Saturday, June 08, 2013
Summer of Sammo: The Iron-Fisted Monk
Sammo Hung's debut film as a director, while heavily steeped in the 1970s Shaw Brothers style, already shows evidence of his distinct personality as a filmmaker. Based, like so many kung fu films, on a bit of folklore involving the struggle of the Southern Chinese to resist their new Northern rulers during the early days of the Qing Dynasty, the plot somewhat resembles that of Lau Kar-leung's Return to the 36th Chamber, released in 1980. Both films involve a dye factory in conflict with Manchu gangsters and who are aided in their struggle by a former resident of the Shaolin Temple. That film stars Gordon Liu as a man impersonating San Te, the legendary figure Liu played in the first film in Lau’s Shaolin Trilogy, 1978’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. In this film, however, Sammo doesn’t play a real monk either, he’s just a guy who was sent to the Temple to learn to defend himself by an actual monk (the one with iron fists, apparently, though not much is made of these appendages) who hoped he’d return someday to help people.
Like in Hung’s next film as a director, Warriors Two, the moral contradiction that is a revenge-seeking monk is not really explored, instead the film adopts a more Western ideal of justice: an eye for an eye, a fist for a fist. Unlike the more mystically-inclined Lau, Hung really appears to believe that violence can be a productive solution to social problems. His world is darker than the world of the Shaw Brothers, more graphically violent, with more nudity, more depravity. Given the situations that Hung’s characters find themselves in, with the sheer evil of their enemies (in this case, a gang that wanders around town raping and murdering women whenever they feel the urge), this mindset seems perfectly justified. But the cracks in this ideology begin to show in the 1980s, in the endings of Hung’s Encounters of the Spooky Kind, Jackie Chan’s Police Story and Corey Yuen’s Yes, Madam.
Similarly distinguishing Hung from his peers is his apparent reluctance to dominate the center stage, even in his own movies. Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Gordon Liu and the like are the unquestioned stars of their films: not just physically in that they’re clearly the most talented fighters on-screen, but they’re the most charismatic, the most fully-realized characters, the funniest and the most active protagonists. They drive their films, the plot and the rest of the cast merely revolving around them. Not so with Sammo Hung. He appears distinctly uncomfortable in the foreground, preferring to stock his films with ensembles, decentering the narrative into a story about a group rather than a single star persona. The Sammo character in this film has his revenge motive (Manchus killed his father and trashed their noodle shop), but the prime mover of the action is a dye-worker named Liang, whose sister is raped by the Manchus and whose quest for revenge happens to intersect with Sammo. Similarly, the film ends not with Sammo standing alone against his enemies, but with he and the Iron-Fisted Monk (played by Chen Sing) joining forces to battle the villains. This fluidity of protagonism extends as well to Hung’s directorial style, integrating match cuts into otherwise typical Shaw-style fight sequences (deft mixes of long shots and close-ups with occasional handheld rushes-in for effect, the emphasis always on clarity of action and movement within a coherent space). He will occasionally (too frequently would ruin the effect) cut from Sammo throwing a punch to Chen’s enemy receiving it, and back again, linking the two heroes in our minds as we mentally connect the two shots and mimicking the fight choreography that sees the quartet acrobatically switch partners in a two-on-two stand-off. I don’t recall seeing these kinds of match-cuts in any other 70s kung fu films, but they will recur in later Sammo Hung films.
As will the diffusion of the solitary hero into a pair or team. Pairs can be found in Warriors Two (Sammo and Cassanova Wong, who makes a brief appearance near the beginning of The Iron-Fosted Monk as Sammo's sparring partner, compare to the Gordon Liu solo kung fu demonstrations that open many a Lau Kar-leung film) and Knockabout (created by Hung to provide a showy debut for his childhood friend Yuen Biao) in which Hung gives himself third-billing, as he also will in Wheels on Meals (behind Yuen and Jackie Chan). The Lucky Stars films (starting with Winners & Sinners) revolve around an ensemble, as does the film that kicked off this Summer of Sammo, Eastern Condors, in which Sammo hangs around the background for most of the movie while providing showcases to highlight Yuen Biao, Haing S. Ngor, Yuen Woo-Ping and Corey Yuen, among others. Pedicab Driver, the darkest Hung film I’ve seen to date, begins as a dual protagonist movie, shifts to an ensemble and ends with Sammo standing alone, most of his friends having been killed. Even Encounters of the Spooky Kind, which features Sammo as the sole protagonist throughout, shifts him to a supporting role in the final battle in which he becomes literally the puppet of a more powerful hero-figure (the friendly Taoist monk). I don't know of any other major star so willing to subordinate himself to the group.