AKA XIAO QUAN GUAI ZHAO, THE LAUGHING AND PUNISHING FIST, SHADOWMAN
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 97 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
Evil kung fu master Yam Tin-fa kills an opponent in a fight. Meanwhile Ching Lung lives in a remote village with his grandfather, kung fu master Ching Pang-fei. He doesn’t take his training seriously enough, he gambles, and he gets into fights which lead him to display the skills his grandfather has told him he must keep secret. Master Tee Cha of the unskilled Everything Clan offers Lung a lucrative job training his students and fighting against the top fighters from rival schools. This boosts the reputation of the school and of the scheming Master Tee. but Lung makes the mistake of naming the school under the Ying Yee clan name which comes to the attention of Tin-fa.…
And so after a long break my Jackie Chan review series is back. I do honestly try to keep up with this; for me it’s a nice antidote to much of the other stuff I review, but I just haven’t had the time recently, so here I present to you two Chan reviews in one day, The Fearless Hyena to be followed up with Dragon Lord. So in 1978 he made Drunken Master which was basically a remake of Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow – and then in 1980 he made The Fearless Hyena which is basically a remake of Drunken Master. The plot isn’t exactly the same, but it’s very similarly structured and contains many of the same ingredients and turns, while quite a few of Drunken Master’s scenes receive variations, some of them not even fight scenes. And I think that, despite being considered to be one of the main inspiration for the Dragon Ball manga, this is why it doesn’t seem to be as well regarded, along with it being somewhat rougher in appearance due to a lower budget. However, rewatching confirmed to me that it’s really nearly as good, mixing stunning fighting, grueling training and goofy comedy in almost as infectious a way. In fact I personally enjoy it just as much, and in terms of choreography it seems to me to actually be a slight step forward, there being much more fluidity in the action. And I wonder if this film represents Chan at his physical peak, something which of course he shows off several times [well, if you’ve got it, flaunt it], most memorably when he does fourteen consecutive upside down sit-ups, repeatedly slamming his back against a tree in a display of borderline masochism. And it contains possibly my number one underrated Chan fight scene. Though why it has the English title is has is still a mystery; the Chinese name is The Laughing And Punishing Fist.
It was the last of the films he made for producer/director/actor Lo Wei. While I believe that most of these are somewhat better than their reputation, none were commercial successes. So it was almost out of desperation that Wei gave Chan more control over Half A Loaf Of Kung Fu, though Wei then deemed it to be so poor he didn’t release it, along with Dragon Lord. He was probably happy to loan Chan out to Seasonal Films for Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, then when they became huge hits was able to successfully release Half a Loaf Of Kung Fu and Dragon Lord to an eager public. Wei signed Chan for what he thought was just one film, but which was actually for an indefinite period to due to the slippery nature of the contract. It seems to be debated how much input Wei had into The Fearless Hyena, but Chan did rewrite an earlier script by someone else, and, after having directed portions of earlier pictures, was finally allowed to totally helm the new film which was actually made for Wei’s wife’s company Goodyear Films, and on the set of which he amazingly didn’t injure himself. Made in Taiwan with much of the crew who he’d worked with on previous Wei efforts, the film was, of course, a hit, so Chan began work on a sequel – and then walked. Wei was connected with the Triads and threats to Chan were made, so he temporarily relocated to American where he made Battlecreek Brawl, while Jimmy Wang-Fu, the One-Armed Boxer himself, mediated with the Triads. The result was that Chan had to make Fantasy Mission Force and Island On Fire as favours to Wang-Yu, while Wei finished The Fearless Hyena 2 with use of a Chan double and footage from earlier films. I still haven’t seen it. Maybe I will now.
So we begin with the requisite “bad guy killing a good guy” preface that introduces a plot which is largely ignored for the rest of the first half of the film, and the tone is really serious, even dark. It’s very windy as three men are fleeing for their lives, two are caught and killed by three assassins, the other runs into the nefarious Yam Tin-fa and suffers fingers being inserted into his chest, back and neck so he’ll divulge where somebody named Ching is, in a surprisingly vicious moment for a Chan-directed film; he’d tone down this kind of thing in successive outings because a great part of his fan base consisted of kids. Tin-fa kills his opponent with a blow to the neck, and then we switch to Chan who’s again playing the silly youth who doesn’t take things seriously. Maybe he’s a little old for this part by now, especially when James Tien as Ching Pang-fei is only twelve years older and hardly appropriate to play Ching Lung’s grandfather, seeing as they don’t bother to put any aging makeup on Tien’s face, just the usual Shaw Brothers-style gray wig and fake moustache and beard that we all love. Pang-fei gets Lung to show him his stances, but they’re not very impressive so Pan-fei makes him handstand with a cup of tea between his legs. Small wonder that Lung goes off to gamble and get himself into a fight with Great Bear [who’s very large], Rocky Egg [who’s very small] and Iron Head, a typical Chan scene where he defeats his opponents comedically with very little effort.
