Martial Arts Trilogy

This trio of films – White Lotus Cult, Sam the Iron Bridge and One Arm Hero – has generally fallen far below the radar when the martial art films of the early 90s are referenced. Dismissed to some degree as an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Jet Li’s Once Upon a Time in China series and released among a glut of higher profile martial arts films, they nearly disappeared at the box office in 1993 (HK $646,000; $434,000 and $166,000 according to the HKMDB). With Fennie Yuen and Lily Li being the most recognizable names, the cast of relative unknowns – To Siu-chun, Yeh Cheun-chan, Wong Kam Kong, Chi Chuen-hua, Yu Hai - certainly did not help attract an audience either. All the films were produced at the same time – with five of the actors appearing in all three films – and were released one right after the other for only one week each in the Hong Kong theaters.
To Siu Chun, Yeh Chuen-chan and Fennie Yuen
Perhaps time has treated these films kindly, but watching them now in a period in which Hong Kong seems unable to produce a good action film, the trilogy seemed wonderfully basic to me with a coherent interesting storyline, a serious tone and well performed martial arts and wire work. It never approaches the dizzying heights of many of its contemporary martial arts films in either imagination or complexity, but there are some solid pleasures to be obtained from them. It really has to be seen in the correct order of the films and they should be viewed in quick succession because it is really one story and much of the emotional impact of the films depend on the relationships of the characters and the tragedy that strikes many of them by the end.
It tells the story of one man who through the use of his kung fu skills and his integrity rises from a lowly position in life to one of importance within the imperial government. It treads some of the same territory as does the OUATIC films as it too takes place near the end of the Ching Dynasty (late 1800’s) – a period in which the government is corrupt and crumbling, foreigners are making encroachments into China and technology from the West is forcing China to re-think its position in the world. In the films, the main character played by To Sui-chun (referred to at various time as Sam or San) tangles with the fanatics of the White Lotus Cult, opium traffickers, corrupt officials, Japanese pirates and greedy foreigners. Many of the characters introduced into the film are quite interesting and well played, but unfortunately two of the main characters – Sam and his girlfriend, Butterfly played by Yeh Chuen-chan – are fairly one-dimensional and the least interesting characters on the screen. The film doesn’t really strike one as big budget – but at the same time there are many scenes that feel big with lots of extras and good looking sets. Overall, the three films make for an enjoyable if not an inspired viewing experience.

White Lotus Cult

At the beginning of this trilogy, Sam is a mere porter of goods and has just made a journey from Canton to Beijing along with his friend. He immediately finds himself in the middle of a chaotic setting with the White Lotus Cult headed by Chin Chen (Chi Chuen-hua) stirring up passions and hatreds against the foreigners. Though the government publicly condemns the cult, in fact the Empress (Old Buddha) is in a secret alliance with them and wants to use them to force concessions by the foreigners. Chin on the other hand is using the alliance for his own purposes – one of them to find the “White Lotus Classics” – a series of secret writings that will cure his growing illness and give him great powers.

To Siu Chun and Yeh Chuen-chan
These writings are held by Chan – an old colleague of Chin’s – who is a loyal member of the Ming faction that wants to overthrow the current dynasty. After an attempt to assassinate the Empress, Chan and Sam find themselves together on a train going back to Canton. Chan has been badly wounded and in order to get Sam to help him he gives him a pill to dramatically increase his martial skills. Martial Arts the easy way! In Canton the two of them meet up with Chan’s daughter Butterfly and his old girlfriend, Lily Li, also a kung fu artist and a member of the rebel force. The White Lotus Cult has followed them to Canton though – along with Sam’s friend who has joined them – and the four of them have to band together to fight the fanatical force.
Chi Chuen-hua and the character Chan - played by ?
The focus of this film tends to be more dramatic than action, but there still are a number of action scenes – the two best being the one between Chin and Chan inside the Forbidden City that has them turning the City into one large battlefield in which they fiercely duel one another and the final one with Sam and Lily battling Chin on top of a giant burning wooden scaffolding structure. The action is quite well done and To shows some real skills that are to be better displayed in the next two films.
Lily Li and Yu Hai

