Secret Rivals

Reviewed by Yves Gendron

SECRET RIVALS is the film that back in 1976 truly launched three bright stars of independent kung fu cinema,  (two of them the genre’s greatest kickers) Don Wong, John Liu and bootmaster supreme Hwang Jang Lee. It also established the highly successful gimmick of having two heroes with different fighting styles unite to fight an invincible adversary. The movie however does not have a very auspicious beginning as it has very much the look and feel of one of those dreadful seventies lame kung-fu schlock films with very rough filmmaking, cheap production values and absolutely horrid dubbing. As one of film’s first scenes is of a bad guy bullying a whiny little kid, a prospective viewer may get a very poor first impression of the film. The advice however is to stick around.

Somewhere in Korea, a local lord, of Chinese origin, has organised a martial competition in order to select a new chief bodyguard. Among the dozens of candidates there’s Sheng Ying-fei (Don Wong Tao) who’s a Southern style exponent and Shao Yi-fei (John Liu) a master kicker, who find themselves to be in each others way and develop an enmity for one another. The local lord’s actual aim in getting a new bodyguard is to have him carry out an assassination and then get rid of him easily. What he doesn’t know though is that both Sheng and Shao have secret agendas of their own but the tense rivalry between the two could now jeopardise each of their respective plans, whatever they might be. Then there’s also the Silver Fox  (Hwang Jang Lee) to deal with, the local lord’s partner in crime, who’s a lethal martial master.

Besides the recurrent whiny kid, SECRET RIVALS also soon introduces the unexpected appearance of an oafish Western brute, the “Russian World champion” who has come it would seem all the way to Korea to participate in the contest and makes an absolute boorish ass of himself in the process. Sigh. Thankfully he’s gone after ten minutes. Thus despite some bothersome sightings overall, the film holds together pretty well thanks to it’s two lead stars genial charisma, the clouded intrigues surrounding their real intentions and the dramatic tension that develops over their “secret rivalry” which keeps the viewers on their toes. Then of course there are the fights that are terrific, with Wong being a superbly fast and crisp fighter and Liu quite spectacular with his kicks and flexibility. The film's best scene is the pair of them doing warm-up exercises before a friendly bout together, (a scene obviously borrowed from Bruce Lee’s WAY OF THE DRAGON) which allows them to display their superb and sharp physicality. Hwang Jang Lee only shows-up in the second half, he looks a bit silly with his fake wig and beard but he too is great to watch.
SECRET RIVALS is the work of Ng See-Yuen, who was in the seventies H-K cinema’s first and foremost maverick independent martial art maker, deemed by local film scholars as one of the most resourceful and innovative directors of the period. He also had a knack at finding promising talent and picking up on popular trends; sort of the Chinese Roger Corman of his time. Of course much of his innovations are now lost on contemporary viewers because of the age of the films but at the time they really rocked. Thus Ng pioneered the use of real martial artists instead of trained actors or stuntmen and while his film direction itself was rather rough he nonetheless developed some cinematic techniques including slow motion and zoom lenses to make his fight scenes more crisp and forceful than any one else’s. In the early seventies, after directing a string of gritty k-f pot-boilers as the initial trend toward k-f movies abated following Bruce Lee’s death, Ng turned towards crime-action thrillers meeting great popular and critical success. Then in 1976, as the martial art genre was starting to emerge out of it’s creative and popular slump, he went back to it with a couple of catchy gimmicks as well as a trio of performers of great talent but who all had a disappointing false start in their film careers. These were Don Wong whose mop-head hairdo and feline screen presence was more than evocative of Bruce Lee, John Liu a pupil of already established martial art-star Tang Tao Liang and Hwang Jang Lee a Korean Taekwondo exponent of powerful and spectacular kicking skills.
Ng See Yuen’s big gimmick for SECRET RIVALS was of course to pair two fighters together with each of them using a vastly different martial style. One is a Southern stylist (Don Wong) using mostly hand techniques and low kicks while the other was a spectacular Northern kicker (John Liu) thus leading to an eclectic kung-fu spectacle and hence to the film’s original Chinese title: SOUTHERN FIST NORTHERN KICK. Still while it did not diminish Don Wong’s involvement in the action in any way, with his two other co-stars being leg fighters, the film was made into a real kick fest. That must have been a most invigorating showcase at the time. Big kicks had seen great days in the early seventies to mid-seventies (in particular with Bruce Lee who introduced showy Taekwondo kicks into kung-fu cinema and the Angela Mao movies choreographed by Sammo Hung), but with the coming of Shaolin k-f in 1974 that favoured mostly hands techniques and low-kicks, high spectacular kicks had thus been in retreat for a time. Until RIVALS brought back the move with a bang, thanks to the great skills of his new performers, the cinematic techniques developed by Ng See Yuen and the action choreography by Peking Opera trainees Ga, Ming (better known under his English name Tommy Lee) and Chan Chuan, who designed the action as a ferocious in your face ballet of death. Since they were at the beginning of their film careers neither John Liu or Hwang had yet developed their bag of tricks such as Liu holding his leg up in the air with his hand, although he was already crushing jars in his training scene  - a move he would repeat adnauseum for nearly all of his movies.

