Tuesday, September 27, 2005

"Even If You Were the Monkey King, Himself..."
Everybody was Monkey Fist Fighting...
(This one goes out to the KB. You know who you are.)

I know, I know. I said that previously thatl the only Shaw Bros. flicks that I was interested in these days were the Bond-like superspy knockoffs. Well, hey, when I said it, it was absolutely true; however, I just didn't enjoy Angel With Iron Fists nearly as much as I had hoped. I'll admit it, I'm fickle enough that one disappointment can put an end to my fascination with some newfound interest. You never know, though, I could rewatch Temptress of a Thousand Faces and get started all over again. Ultimately, it doesn't mean that I love the Shaws any less.

I'm about to prove that.

Recently, I was asked to mull over some of my favorites in terms of kung fu flicks. So I did. (I'm not just gonna cough up that list, we'll save it for another time.) In the end, it left me inspired to take in a new one, as I hadn't in some time. Where else was I gonna turn but to the original masters. After a stop off at my favorite Asian video store, I picked up a copy of today's subject.

What can I say but: Wow!

And to think, you don't even know what I'm talking about yet.

Well, let's get on with it.

Mad Monkey Kung Fu (1979, d. Lau Kar Leung)

The Story: A wily street scamp manages to convince a crippled kung fu master (with a dark past) to teaching him the Monkey Fist technique in order to rid themselves of the gangsters terrorizing the town.

The Review: Ok, I assume you just read the synopsized synopsis above, and you've seen how excited I was about this movie above that. I bet, however, that you can't figure out why. There is absolutely nothing in that synopsis that makes this sound like anything more than every other kung fu flick ever made: Loser learns kung fu and becomes champion of down trodden town. Ah, but trust me, this one was different.

First of all, I'm gonna admit to a prejudice that I have when it comes to kung fu flicks (which goes a long way to explain why I like this older stuff): I prefer to watch movies which feature actors who can perform incredible stunts and feats without the benefit of special effects. Let's be honest, most of Bruce Lee's movies aren't great, but Bruce himself was such an incredible physical presence that he keeps them impressive. Likewise, many of the actors in these older flicks could've kicked some serious ass in real life. Now, it's mostly wireworks and special efx that double for physical ability. I don't mind that these things are used, but I certainly like it better when they are used to enhance a performance rather than be the entire basis for it.

This movie features a trio of impressive physical actors. The first is actor/director Lau Kar Leung who plays the crippled teacher. Lau's speed and agility are impressive, but he also has a wonderful comic presence and movement. I wouldn't say that there was anything extraordinary in the direction, but Lau's presentation is quality meat and potatoes and provides a fluid look at the theatrics of the actors. The second example is the villain played by Lo Lieh whose role in the Shaws' production Five Fingers of Death was expected to shoot him to superstardom. Unfortunately, he was passed over by the rapid rising star of Bruce Lee, though he made numerous wonderful performances for martial arts films. Here, he is no different able to move with grace from his early hard edge style to the wily animalistic Monkey Fist style. Finally, the true star (non-ironically enough) is Hou Hsiao who plays the hero Little Monkey. I have never seen a more physical performer except maybe the director, Hou has it turned on throughout the film with constant movement and monkey mimicry. At the same time he embodies the likeable scamp and the cheerful prankster. In truth, all three of these performers were a joy to watch, but without Hou Hsiao, the movie wouldn't have been nearly as remarkable.

That isn't to say I don't have a few problems with this film, though they are very minor. First, the one limitation many Shaw Bros. films can't escape is their dated production value. This film was made in 1979, but doesn't look all that different from The One Armed Swordsman which was produced 12 years earlier. That's not a bad thing necessarily, but it can be very limiting to a lot of these movies. (Side Note: I don't wanna attack the Shaws. Thank God they made the movies they did. Also, if not for them and Golden Harvest, we would've never had the Hong Kong film boom of the 90's.) Second, as the movie has a comedic element, there ends up being a lot of mugging to the screen, particularly from the villains. Most Hong Kong comedy has a tendency to play it over-the-top, and unfortunately, it doesn't always play. Finally, (and for once I don't want to ruin it,) the ending cuts off with a weird tone. I had a similar problem with Five Deadly Venoms, where the final fight was the most important thing, but it didn't resolve many of the subplots. This one doesn't have as major a hacked off feeling ending, but there were a few things that were more than a little "huh?".

As a final note, you don't have to know the plot of the famous Chinese folk tale Journey To The West, but it'll add some extra dimensions to the story. I'm not gonna rehash it for you for two reasons. One, I can't do everything for you, and some things are worth finding out for yourself. Two, I haven't read the whole thing...just chunks and pieces (and I've seen Stephen Chow's Chinese Odyssey if that counts for anything) though I know a lot of the story. All I'll say for now is that it recounts the story of the Monkey King which is where the kung fu style (Monkey Fist) this movie covers comes from. The other reason I mention it is because there are numerous references to it and the Monkey King in the film, and it would help you somewhat to know what they're talking about if you didnt' already. Finally, I might have mentioned it if only to show how damn smart and pretentious I am...or maybe not...

Unfortunately, once again, this movie isn't available domestically in the beautiful letterboxed original language edition that I watched (which was a region 3 disk). I think you can find it in some rinky-dink DVD copies taken from video masters....which might be letterboxed from a British edition...and is almost guaranteed to be dubbed. Now if you know my affection for dubbing for the Asian movies of my youth, know that I make an exception in this case, and that this film is better in the original Chinese.