King of Beggars Review
Director Gordan Chan helms this period kung-fu adventure movie blending many traditional aspects of the genre such as characters, story and action set-pieces with Stephen Chow's brand of nonsense comedy. In the lead role Chow portrays So Chan, the spoilt son of the wealthy Peking General So (Ng Man Tat) who upon celebrating his 25th birthday becomes smitten with Yu Shang (Cheung Man), a beautiful member of the Beggars Association who is posing as a prostitute to exact revenge upon Chiu (Norman Chu) who killed her father. Without realising it So Chan ruins her plans by challenging Chiu, making himself a powerful enemy in the process before he goes on to propose to Yu Shang who, indulging his assuredness requests he become a recognised scholar of kung-fu before she'll accept his marriage proposal. Following this path So Chan and his father General So relocate to Canton where they are setup by Chiu and decreed to become beggars by the Emperor, which eventually leads them back to the Beggars Association where So Chan will ultimately find his calling and win the girl, foil an assassination plot and become the King of Beggars.
Surrounded by servants who applaud his every move the lazy, happy-go-lucky and illiterate So Chan begins life like so many of Chow's onscreen personas, almost sickeningly assured of himself yet possessing a kindness which in this story pays off in a big way after the character goes through a series of changes. Adopting the role of the infamous Beggar So, better known as the Drunken Master director Gordan Chan develops the character in the mid-section of the film as someone struggling to accept his new lot in life, ashamed of his status and happy to waste away that is until the woman he loves is kidnapped giving him a new purpose. Foregoing the familiar drunken style associated with the older incarnations of Beggar So we are instead treated to 'Sleeping Fists Style', a method of kung-fu that parallels the drunken boxing style by fooling your opponents only instead of stumbling and falling down Chow takes short naps be they standing up, laying down or somewhere in-between. This works perfectly with his brand of comedy, appearing just a little bit silly but never moreso than the Drunken style while Chow acquits himself very well throughout the film in the numerous martial arts sequences, only using a double when absolutely necessary the action is both well staged and sufficiently inventive with only the final battle between So Chan and Chiu disappointing slightly with a blink and you'll miss it method of finally laying his foe to rest.
The acting throughout is to a level adequate for any martial arts period piece, only one that foregoes unnecessary complications such as loss in the family or dragged out romantic segues, and instead revels in the always successful pairing of Chow and Ng Man Tat who deliver the goods and hold your attention be they together or carrying a section of the film separately. Having a director of Chan's calibre does the film a world of good as the spacious sets and lush surroundings of mainland China are put to great use creating one of the more lavish productions that you will see Chow involved with at this stage of his career. Chan also knows when enough is enough and keeps the pace swift never allowing the comedy or action to get in the way of the always incrementing narrative, and is also confident enough to create a minor lull in the comedy at the point when So Chan and his father are deprived of their wealth and sent into the world of beggars, ensuring the audience is fully aware of just how devastating this is on them which helps create a greater sense of achievement as they adapt and overcome their problems.
King of Beggars remains an accomplished and entertaining outing in Chow’s early career, lacking the elaborate effects of his more recent efforts and the outrageously amusing humour found in his less action-centric output, but is always charming and a good ride from start to finish with no major highs or lows to speak of.
Hong Kong Legends first release after their recent internal changes which have seen long-term producer Brian White and extras-extraordinaire Bey Logan depart company is a sign of things to come, with not only the cover-art lacking the familiar HKL design but also the logos, while the disc itself comes up woefully short in the extras department.
Fortunately the picture and sound quality remains high, with a remastered high-definition Fortune Star print used to present the film in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, almost free of print damage and with good detail levels throughout. Colour levels appear accurate with well defined skin tones while contrast is also good with deep blacks and good shadow gradients. Any faults are down to the quality of the source, with location shoots appearing softer than the more controlled on-set shoots.
In terms of audio you get a Cantonese 5.1 remix and the original Cantonese 2.0, and an English 5.1 dub should that be of interest. Switching between the Cantonese tracks I found the 5.1 to be preferable, with a greater clarity to the dialogue and fine usage of the surround stage to project the music and action set-pieces. Originally recorded in Stereo I suspect this has lent itself better to a 5.1 remix than the usual Mono recordings do.
Optional English subtitles are a little on the large side, presented in a white font with a thin black outline they don’t always stand out as clearly as they should, but are mostly of a high quality. Dutch and English HOH subtitles are also present.
Moving onto the extras you’ll find only one significant piece, a 20-minute interview with Gordan Chan. Conducted in English Chan spends his time focusing entirely on King of Beggars, reminiscing about the shoot, retelling tales from the set with a particular fondness for the sets and location shoots in China before spending a little time talking about Stephen Chow. Of particular interest are his thoughts on the story and how he adapted the legendary tales of Beggar So to fit with this unique vision of the character.
Elsewhere the extras are limited to the Original Theatrical Trailer, a UK Promotional Trailer (both anamorphic widescreen) and an interactive Stephen Chow biography. The latter is actually a fairly nice idea, though rather poorly executed. At just four screens in length, this is a potted biography to say the least, while the interactive elements see you select movie titles which lead you to a trailer for Magnificent Butcher, and brief interview snippets with Gordan Chan for Fight Back To School and Fist of Fury ‘91. Running just a few minutes in length these interview snippets could have made for a very interesting bonus, but with just two present the feature seems to be little more than a passing thought.
With a good blend of action and comedy King of Beggars is a good introduction to some of Chow’s earlier work, fitting more into the genres Hong Kong fans will be familiar with and not quite as demanding as his more outright comedy efforts can be. The disc is good but rather lacking in features. It's such a shame that Bey Logan parted ways before laying down a track for a Stephen Chow feature as that’s something I really would have loved to hear.