Ng See-yuen’s other major idea for his movie was to develop a rivalry between his two heroes thus creating a network of dramatic tension and intrigue that would grip the viewer. A lethal feud between a Northern and Southern master or school is actually one of the favourite plot devices found in martial literary art or cinematic fiction and there’s at least a dozen Shaolin movies where the heroes have to fight a master of the Eagle Claws, the Mantis Fist or Wu-Tang, all Northern related styles. In SECRET RIVALS however the tangible friction is between what looks to be the films two heroes. Something that this reviewer would very much like to know though is if in the movie’s original Mandarin dub whether Wong and Liu’s characters had a distinct accent that would have indicated a peculiar regional background. As this reviewer understands it, for a variety of social/cultural reasons, in China, Northern and Southern folks often don’t quite see each other eye to eye. It was an uneasy relationship that for a time was especially exacerbated in the southern city of Hong Kong which for decades served as a safe-haven for millions of Chinese, a good deal of them Northern refugees fleeing either the Japanese invasion, the civil war of the thirties as well as the Communists take over of the Mainland with a result that Hong Kong became an over-crowded urban refugee camp.  Ng See-Yuen must have been keenly aware of the Northern/Southern divide as he was born in Shanghai but from Cantonese (meaning Southern) parents and was both raised and educated in Shanghai then Hong-Kong. Small wonder then that he would eventually come-up with this tale whose real inner drama rested on the fierce rivalry,  uneasy relationship and grudging respect between  a Northern and Southern fighter.

SECRET RIVALS was shot in Korea which was a popular shooting location from the early seventies on for low budget k-f  film production companies because of the country’s low cost environment, beautiful pastoral scenery and it’s many unspoiled temples that were used as sets. Usually though Korea merely doubled for an ancient China setting. Here for once though the story is truly set in Korea and the film makes great use of the local scenery, including a giant Buddha statue and a couple of huge temple courtyards - one in bricks and the other arranged in terraces. This creates a look so exotic and elegant that it very quickly transcends the cheap look the film seems to have at first and even gives it a touch of class, one that would actually be hard pressed to find in more elaborate but more tacky looking movie sets such as found in most seventies k-f film productions, even the ones by the Shaw Brothers studio.

SECRET RIVALS was a huge hit across Southeast Asia and helped revitalise martial art cinema in the second half of the seventies thanks to it’s newly established stars and of course the fighting pair gimmick which became almost instantly a standard within the genre. Up to three or four dozen of such similarly themed movies thus appeared over the following years, the bulk of it independent productions starring besides Liu and Wong the likes of Tang Tao Liang, Chi Kwan Chun and several others. Fight arranger Tommy Lee went on to choreograph a good many of these productions while also frequently playing outlandish super k-f villain before becoming a k-f director in his own right. None of these players however ever quite reached the cult popularity of Hwang Jang Lee whose film career went higher and lasted a bit longer than anyone else playing mostly superbly mean and cool bad-ass villains. In fact, his cult fame was so great that when the video distribution company Xenon released their version of RIVALS the title of the film was changed to the awkward and absurd “SILVER FOX RIVALS” based on the name of Hwang’s character in the movie’s English dubbed version  (the character’s original Chinese name though was “Bloody Fox”). For the most part Hwang worked for Ng See Yuen to whom he was his ace in the hole.

SECRETS RIVALS huge success served Ng See-yuen quite well as it firmly established his newly found film company Seasonal on solid ground and after having two more hits starring John Liu and Hwang Jang Lee SECRET RIVALS II and INVINCIBLE ARMOUR he started a producing career. Over the years he discovered and promoted promising new acting or directorial talents such as Corey Yuen, Conan Lee, Tsui Hark and of course Yuen Woo Ping and Jackie Chan  - producing for them a groundbreaking pair of k-f comedies SNAKE IN  THE EAGLE SHADOW and DRUNKEN MASTER (both 78). But that’s another story.

So summing it up - despite it’s age, its wretched dubbing, its horrid gweilos and whiny kid sightings all of these turned out as only momentary distractions. Overall SECRET RIVALS remains quite appealing on the basis of its action, its stars and its intrigue not to mention it is historically relevant and therefore is a quite recommended find.

My rating for the film: 7.5

(Thanks for the special input from Linn Haynes)