Three Films With Sammo Hung Review
The Iron-Fisted Monk (AKA San De huo shang yu Chong Mi Liu, 1977) marked Sammo Hung’s directorial debut, having progressed through the ranks as stuntman and martial-arts co-ordinator. It’s a straightforward Shaolin revenge movie that sees the titular monk (Chan Sing) saving aspiring fighter Hawker (played by Hung) from a beating, then sending him to a nearby temple where he’s trained by the resident Master (James Tien). Hawker hones his fighting skills in a bid to take on the malevolent Manchus and end their oppression. That quest finds him joining forces with local mill worker Liang (Lo Hoi-Pang), who similarly seeks retribution following the rape of his sister.
Hung demonstrates early promise behind the camera by utilising different visual techniques and fighting styles to make the film more interesting. Poor writing lets it down, by way of some jarring shifts in tone, presenting an uncomfortable mix of comedy and sexual violence – which goes too far. The film only really hits its stride during the final act, serving a fast and furious confrontation, allowing the director to ably show off his prowess.
More accomplished is the The Magnificent Butcher (AKA Lam Sai Wing, 1979), which finds Hung on top comedic form as Lam Sai Wing – who’s often saddled with the unflattering nickname of Porky. When he’s not busy supplying pig’s trotters to the hungry townsfolk as resident butcher, Wing is getting himself into all sorts of scrapes. He’s also a disciple of martial-arts Master Wong Fei-Hung (a famous Chinese folk hero), wonderfully played here by Tak-Hing Kwan – who portrayed the same character in over 70 films.
The story finds Wing’s sister-in-law kidnapped by nasty thug Ko Tai-Hoi (Hark-on Fung on good form), who deviously frames him for a murder into the bargain. Wing is suddenly forced to leave the buffoonery behind and confront Tai-Hoi, along with his dangerous father, archenemy Master KO (Hoi Sang Lee). Before being ready for such a risky endeavour, our hero must master the “12 Bridge Hands of Hung Gar”, as you do, leading to the inevitable training montage. As the adventure unfolds, watch out for a number of Golden Harvest regulars, including Yuen Biao, in supporting roles.
The film is skilfully directed by Yuen Woo-Ping, who became one of the most influential filmmakers in Hong Kong, later working his magic in Hollywood as a revered stunt co-ordinator on hits such as The Matrix and Kill Bill. Consistently inventive, The Magnificent Butcher is brimming with winning slapstick and extraordinary lightning-fast choreography. Inspired sequences include a duel with brushes incorporating calligraphy and a scrap in a wine store. Mei Sheng Fan is tremendous fun too as a wily beggar who is actually far more dextrous than he first appears. Some of the humour is a little puerile - they’re not beyond slipping in a fart gag and it's probably the only film in memory featuring an intoxicated chicken. For the most part though, this is a dazzling entry in Hung’s back catalogue. Magnificent indeed.
Among Hung’s finest work as director is Eastern Condors (aka Dung Fong Tuk Ying, 1987), which is unashamedly influenced by The Dirty Dozen and other “men-on-a-mission” movies of that ilk. Set in the seventies, a ragtag group of 12 Chinese-American convicts are given the chance of freedom if they complete a perilous mission. This finds them dropped into Vietnam, where they must destroy a cache of munitions left behind by departing US troops. Once behind enemy lines, the gang soon bicker and have serious doubts about their chances of survival against the formidable VC army.
Hung also takes the lead - and famously slimmed down to play hardened criminal Tung, a guy so resourceful that he could put Rambo to shame, at one point assembling a lethal firing dart gun from just a handful of leaves. There are many instantly recognisable Asian stars in the cast, with several of Hung’s old friends from the Chinese Opera School making appearances. These include a floppy fringed Yuen Biao on top heroic form and Yuen Woo-Ping as a nervy old lag.
Former Miss Hong Kong Joyce Godenzi (later to become Hung’s wife) is memorable as a fearless gun-toting guerrilla fighter who joins the squad. Veteran Yuen Wah is great too in a small part as the heinous fan waving VC General, complete with that all-important deeply sinister chuckle. Perhaps the most interesting casting is that of Haing S. Ngor as a villager, who had previously won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his stunning debut in The Killing Fields (1984) – though he’s woefully underused here.
Prolific HK screenwriter Barry Wong clearly studied a great many American war epics before embarking on this project, trotting out some very familiar tropes along the way. We get a Russian roulette sequence lifted straight from The Deer Hunter, the obligatory wound cauterising scene and that old chestnut of having a traitor in their midst. It might be overly simplistic in terms of storytelling, yet compared to the proliferation of cheapjack 80s war flicks that were being churned out by the likes of Cannon and Italy’s Antonio Margheriti, this fares infinitely better.
Hung knows how to effectively stage frenetic action and in this respect Eastern Condors delivers, providing plenty of audacious stunts and heart-pounding moments. Be prepared for a barrage of bullets, along with more body flips and flying feet on display than we ever got from Lee Marvin’s crew. Highlights include a rousing bridge charging sequence and a showdown in an impressive looking weapons bunker, which looks like it could have come straight from an early Bond movie. At a tight 98 minutes, unlike the classics it emulates, the film won’t take up your entire Sunday afternoon either.
The films make their UK debut in HD in this new three disc set (they are not currently available separately). Each is presented in a sparkling new 2K transfer, taken from the Fortune Star archives. Preserving the original widescreen ratio (2:35:1), the image quality is outstanding across the board, providing plenty of detail and minimal grain. This ably shows off the attractive location work in the Philippines on Eastern Condors, or the vibrant colours of the temples and sets in The Iron Fisted Monk.
This is the first time that The Iron-Fisted Monk and Eastern Condors have been released uncut in this country (they were previously trimmed by 1:16 and 0:11 respectively). There is also an alternate shorter edit of Eastern Condors in this set (94 mins).
Audio – Original Cantonese mono tracks (with optional English subtitles). All three films have the choice of “classic” English dubs, or a newer English dub created for later home video releases. I preferred the Cantonese tracks, and found no issues with the audio in each case.
Sammo Hung Interviews (6 segments, totalling approx. 60 mins) - the esteemed star talks about his early days at the Peking Opera School and subsequent movie career. There is repetition comparing each of these short archival interviews, though it does provide some insight.
Yuen Woo-Ping Interview (20:14) – an interesting archival interview where Ping talks about learning martial arts aged just 11 under his strict father’s guidance – celebrated expert Yuen Siu-tien. He also discusses the transition from being a fighter to action director, making early Jackie Chan films like Drunken Master.
Yuen Wah Interview (7:54) – the actor and stuntman talks about his career.
Eastern Condors Live (13:46) – a peculiar stage version of the film, originally televised for the 1987 Miss Hong Kong beauty pageant.
Alternate Opening / Closing credits (3:59) – for Eastern Condors
Trailers (for each film)
Brand New Audio Commentaries – expert Mike Leeder and filmmaker Arne Venema (Eastern Condors/The Magnificent Butcher), plus Frank Djeng (The Iron Fisted Monk/Eastern Condors). These are fantastic tracks, providing a wealth of information and really do provide a greater appreciation of each film.
Collector's Booklet (first pressing only) – I enjoyed the marvellous new writing on each film by James Oliver, combined with some nice colour stills.