The Smart Cavalier Review
Kenneth Branagh once said that no one ever sets out to deliberately make a bad film. He was trying to defend Wild, Wild West and I'm assuming, that when all other options to advertise that film failed, sympathy was all that was left. Having watched The Smart Cavalier, however, Kenneth Branagh probably hadn't come upon the films of Joseph Kuo for if he had, he might have thought twice about making such an assumption.
The Smart Cavalier opens with Wu Pu Cheueh and his granddaughter Siu Ping (Doris Lung) travelling to a small rural village where he sets a challenge - anyone who manages to defeat his daughter in a kung fu contest can marry her. Of course, she is beautiful but she is also a supremely talented martial artist. One by one, challengers attempt to defeat her including an odd-looking scholar, a dwarf and a henpecked husband, each one dispatched quickly in what attempts to be an amusing manner.
Soon, though, Kan Fung Chi and his brother appear, unaware of the nature of the contest. Initially, Kan stands by whilst his companion fights Siu Ping but he soon steps in, knowing that only he can defeat her. Kan's problem is that, when made aware of his right to marry Siu Ping, he admits that had he been aware of the prize, he might not have entered the contest. Wu Pu Cheueh, however, is not one to give up and having found a husband for his granddaughter, blocks Kan's attempts at escape.
It turns out that Kan is a rebel and a wanted man, sought by the Ching government for working with a resistance group in an effort to return the Ming Dynasty to power. As he argues with Wu Pu Cheueh, Ching forces invade the village and Kan has to escape, leaving town only to face an ambush in the open from a further group of Ching guards. After dealing with his attackers, Siu Ping and her grandfather show up and Kan now has two parties to deal with - Ching forces and Siu Ping - for the remainder of the film.
Eventually, Kan mush face an evil Manchu warlord (Lo Lieh), a villain capable of biting a finger off an attacker and spitting it back with enough force as to pierce his throat. Only by realising his destiny and joining forces with Siu Ping, will Kan be able to bring down the Ching government and restore the Ming dynasty to power.
If you think that sounds fine, do not be fooled for one second that the film is as well constructed as that description would have you believe. I actually had to watch this film a couple of times to decide on what was actually happening so confused was I by the fog of poor storytelling.
My alternative summary of The Smart Cavalier would read - "Kan carries out some rebel business. He fights some Ching stooges and Wu Pu Cheueh and Siu Ping show up. Kan wonders how they got there and, this bit really tries to be funny, Kan has to disguise himself to escape. Kan carries out some rebel business. He fights some Ching stooges and..." This plot is repeated approximately every fifteen minutes for a total of ninety-two by which stage, you'll have long since stopped caring.
The rebel subplot is the more interesting of the two but just as it gets interesting, the marriage story interrupts and the structure breaks down. What's most annoying is the ridiculous way in which no matter where Kan is, Siu Ping and Wu Pu Cheueh pop up from behind a bush, peer through a window or wander into the brothel in which he is hiding. As with Kan, you too will be wondering just how do they do that.
Truth be told, Siu Ping is not unattractive, seems nice and although her grandfather is odd, that's not a insurmountable problem. Clearly had Kan simply married her at the very beginning, both could have worked for the rebellion, she would have provided a bit of rivalry to him within the movement and both could have fought the Manchu warlord in exactly the same final battle, all of which would have improved The Smart Cavalier no end. As it is, it simply looks as though on the way out to start filming, Joseph Kuo grabbed a very early draft of the script rather than the final version but by the time he realised his mistake, it was much too late.
The other problem lies with the fact that, for a comedy, The Smart Cavalier is a staggeringly unfunny film. It really tries to be funny, painfully hard at times, but in doing so, each joke is delivered so slowly with such a complete lack of subtlety that there may as well be a man with a red flag on screen beckoning it into place. As an example, there is a cabaret act who pesters Siu Ping. She starts a fight and in revenge, she throws a knife, which pins his arm to a wall several feet up. Through fear, he urinates on two women standing below him.
That is the joke.
The Smart Cavalier is not, however, completely without merit. The principal actors are all well cast and have a fair degree of presence during their time on the screen. Lo Lieh is something of a celebrity within China and a common criticism of this film, beyond the obvious, is that he is not in it for long enough. Although I am unaware of his status in China, I cannot agree as the character he plays here is slight with no attempts made to build a character to remain in one's mind after the film is over.
As with other films in the Old Skool Kung Fu range, The Smart Cavalier has been transferred non-anamorphically in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The print is acceptable but is not outstanding but at least there is no obvious grain or scratching. The picture is quite sharp compared to Shaolin Kung Fu, also from Old Skool Kung Fu.
The soundtrack is dubbed English Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono without subtitles. The sound is really quite bad with the dialogue mixed to be quite sharp, which is painful to listen to over the length of the film, while the sound effects appear to be little more than wooden blocks being hit with mallets.
Trailer (4m03s, 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic, Mono): With an utterly abysmal audio mix, original Mandarin soundtrack and no subtitles, this tries to play up the humour of the film. However, given that the film is not amusing, the overall feeling on watching the trailer will be one of utter bemusement.
Trailers for Other Available Titles: As with the DVDTimes review for Shaolin Kung Fu, Trailers are also included for The Unbeaten 28 (2m01s, 1.33:1 Non-Anamorphic, Mono) and Return of the 18 Bronzemen (3m06s, 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic, Mono). Both films are available on the Old Skool Kung Fu label.
I think it only fair to say that I did not enjoy this film.
It's rare that I ever get the feeling that I'm wasting precious time out of a finite amount that I have available in this life but at some point during The Smart Cavalier, I experienced that feeling. It was not pleasant.
The worst part is that it could have been so much better had even a five minute meeting taken place to write the story down and to examine it carefully. Had someone asked, "Is it just me or is this terrible?", heads might have nodded in agreement and, at which point, the basic structure could have been altered somewhat, improving the film no end. As it is, maybe nobody realised what was happening until it was too late.
Maybe some people simply should not step out from being a composer on martial arts movies, as Joseph Kuo was, to being a director.
Maybe Kenneth Branagh is right, this is supposed to be a bad film. Either way, avoid it as there are better kung fu films available and The Smart Cavalier is for true collectors only.