Lung goes to get a job in a very funny scene [that was cut from the French version] with Dean Shek as an undertaker who sells “second hand” coffins and then has one fall on him due to Lung’s clumsiness. But he then finds his calling, or so he thinks, when he joins the Everything Clan. They’re all totally useless, and especially their Master, but Lung likes to fight so he’s happy battling challengers in disguise. Chan broad playing of a mentally challenged man probably wouldn’t please the PC lot today, but his playing of a woman is hilarious. His opponent keeps trying to kiss him while he tries to avoid straight-out fighting though does use his fake tits as weapons. Then grandfather shows up and Lung has to hide his face from him while fighting in the sort of goofy scene Chan does best. But, as usual, the laughter turns to sadness as Pang-fei is killed in a really intense moment where Lung is being held down [but for his own benefit] while his grandad is killed right in front of him, and you’ve never seen Chan emote in as extreme a fashion. It’s hardly nuanced playing, but at least it’s an attempt to show the terrible effect on someone of such a tragic event, even if the fact that Lung pointed the killers in the right direction isn’t addressed. Thankfully there’s help at hand in the form of The Unicorn, who might just be able to train Lung in Emotional Kung Fu, which involves displaying the emotions of anger, sorrow, joy and happiness to find the opponent’s weakness, including fighting whilst crying or laughing. Yes, it’s basically Drunken Boxing rehashed, so you know how the final fight’s going to go, and Chan really does mug; if Chan’s humour doesn’t do it for you and you’re just here for the smackdowns, then this film may try your patience, though I will say that said smackdowns are very frequent, and you’ve got to like a film which ends by riffing on Lone Wolf And Cub.
There’s a wonderful sequence involving chopsticks that was copied in Kung Fu Panda, as Lung has a bowl of rice but Pang-fei keeps on preventing Lung from being able to eat any of the meat at the table. How difficult must it have been to get this right? Another scene involving the two with lots and lots of different sized bowls is just as intricate and as gobsmacking to watch, be it the hopping from bowl to bowl, or the number of bowls that end up on Chan, finishing with a tiny one Pang-fei sticks in his mouth finishing matters in funny fashion. The familiar training bench is terrifically played around with, and then there’s parts of a banana being sliced off while it’s stuck in someone’s mouth. Much as with The Young Master which followed soon after, a case can be made for some of the fights being too long, such as a staff battle that doesn’t contribute to the plot at all. Personally I’m happy for these scenes to be as long as they want to be, because of the brilliance of what I’m watching. The final showdown is fine, but it’s what comes just before which stuns. In Snake And Crane Arts Of Shaolin, Chan fought three guys wielding spears in a terrific display of skill and choreography. Here, two of those opponents return along with a new one, all wielding staffs with swiss army knives on the end of them as Chan basically restages the earlier scene but uses the opportunity to improve on it. A comparison between the two is enlightening. The earlier scene is impressive but starts and stops with every other shot; the later one is far smoother and brings a genuine rhythm. Very few breaks in the action make it astonishing that nobody got seriously injured or even killed during the filming; the blades cut off tiny portions of Chan’s hair for real! It’s the highpoint of all of Chan’s ‘70s work.
The ground shaking like an earthquake as Great Bear is thrown to the ground typifies the comedy; just silly gags that anyone regardless of age or nationality will get. Chan does the odd strange thing directorially like shots where the image is vertically stretched, and some edits are awkward, but he uses slow motion quite well. He’s clearly finding his footing as a filmmaker, and is totally unable to reign in his own performance. James Tien fares the best actor-wise, as Pang-fei; despite training at an opera school like Chan he never became much of a martial artist, but he’s able to mostly convince as one due to his presence, acting and some good editing. Now one of my favourite aspects of these films is playing Spot The Music Cue. While I failed to recognise much of what I heard, we get to hear the Pink Panther theme and some of the second half contains parts of the Krypton music from John Williams’s score for Superman: The Movie, sounding awful as expected! I hope that 88 Films get around to releasing the Chan film that has music from Star Wars in it [die hard fans will know the one]. But for now, The Fearless Hyena provides barrel-loads of fun, even if it may not have the heart of the two Seasonal pictures due to the relationship between pupil and teacher not being as touching, and the English dubbing for this one truly is bad – though does the latter matter? Seeing it in a decent print for once has considerably raised it in the Chan canon for this writer.