AKA LANG QUAN
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 95 mins/93 mins/90 mins/80 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Tang Huo-wan is a disciple of kung fu master Chang San-thye, leader of the Kang Kun school, who adopted him as a child. In a duel, Chang is killed by Chung Gim-gwan, master of the Patience Clan, whose wife had a relationship with Chang years before they were married. Learning of Chang’s death, Chung’s wife hangs herself so the gods would forgive Chung. On the eve of the third anniversary of his Master’s death, Tang along with Chang’s daughter Mung-laan and wife Ouyang Sha-fei go in search of revenge for Chang’s death. Chung no longer seem to be an evil man, but then Ouyang falls ill and Tang can only get a cure by working for a nasty gang….
Reviewing Eureka Entertainment’s stonking new Blu-ray releases of the Project A and the first two Police Story films has given me a taste for reviewing more Jackie Chan. I’ve been a fan two thirds of my life you see. It seems that another UK company called 88 Films has also started to bring out some of his films on Blu-ray, as good enough an excuse as any to re-watch [not in shitty looking prints for once] and review them even if I actually have to buy them this time. 88 Films seem to be releasing Chan’s very early work, which despite not usually having much of a good reputation, and not much liked it seems by the man himself, I’ve usually enjoyed [though I haven’t quite seen them all] – but then again I tend to enjoy traditional Hong Kong martial arts movies as much as the later kind, and kill me but in the case of these films a tinny, comical English dub is part of the experience for me personally. In between these offerings from 88 Films and hopefully more treats from Eureka I’ll probably review the odd entry in Chan’s more recent filmography, and tweak two older reviews. But for now we’re talking about Dragon Fist, a deadly serious [well, at least intentionally] affair totally devoid of Chan’s usual clowning. And, you know what, while not even a minor classic, it comes off pretty well. There’s little in the way of outstanding action but effort has been made to keep it realistic, while the plot is pretty decent, reasonably ‘involved’ with a few surprises but not hard to follow, and working as a nice variation on the most used of all kung fu movie premises which suggests that rushing in to avenge your master’s death may not always be the best thing to do. And it’s interesting to see Chan playing a flawed character who spends much of the film fighting on the wrong side.
Now as you may expect there isn’t a huge amount of information on the making of most of these early films, but I’ll do my best to provide what background stuff I can and some knowledge about the different versions available. Dragon Fist was one of a series of films Chan made for the Lo Wei Production Company. Wei had directed Bruce Lee’s star making The Big Boss and Fist Of Fury, but the two fell out and Wei left Golden Harvest to spend much of his later career trying to launch other stars, including Chan. Dragon Fist, which was clearly trying to make Chan like Lee, was a low budget production filmed in South Korea. As usual, Chan choreographed the fight scenes while Wei was more interested in listening to horse racing on the radio rather than directing. Then, when the film was completed, Wei’s company went bankrupt so he shelved the film along with Spiritual Kung Fu and Half A Loaf Of Kung Fu. When Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow finally gave Chan a hit, Wei released the three films to good box office. The German version cut some of the opening fight while the Japanese one removed it altogether, partly replacing it with portions of the final fight. The UK video was uncut but the 2001 DVD had lots of frame cuts due to a bad master, while the 2002 US DVD cut 15 minutes around the middle of the film, making some of the story line hard to understand, such as why Chan was working for these crooks. So many of his films have been treated appallingly in the States, far worse than here in the UK.
