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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Monkey Kung Fu (1979) review


Cheng Hsiao Tung (Wei Chung), Hau Chiu Sing aka Hou Chao Sheng (Zhou), Chiang Cheng (Ma Siu Tien/one of Tung's thugs), Kuan Feng (Tung Hei Fung/Tung Jin Man)

Directed by Lo Mar

Wei Chung arrives in prison and immediately stirs up trouble with Ma Siu Tien, a one eyed old man sharing the cell. The old man defeats him easily several times. On the eve of his execution, Ma gives Wei half of a medal and instructs him to find the other half. When both halves are brought together, a secret will be revealed. Wei is then chained to a new inmate, Zhou. Not long after, the two break out of prison and eventually free themselves of the chain. Wei wants to go in the opposite direction of Zhou, but he follows close behind him. Tung Hei Fung, a supreme martial artist, visits the prison searching for the old man named Ma.

Looking to retrieve the medal from Ma's corpse, he learns that it was given to another inmate, Wei, who escaped. Tung and his gang of kung fu fighters seek out Wei to snatch his half of the medal. Zhou intercepts the gang, helping Wei to escape. Wei learns after stubbornly avoiding him, that Zhou possesses the other half. By putting the two pieces together, reveals a location atop a mountain. When the two escaped convicts reach the cave, they find a manual detailing the secrets of Monkey Boxing. However, the formidable Tung and his men are not far behind.

Exploitation and kung fu quickie extraordinaire, Johnny Lo Mar delivers what I think is his best movie. Possibly the best example of the Shaw's attempts to emulate the indy style of kung fu movie. There's near nonstop fighting all intricately choreographed by the films star, Tony Cheng Hsiao Tung (Ching Siu Tung). Aiding him in designing the extremely high number of kung fu fights are Leung Siu Hung (he plays one of Tung's gang in the film) and co-star, Hau Chiu Sing.

Director Lo Mar had previously directed a series of comedies for Shaw's, the first being THE CRAZY BUMPKINS (1974) followed by RETURN OF THE CRAZY BUMPKINS (1975), THE CRAZY BUMPKINS IN SINGAPORE (1976) and finally, BIG TIMES FOR THE CRAZY BUMPKINS (1976). He then directed the notorious Bruceploitation movie, BRUCE LEE & I (1976) starring Danny Lee as the famed, yet ill fated martial arts superstar. Lo Mar then tackled another exploitation flick, the sleazy drama, THE GIRLIE BAR (aka THE FINGER BAR) dealing with prostitution in Hong Kong.

Lo then found a brief niche in the kung fu genre delivering a minor masterpiece here with MONKEY KUNG FU. An ADD kung fu fans dream movie, the average person is likely to overdose on the plethora of martial arts sequences found herein. The action is almost nonstop and incredibly varied. It's quite possibly the Shaw Brothers most successful attempt at capturing the independent kung fu movie style that had recently taken center stage in Hong Kong. Lo Mar also directed the fan favorite, THE FIVE SUPERFIGHTERS the same year. He then tried his hand at a more character based kung fu film with THE BOXER FROM THE TEMPLE (1980) before retiring from filmmaking.

The only minor annoyance in MONKEY KUNG FU (1979) is Ching Siu Tung's character, Wei Chung. He's arrogant, selfish, over confident and quite the portentous jerk. Everywhere he goes he finds himself in some form of trouble. One of the best scenes has Wei frequent a brothel. Actually, the women come out into the street and take him inside. He beds down a girl with a high price but then reneges on payment stating she wasn't worth the price decided beforehand.

The girl then proceeds to beat him up never allowing him to leave the bed! This scene is an excellent piece of choreography. The actress playing the prostitute is incredibly flexible although I don't recall seeing her in any other films. For refusing to pay, Wei must walk out of the brothel crawling between the other girls legs. An amusing bit cut from the English television prints has Wei wishing to go through their legs in the bridge position.

As Wei crawls to the end of the "tunnel", the obese prostitute crashes her plump form down on top of him before finally throwing him out prompting Wei to state (in the dubbed version) "Rotten bitches!" Wei then gets into more trouble when the Black Tiger Clan leader, Tung Hei Fung, shows up and demands he hand over the medal. This of course, leads to another fight scene. Zhou (Hau Chiu Sing) comes to Wei's aid for the second time (having done so earlier only to have Wei leave him to fight alone against three villains!) and the two barely manage to escape.

Once it's revealed that the complete medal reveals the location of a secret kung fu manual, Wei and Zhou train in the art of the Monkey Fist. They then take on Tung and his gang in one of the most beautifully and excitingly orchestrated old school fight scenes I've ever seen. What's a bit funny about this fight is that it takes the combined efforts of Wei and Zhou to tackle Tung whom was also after the Monkey Fist manual.