My rating for this film: 6.5

Sam the Iron Bridge

Sam is now settled down in Canton with a job as a rickshaw driver and is being pressured by friends and Lily to marry sweet patient Butterfly. To earn some money for the wedding, he enters a kung fu match in which he easily defeats his opponents until a mystery “man” jumps onto the platform and gives him a tough fight. Earlier in the film, this same character had entered an inn and thrashed a number of the customers for no apparent reason. This “man” is in fact Fennie Yuen – a spoiled royal princess – daughter of Wong Kam Kong – and she is simply trying to see how good her kung fu skills are. Both Fennie and Wong Kam Kong had very quick appearances in the first film, but take center stage in this one. Fennie steals the film whenever she is in it.

Wong is a high government official with his hands very much in the opium trade and when the government sends an edict and an official to stop the trade and to ban opium Wong tries to stop him. The new official creates an alliance with the incorruptible Admiral Kwan (Yu Hai from the Shaolin Temple trilogy and also briefly in the first film) who is in charge of customs. Wong sends a group of ninja like killers to do away with the official but Sam witnesses the attack and is able to save him. They make Sam his unofficial bodyguard. Fennie stays in the background – she is falling in love with Sam and his kung fu skills – and she keeps a wary eye on her corrupt father.
In a “friendly” match with Wong’s bodyguard, Sam is badly injured by the “Bloody Palm” technique and is on the verge of death. As you likely know, the only cure for this is having sex with a virgin and Fennie happily meets the requirement. Just like a guy, Sam looks to enjoy this encounter – even in his near death state – but afterwards feels very awkward around Fennie and tries to avoid her. Butterfly seems a bit put out too as no doubt she is a virgin too and would likely have volunteered! It is decided that a kung fu match will decide who will replace the Admiral and Sam and the bodyguard match deadly skills against one another on top of a series of wooden poles.
Wong Kam Kong, Yu Hai, Lily Li and Yeh Chuen-chan

My rating for this film: 7.5

One Arm Hero

The final film in the series takes on a much more somber and tragic resonance as it seems to imply that there is no place in these times for an ethical man in government. Not surprisingly Sam won the martial arts contest and is now in charge of customs and the protection of the coastline of southern China. Businessmen and officials (Wong Kam Kong is still around) attempt to bribe Sam with money and marriage to Fennie, but after he refuses they look for an opportunity to bring him down.

This opportunity comes when some Japanese pirates come ashore to kill and plunder and Sam’s army can do little to stop their modern firepower with only swords at their disposal. Sam is able to get some rifles from Prince Hing, an evil favorite of the court, but there are not nearly enough to fight off the pirates. When Sam hears that the pirates are once again on the verge of attacking, he raids the royal treasury to get money to purchase weapons from the British. This is the opening that his enemies were looking for.
Wong Kam Kong and Price Hing (played by ?)
Though he is able to defeat the pirates, charges are brought against him for taking royal funds without authority and he is imprisoned. His men want to lay down their lives for him, but he refuses to allow this and says he trusts the government in Beijing to do the right thing. His enemies though are not planning to let that happen and attempt to murder him on the train trip to his trial. He escapes with the help of Fennie, but has to chop off his arm to stop poison from killing him. As in true one-armed hero films this does not stop him and he comes back to fight Prince Hing with Lily Li at his side. The film ends on a rather downbeat ambiguous note and one has to wonder if yet another part in the film was planned or if the dejected mood is just what the filmmakers were looking for.

My rating for this film: 7.0

Note: I am not sure if "Martial Arts Trilogy" is really the name of this series or simply the name that Tai Seng gave to them in its DVD release. One fellow wrote in to say the more common name is "Sam the Iron Bridge Trilogy".