So we open with two people fighting in a courtyard, sometimes pausing for the credits to pop up and for the music to start and stop. Ah, the music. Many of these films pilfered scores to American and British films, but this one mostly consists of Jerry Goldsmith’s music to The Sand Pebbles. I remain in awe of how they used to get away with this. Anyway, one guy bests the other, after which we cut to him fighting someone else – before returning back to the first fight. Wei was little more than a journeyman director but he sometimes provides some odd quirks – though they tend to come across as just bad film making. And then we get a flashback to tell us that there’s been a kung fu tournament to determine the greatest martial arts school in the region, and that the Tang San Clan is named the winner. However, the celebration is cut short by the arrival of Chung. He wasn’t able to make it to the tournament, so he declares Chang’s win false until he’s able to best his Snapping Kick technique, which of course he’s unable to do. Chung, as with many people in these films, is intended to seem really old, though putting a grey or white wig and fake moustache on a 30 year old hardly conveys the right illusion. Chan as Tang gets in a few blow here but is no match for Chung. But Chung’s pleasure over killing Chang goes when his wife is found having hung herself. Three years later and Tang clearly thinks he’s now ready to take on Chung and heads for Chung’s school along with Chang’s daughter Mung-laan and wife Ouyang. He immediately runs into trouble with Fang, Chung’s best pupil, but Chung himself appears rather peaceful and doesn’t want his guys to attack Tang. The premise set up by the opening is subverted even more when it’s revealed that Chung has cut off his own leg, meaning that Tang can’t kill him without it looking bad.
Don’t worry though, Fang and his men are usually around to pester Tang, while some other bad guys led by a villain named Wei are killing off members of the Patience Clan and involved in various criminal activities. And it’s these guys who recruit Tang when he needs an antidote for an illness that’s afflicted Ouyang. Now, considering that Ouyang becomes ill immediately after drinking tea, it’s safe to assume that almost anybody would see that she was poisoned, but Tang obviously isn’t too bright. He extorts and beats up people for these crooks so he can have a cure for OuyAng’s sickness, and there’s no way that a few years later Chan would have allowed his character to be like this even if he thinks he’s doing it for a good reason – and it’s rather a joy to see. As much focus though is on Fang who’s investigating these deaths, while there’s also two lovely ladies around – Mung-laan and Chung’s daughter Chung Cau-ping. There’s no time for romance, but at least Pearl Lin gets some serious moves in as Chung, especially in one fight when her father also goes into action grabbing on to other people despite being short of a leg. Even here, Chan is fighting on the wrong side and it’s strange but in a good way because you feel like shouting at the screen. It certainly makes up for a revelation involving one character being of little surprise if you’ve seen the actor playing him in several other parts.
The many brawls involving Tang, Fang and various others are generally restrained and to be honest lack notable qualities. Even though Chan’s more acrobatic style utilising the environment had already partly surfaced in some earlier Wei’s, here he deliberately holds back, and some may feel he holds back too much, though there’s very little trampoline or wire stuff and aside from the usual exaggerated sound effects it’s generally believable. I can’t especially fault the action but I can’t truly praise it either, except for the finale when Tang goes toe to toe with two of Wei’s most dangerous men, notable a guy wielding spiked tonfas [sticks with long handles a third of the way down. Here, the energy level moves up to another level and there’s a terrific moment when Chung hurls his walking stick across to Tang to try to even things. And, despite from what I’ve read in the past, Chan doesn’t seem to be lost in his role. He does like to stare intently at the ground to convey thought, but his brooding, occasionally explosive [check out how many times he hits one particular guy] performance came off quite well to me even though I watched the film with the English dub.
I don’t want to praise too highly a film in which, for example, a guy named Fatso isn’t fat. It’s full of the things that mockers of this kind of film laugh at, and Wei’s direction doesn’t help – it’s really random, from an extreme low angle shot of combatants darkened in the sunlight in an attempt to be arty, to one fight partly shot from so far away that if you watched this film on a small screen you wouldn’t be able to see what’s going on. But then I don’t really mind it when the camera just sits there while people fight, it’s such a nice corrective to the modern obsession with editing action to within an inch of its life. The Goldsmith music used is poorly pirated so it doesn’t always sound great and is sometimes overpowering, but often sounds fitting with its Oriental harmonies and sounds. To enjoy Dragon Fist you really have to forget about the Chan we’re familiar with [though you can also say that about Heart Of The Dragon, one of his very best films] and have had at least some experience in old school ‘chopsocky’. It may be, in the end, still a relatively minor footnote in Chan’s career. But it certainly has its qualities, and even attempts to be intelligent.