If the style was so powerful, why then does it take two men to defeat Tung? Even still, this makes the finale that much more enjoyable and aids in amplifying the skill level of the main villain. It's not clear what Tung plans to do with the manual once he obtains it.

Considering his master, Tung Jin Man (also played by Kuan Feng in a flashback sequence) was killed by Monkey Fist master, Ma Siu Tien, possibly Tung simply wanted to destroy the manual. During the flashback where you see the fight that lead to the whole plot of the movie, it's apparent Kuan Feng is also playing the Black Tiger clan leader. Even though it's not stated, I would assume Tung Jin Man was Tung Hei Fung's father and his journey to locate the manual was one of revenge. Again, Lo Mar's movie is only interested in delivering action and lots of it.

Going back to comparing this film to the indy style, Lo's movie contains all the set pieces found in nearly every one of the dozens of fist and kick kung fu comedy flicks that were the flavor of the week in Hong Kong for a time. There's a restaurant fight, a fight inside a martial arts school which comes late in the film. Just when it looks like the stage is set for the final battle, Wei takes off to test his Monkey skills on a nearby kung fu school.

In the beginning, right after Wei is put into prison, there are two fights between him and Ma (the condemned man that entrusts Wei with the medal), one in the jail cell and the other in the mess hall. There's the aforementioned brothel fight, fights in the city streets, fields, back alleys and also a rather humorous fight with Lee Chun Wah, a blacksmith who refuses to remove the chain from Wei and Zhou.

Star, Cheng Siu Tung is most well known for his many later swordplay action films both as a director and action choreographer. Some of his most well known efforts are the CHINESE GHOST STORY (1987-'91) trilogy, THE HEROIC TRIO (1993), BUTTERFLY & SWORD (1993), SHAOLIN SOCCER (2001), HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (2004) and CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER (2006) to name a small few of the films Cheng has designed action sequences for.

He sometimes directed the movies he did choreographing duties on and possibly the most well known to kung fu fans would be the Golden Harvest film, DUEL TO THE DEATH (1983). Cheng is also the son of famous Shaw Brothers director, Cheng Kang. Cheng Siu Tung worked as an action choreographer on a couple of his father's pictures, one of them was the epic spectacular, THE 14 AMAZONS (1972).

Co-star Hau Chiu Sing also featured in Lo Mar's FIVE SUPERFIGHTERS (1979), a lesser effort with even less of a storyline. Hau was apparently a practitioner of the Monkey Fist as he uses it in all the films I've seen him in. Aside from this movie, he also appeared in SNAKE IN THE MONKEY'S SHADOW (1979) and one of the better Billy Chong movies, CRYSTAL FIST (1979) as well as a couple of forgettable kung fu quickies.

A friend of Yuen Woo Ping's, his career was very brief. He had an odd face, but was nonetheless a skilled fighter and displays some great technique here. During the opening credits sequence, Hau can be seen along with bad guy, Kuan Feng, demonstrating the Monkey Fist style on one of the ornately stagy Shaw sets.

Kuan Feng plays the fearsome Tung Hei Fung, the leader of the Black Tiger Clan. Throughout his 7 year career at Shaw Brothers, Kuan played a variety of lead and supporting antagonist roles. He occasionally played a good guy but these roles were mainly as wisened old teachers. Probably his most famous role as a hero would be the master of the Alliance in Chang Cheh's FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982). Of his lead roles as the head villain, MONKEY KUNG FU (1979) is his best portrayal.

He often reminded me of Hwang Jang Lee in his looks and build. His impressive fighting skills were often showcased with the use of the pole or a spear. He essayed the lead villain in the lackluster FIVE SUPERFIGHTERS (1979) and the same years likewise disappointing, THE FIGHTING FOOL (1979). He shows off his bare handed skills (mostly) in these two throwaway productions. The fights are good in both, but there's little else to recommend them aside from the dependable Shaw Brothers sets.

MONKEY KUNG FU (1979) is an incredible action packed buffet of near endless action set pieces that succeeds on those levels alone getting by on a decent enough story that bears some semblance to a western. The soundtrack is very memorable and can be heard on numerous other kung fu and swordplay films. The main theme can also be heard in Shaw's epic, THE HEROIC ONES (1970). Despite some minor annoyances, the films pace is very good.

If you're looking for a compelling story and characters, you might want to look elsewhere. However, if you want to see some awesome action scenes including one of the best final fights in kung fu history, then look no further than MONKEY KUNG FU (1979), Johnny Lo Mar's best kung fu movie for Shaw Brothers studio.

This review is representative of the IVL DVD (R3). In addition to English subtitles, there are both Cantonese and Mandarin audio tracks.

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