Clouseau in the Pink Panther (look for Yuen Cheung-yan as
one of his men). At the other end, the serial killer whose name was White
Tiger was extremely cruel and terrifying, exuding a sense of unlimited
Though Kwan only has a few scenes, he is the spirit
of the movie. Besides the healing scene, his intricate and subtle fight
with the ' Demon Tailor ' (Fung Hak On) was also exhilarating.
He also shows a sense of kindness and humour later on. Yuen Biao was also
quite appealing as Mousie, a timid young man who is afraid of everything.
It seems that he knows nothing about kung fu, however, the skills he uses
to wash clothes for his sister (Lily Li) were the essentials of the finger
The image of the killer comes from traditional
Chinese opera, however it is also influenced by Western movies like Phantom
of the Opera. The final duel between Yuen and the masked maniac was also
in a darkened theatre as is the one between the masked maniac and Leung
Kar Yan. In the final climax, Yuen uses his cloth-washing technique to
overcome the strange stances of flying sleeves and the changing masks of
the killer. The choreography is brilliant, though many may consider the
ending to be too violent and bloody. I personally agree that this may spoil
the comedic nature of this kung fu comedy.
Kwan, Jackie and Jet as different Wong Fei Hungs
When there are different actors playing the
same character, people start to debate, arguing who's the best and who's
the worst candidate, etc. In our case, this is not necessary at all. The
Wong Fei Hung played by Kwan Tak Hing, Jackie Chan and Jet Li were not
the same person ---- they showed different personalities and this difference
in personalities represent the different attitude towards life of Hong
Kongers in the 50s, 70s and 90s.
First of all, let's look at Kwan Tak Hing first.
Kwan 's portrayal is most loyal to the character of the real Wong Fei Hung.
Both of them belonged to the landed upper class in China before the Communist
revolution. They were among the conservatives who were beneficiaries of
Qing and British rule. Middle-aged men at the zenith of their physical
and mental strength, they also represent the traditional Confucian values
which permeated every aspect of Chinese life half-a-century ago. Being
the symbols of the status quo of their day, they resisted all possible
reforms and revolutions, be it gender, economic, or political. Ironically,
their philanthropic acts, rendered possible by their economic status, allowed
them to reinforce their patriarchal image, thus boosting the public’s faith
in the shattering social order.”
Such a portrayal justly represents the social
customs and common practice of Hong Kong people in the 50s. Most of them
came from China and had received a traditional Confucian education that
emphasized the importance of feudal order. This is why Kwan Tak Hing exudes
a NATURAL sense of DIGNITY. He is the protector of traditional order, besides,
being a member of the Chinese gentry, he also practises calligraphy and
What about Jackie Chan? His Wong Fei Hung is
definitely NOT a hero, but a boy, an ordinary boy. A REBELLIOUS youth in
nature. After all, every hero has to come across all sorts of difficulties
before becoming a hero. No one is perfect by nature and Jackie has to be
polished before becoming 'almighty' like Kwan's depiction of Wong. This
stage of training is important and Jackie Chan showed us how tough it can
be. The training shown in Drunken Master also reflects Jackie 's childhood
--- a childhood full of tears and sweat. In the 70s, when the economy of
HK started to bloom, movies which showed how hard one needed to work and
its compensating fruitful rewards was always endorsed by the crowds, as
most of them were facing similar strife.
Now, let's come to Jet Li. Is his Wong Fei Hung
a hero? Well, he seems to be, at least to many viewers, however to me he
is an ANTI-HERO. From the beginning to the end, he never enjoyed any real
success. As he himself has stated in OUTIC III, “ I 've won an imperial
souvenir, when we have all lost our country.” Neither had he won any real
battle. The 'gweilos' were still in China, suppressing local industries.
The White Lotus sect’s (actually, Tsui Hark mistook the Boxers as the White
Lotus sect) leaders were killed by foreign armies in 1900 ****, not by
Wong. The Manchus? Killing one officer is not enough (especially when he
belonged to the ' old army ' *****).
Besides, please take a note of Wong 's character.
Unlike Kwan's portrayal, he is not humorous at all, sometimes losing his
temper. Unlike Kwan's depiction, this Wong Fei Hung can get frustrated.
He was always under TENSION, lacking the suaveness and gentleness of the
ideal image of a traditional gentleman.
These are all signs of an anti-hero. But why
anti-hero? This reflects the psychology of pre-1997 Hong Kong population.
After the massacre in 1989, they were greatly shocked and terrified. They
were frustrated and did not know where the future was taking them. To them,
1997 was the end of days. Thus, Wong Fei Hung was portrayed as a man standing
at a crossroad. Besides, after 150 years of colonial education, Hong Kongers
had very complicated sentiments towards China and Britain and this was
also shown in the OUTIC series.
Finally, I would like to point out that Kwan
Tak Hing represents Canton culture while Jackie and Jet both represent
My rating for this film: 8.5
*Southern Lions were huge puppets of lions
which are played during Chinese New Year in Canton, while Northern Lions
are played in the northern provinces of China, so it is impossible for
Wong to play southern lion in Beijing, as Cantonese culture was always
considered as a subculture 100 years ago.
**Wong was a Mandarin and Kwan was awarded
Member of the Order of the British Empire ( MBE ) in 1983.
***The real Wong Fei Hung in history was
an anti-revolutionist and helped the Ching Dynasty. Later he was expelled
by Dr. Sun in the 20s.
****In 1900, Russia, Britain, USA, Japan,
Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary and France organized an expedition force
to invade China, to 'rescue Westerners who were under the threats of the
Boxers'. Actually, these civilized people slew approximately 3000 to 10000
*****The officer played by Donnie Yen in
OUTIC II belonged to the old army --- an army that was not reorganized
in Western ways. From 1861 to 1911, 71% of the Chinese army was westernized
and 4 modern fleets were formed. However, there were still armies which
were not yet westernized, who kept on using primitive weaponry and were
under extremely poor discipline, these were known as old armies.