Friday, June 19, 2009


Here is a more familiar China for many movie fans, the land of kung fu. To be more specific, it's the city of Canton (Guangzhou) sometime in the 19th century -- late enough for a theater to have electric lights, or so it looked to me. What more do we need to know?

The first rule of Martial Club is...If your club's lion dancers meet another lion dancing team on the streets, do not -- not! -- sniff the other lion's butt. That signifies that you regard the other lion as feminine.

The second rule of Martial Club is...Do not blink your lion's eyes at the other lion dancing team. That signifies that you look down on them.

The third rule of Martial Club is... By all means don't raise your lion's leg at the other lion. Do I need to explain what this signifies? Do any of these things and conflict may ensue.

But boys will be boys, and after director Liu Chia-liang has gone before the camera to patiently explain this to us, what do we see but one lion-dancing team dissing the other and a fight breaking out. If you think about it, this sort of thing is inevitable. These young men are trained to fight. They represent two of the city's several martial clubs. What else are they going to do? Especially with such irrepressible rascals as Huang Feihung and Yinlin amongst them?

Did that first name ring a bell? Yes, this is yet another adventure of that remarkable individual whose name is also rendered Wong Fei-hung. This was a real person who lived from 1847 to 1924, making him a near-contemporary of Wyatt Earp, another man with an eventful-enough history whose life has been subject to fictional elaboration ever since (or even before) his demise. By at least one estimate, more movies have been made about Wong, a martial artist, herbalist and national hero, than about any other person who has ever lived.

One tradition about Wong seems to be that, as a young man, he was nearly a complete dork. The best known version of this legend is probably Jackie Chan's Drunken Master films, but director Liu and star Gordon Liu (last seen here being morphed into a potato in the Bollywood trainwreck Chandni Chowk to China) are working in the same tradition. Gordon and co-star Mo Ti-lai (playing Yinlin) have a sort of Popeye and Bluto relationship without a woman to embitter it. They're the star pupils of their respective schools and always out to one-up each other. Neither is above cheating to win, both paying recruits to take dives in a contest to see which hero can defeat a man more quickly. Wong is redeemed mainly by the fact that Yinlin is by far a bigger dork than he, often content to show off his "hard qigong" to prostitutes at the neighborhood brothel when, for Wong, one visit is enough. This eagerness to impress the red-light district gets Yinlin in trouble when a third martial club, the bad guys of our story, use the hos to trick the moron into helplessness.

Yinlin's clubmates, especially his equally-skilled sister Juying, are quick to blame Wong's school and Wong himself for their brother's injuries. This is what the bad guys want. They hope to gain presige by having the other two schools ruin one another, and if that fails, they'll try to put their rivals in jail for failing to pay their way into an opera house to which the bad guy school had invited them for free.

Martial arts movie buffs state that Martial Club is one of the few times, if not the only one, in which Wang Lung-wei (right foreground) plays something like a good guy. It must have been the mellow vibe from that pipe he's smoking.

If all this fails, the bad guys' ace in the hole is Master Shan, the stranger from the North who has already beaten up Yinlin once (Wong was blamed for that, too), a powerful yet guileless fighter who doesn't seem to know better than to beat up the good guys at the bad guys' instigation. It's up to precocious, earnest Wong to straighten everything out....

Martial Club is a comedy, so it lacks that sense of sincere violence that I like in kung fu movies. It's a period piece, so it lacks the sleaze that distinguishes films set in the modern day. I didn't really find the fighting very spectacular, either, again perhaps because it's all for laughs. The highlight is a creatively choreographed fight between Wong and Master Shan in a progressively narrower alleyway. But the actors are all eager and personable, and Gordon Liu in particular is always fun to watch. So is Kara Hui, playing another of those kick-ass females who seem anomalous in the era of footbinding but also seem to be part of the Chinese tradition of martial-arts fiction. Martial Club isn't going to rank high on my list of kung fu classics, but as a way to waste a couple of hours courtesy of the Albany Public Library I can't knock it.

The DVD has the original trailer, but all I could find online is the modern trailer for the DVD edition, uploaded by asdae121.

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