Wednesday, 1 January 2014

The Kung Fu Emperor

Director: Pao Shiue-Li
Writers: China Shu-Mei, Ni Kung
Producer: Kou Fei
Cast: Din Lung, Shy Sy, Taur Ming-Ming
Country: Hong Kong
Year of release: 1981
Reviewed from: UK VHS (Movie Makers)

The first question with any chop-socky film is: how much can one trust what is on the sleeve? In this case the photos on the back are from another film (one of them appears to show Bruce Le) while the sword-wielding warrior in the painting on the front isn’t even Chinese! It actually looks very much like Barry Prima, suggesting that the artwork may have been ripped off from one of the Warrior movies.

On the other hand the vague blurb on the back seems to match the plot of the film and the credit block on the front matches the on-screen credits exactly. Even the title, Kung-Fu Emperor, is the same, give or take an article and a hyphen. The film, originally Gung Foo Wong Dai, has also been released as Ninja: The Kung Fu Emperor.

In this visually splendid and surprisingly enjoyable historical martial arts tale, the elderly Emperor of the Ching dynasty (who can barely walk, let alone do kung fu) has 14 sons by 14 different mothers, 13 of whom are martial arts experts while one, the Fourth Son, prefers to study books. Except that he has a master - hairless apart from bushy eyebrows and a trailing wisp from a large mole, given to wearing a red and yellow turban which makes him look a bit like the Blue Rajah in Mystery Men - who is secretly teaching him kung fu. The Emperor’s major-domo, Lord Long, has designs on the throne which he plans to see pass to the Fourteenth Son whom he will install as a puppet ruler.

Useful to know at the start, but not mentioned until near the end of the film, is the fact that the Emperor’s will, announcing which of his 14 sons will succeed him, is hidden in the booby-trapped rafters of the palace. When an attempt is made to steal the will, thwarted by a squad of guards, Lord Long suspects the Ninth Son (who is the best fighter) and has him killed by a grinning henchman in a fake hunting accident. On his mentor’s advice, the Fourth Son sets out to journey around the kingdom until the heat cools off.

He meets two street-performing acrobats, Brother Bai and Brother Gan, and acquires a comic relief servant (who isn’t too irritating). However, in one of several terrific fight sequences, the Fourth Son is cut with a poisoned knife. He and his companions are taken in by the daughter of an innkeeper, whose father was killed while trying to break up a previous fight. She takes them to the secret lair of her mistress, a counter-revolutionary plotting the overthrow of the Ching dynasty, who is fortunately out-of-town. When the mistress does show up (on horseback), she is just in time to demonstrate her superb swordfighting skills against Lord Long’s henchmen who have come calling. Afterwards, however, there is a tense stand-off when she discovers that she has been protecting a Ching prince. However, the Fourth Prince assures her that, should he ascend to the throne, he will rule fairly for the benefit of all the people.

When news comes through that the Emperor is on his deathbed, the friends enter the palace along with the Prince’s master and a couple of Shaolin monks who are his acolytes. Amid much fighting, Brother Bai manages to locate the will which says that the 14th Prince will inherit the throne. The Fourth Prince’s mentor slyly changes ‘14th’ to ‘4th’ - which, in Chinese, requires the addition of a couple of strokes of the quill - and has the document replaced.

When the Emperor finally expires, the remaining sons gather to hear Lord Long read the will. He is sure that it has been tampered with so more fighting ensues between his goons and the Princes who are all good mates and frankly don’t mind which of them becomes Emperor.

This seems to have been the final feature from director Pao Shiue-Li (aka Hsueh Li Pao) whose previous films included Boxer from Shantung, The Iron Bodyguard and The Inheritor of Kung Fu. Though the plot may be wafer-thin, the photography by Yue Kim Fay is good and the set design is sumptuous. Above all, the fights are great, mixing kung fu with a variety of pole and blade skills. Often there are a couple of dozen people fighting in one (fairly lengthy) shot, all kicking, punching and slicing away. The IMDB credits Chen Mu Chuan (Iron Monkey) as ’action director’, who may or may not be the ‘martial arts director Chan Pon Chu’ credited on screen and on the sleeve.

Among the cast, Shy Sy (aka Szu Shih) was in Three Supermen Against the Orient, Martial Arts of Shaolin and Hammer’s The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires while Din Lung (aka Lung Ti) was in The One-Armed Swordsman Returns, The New One-Armed Swordsman, Shatter (the other film which Hammer shot in Hong Kong), Revenge of the Zombies, The Magic Blade and John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow I and II. Tang Too-Liang was in The Hot, the Cool and the Vicious and Shaolin Invincibles while Chen Shing was in Ninja Terminator and Deadly Silver Spear.

I really enjoyed The Kung Fu Emperor, but what makes the film extra special is an oddly comic sequence when the characters consider returning to the palace in disguise and we see three ’might have been’ scenes - unfulfilled flash-forwards I suppose you could call them. In one, they make themselves up to look sick and enter as disease victims, in another they don masks and costumes and enter as a performing troupe (singing ‘There’s No Business Like Showbusiness’!) - this is shown on the US DVD sleeve. But in the middle of these two hypotheticals, we see what might happen if they entered the castle disguised as vampires! Proper Chinese hopping vampires, with the spells on paper on their foreheads and everything. Fantastic!

MJS rating: B+
review originally posted 17th May 2006

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