1978, 98 minutes, 35mm in Mandarin with live projected English subtitles
Directed by: Yuen Wo-ping
Starring: Jackie Chan, Simon Yuen Siu-tin, Hwang Jang-Lee, Dean Shek, Fung Hak-on
Sunday, June 23 @ 12:30pm (buy tickets)
In 1978, Jackie Chan’s career was over. Trapped in a contract with producer Lo Wei he had been groomed as a cut-rate Bruce Lee, but the role of grim kung fu avenger didn’t work for him. He was lackluster onscreen, his movies were flops, and Lo Wei was pretty much ready to recycle him for parts. Then Ng See-yuen appeared. Head of the independent production company, Seasonal Films, he was an ace talent spotter, the man who recommended that Shaw Brothers hire Bruce Lee when he worked for them, and the man who backed Tsui Hark’s first films. Ng’s action director was Yuen Wo-ping, an older classmate of Jackie’s from opera school, who is now one of the world’s most famous action choreographers. Ng wanted to make a film with Jackie and Lo Wei, eager to recoup some of his investment, was happy to loan him out.
Ng had the good sense to stay out of the way, and Yuen Wo-ping and Jackie decided that it was time to try out all the ideas they’d ever had. They wanted to incorporate comedy into kung fu, they wanted to have a lead character who got hurt and who was allowed to fail, they wanted to put made-up martial arts forms like Snake Style and Cat Style onscreen not to demonstrate their authenticity but to look good on camera, they wanted to make the master, usually a pillar of patriarchal virtue, a drunk homeless bum who picked fights. They wanted to turn every convention of martial arts movies on their head. The result was Jackie Chan’s first hit movie, and not just a hit but a blockbuster, out-grossing every movie ever made in Hong Kong history.
Jackie plays Chien Fu, a servant at a kung fu school dedicated to ripping off its students. Used as a human punching bag, Jackie’s humiliations are a bit too close to the surface. When he gets used as a doormat by his conman masters it’s easy to see that the humiliation and impotent rage he’s showing are emotions he’s experienced pretty much on a daily basis for years. Salvation comes (just as it did in real life) when he runs across a member of the Yuen Clan, this time the family patriarch Simon Yuen playing the drunk beggar Pai, who also happens to be the last student of the Snake Fist Style. The Eagle Claw school has killed all 3000 (!) of the Snake Fist students and now they’re hunting down Pai. When Jackie gives him refuge, Pai sneaks off in the morning and leaves him the most complicated note ever written, teaching him the principles of Snake Fist.
But after Jackie learns a little bit he gets a taste for more and runs after Pai, begging for real training. With a trio of bizarre killers on his trail, including a Catholic priest with a razor sharp crucifix and Korean super-kicker Hwang Jang-Lee, Pai figures “Why not?” He teaches Jackie by punching and kicking him into position and when that doesn’t work he beats him with a stick or burns him with his pipe. The Teacher’s Union wouldn’t approve but the end result is Jackie going up against the bad guys in three final fights that are kung fu problem solving in action. Yuen Wo-ping was already demonstrating his flair for bizarre bad guys and weird camera angles, but it’s Jackie and Simon Yuen who steal the show, leaping, flipping, kicking, and bending their bodies into shapes never before caught on film. This is ground zero for Jackie Chan’s career and as he goes up against Hwang Jang-Lee in the final scene and gets his front tooth kicked out (for real) you can see it happen right before your eyes: a star is born.