Three heros of Shaolin lead a band of rebels for the sake of liberation from the oppresive Qing government. The Invincible Kung Fu Trio (Hong xi guan fang shu yu liu a cai, 1974) are namely as follows:
1) Brother Lu Ah-choi (John Liu) is a handsomely straightforward good guy obedient & without much personality whose biggest scenes involve capture & torture in an unsual device; 2) Hung Sze-kwan (Lee Chung Kin) who fights with musical cymbols & suffers from hot-headed pride; & 3) number one Shaolin crackerjack kung fu superdude Fong Sai-yuk (Mang Fei) who has a page boy haircut to identify him as a Jackie Chan-like comedian who wisecracks his way through fight scenes & plays "got your nose!" with his opponents, becoming the closest thing to an interesting character anywhere in sight.
The villain is the Abbott of Wu Tang who is sometimes seen with black hair, sometimes with white hair, but turns out in the end to be wearing two wigs not one & is actually bald. If this was supposed to be a joke I missed the funny part. And it can be confusing indeed until the viewer suddenly recognize that it really is the same actor (Kam Kong) who likes to change his look between scenes without warning & for no reason.
He's also a sorcerer. He uses the "butterfly stroke" which should've been translated "butterfly strike" to sound less silly, a punching style emulating butterflies (how it emulates butterflies I couldn't figure out) & causes only internal injuries sans outer bruising. He also knows cloning magic & creates duplicates of the Invincible Three, easy to tell from the real Kung Fu Trio because they have yin-yang symbols emblazoned on their chests.
I'm not a punch & block kung fu fan so much as a fan of swordplay wuxia. But I do so like Angela Mao Ying & decided to give this Taiwan cheapy a try even though it had a lot about it as warning that it wasn't apt to be any good.
The copy in circulation is cropped for full screen & dubbed with the usual mediocrity verging on comedic. If these actors were delivering their lines well enough in the original Mandarin, they're robbed of whatever nuance they achieved because amateur voices have been dubbed for the sake of illiterates who refuse to watch any film with with subtitles.
Still, as ruined films go, this one's a clean enough transfer, & doesn't seem likely that it could be a whole lot better even if it could be found in its unaltered state with optional subtitles.
In fact, in some of the fight scenes there are odd little sound effects added that might have been used in a Tom & Jerry cartoon, reflecting a complete lack of respect for the product or its audience, & these tawdry moments of foolishness turn out to be rather amusing, unlike the film as a whole.
When Hung is caused internal injury by the wig-switching bad abbot's butterfly strike, he has only ten days to live unless they can obtain the Wu Tang cure.
The wicked abbot deprives them of this information, of course, so Brother Fong puts Brother Hung on a sled & drags him across the countryside to a nice farm where Uncle Fung (Liu Ping) is raising his daughter Yau Chun (Angela Mao Ying finally turning up).
Uncle Fung somehow knows the secrets of Wu Tang (no one mentions how that happened) & so cures Hung by tossing him around a bit & wacking him on the back, which Fong misunderstands & so attacks Uncle Fong just for the sake of one more irrational fight scene.
When Hung is up & around again, beautiful miss Yung Chung acquires a crush on him, though warned by her father that Hung is a hot-head who'll come to grief (sounded like a foreshadowing, but it wasn't, & even the promise of a bit of romance is soon enough dropped from the story).
I only wanted to watch this damned film for Angela Mao's presence. But even after she's introduced to the story & is told "Yes" when she asks if a woman can join the Shaolin brotherhood, she's just not much in evidence. She teaches Hung some crane-style fighting method but in the main we don't get to see her do much of nothin'. A grave disappointment in a film that was already scoring pretty low.
Though the story was set up at the beginning to be about the Shaolin fighting the occupying Manchus, it really turns out to be Shaolin vs Wu Tang, a sub-genre unto itself that is rarely done well, although frequently even worse than this example. Apart from the idea that the Wu Tangs support the Manchus, we don't see anything happen that might be construed as a threat to the Qing government. So even more than usual for such a film, the storyline is meaningless.
Fans of empty-headed empty-hand fighting might enjoy the film for the very reasons I found it wanting. It has poor context for all the fighting but just keeps up the action on any flimsy pretext.
The climax is hardly any bigger a moment than the earlier lackluster fight scenes, but does present itself as an earnest display of sundry styles pitted against one another, not only in reply to the silly Butterfly Stroke, but a familiar catalog of forms: tiger, snake, poisonous snake, monkey, & so on.
I found it just too dull for words & with Angela Mao nowhere in evidence I just never perked up for any of it.
Even in such awful films as this one, however, there are some cultural elements that can be illuminating. Some stuff that can look especially dumb to westerners actually has a basis in reality, however foolishly presented by this film. Hung's cymbol-fu, & the Shaolin brothers fighting while wearing New Years & festival dragon & lion costumes, is not explained within the film, but wouldn't need to be explained for a Chinese audience:
Tyranical governments always tried to disarm the peasantry, so their weapons became the empty hand, musical instruments, or farm implements. If caught practicing warrior skills they'd be arrested, so they learned "dance" moves under dragon or lion costumes pretending it was innocent display when in fact it was martial skills.
So the unexplained scenes of the Invincible heroes at the festival in lion & dragon costumes provide a couple genuinely interesting images with authentic historical context, in a film that doesn't have a lot of highlights. And the recurring image seen in punch-&-block films of government agents with swords vs the common man proficient in empty-hand kung fu is likewise historically relevant however fabular the fighting styles have become for sake of popular imagination.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl