Periscope Depth

mega triflin’; yo, I killed you in a past life

Friday night, I introduced Sylvia to Magnificent Butcher, one of the hidden gems of kung-fu cinema. I’m surprised it isn’t better known among martial arts flick fans (though it’s hardly obscure). Consider its pedigree:

  • It’s a Wong Fei Hung film. For all y’all squares, Wong Fei Hung is a historical figure who lived in China in the late 19th, early 20th century. Legend has inflated him to a blend of Albert Schweitzer, Benjamin Franklin and Robin Hood. He’s been portrayed in film by Jackie Chan, Jet Li and several other staples of Chinese cinema.

  • It stars Sammo Hung, a prolific and talented actor of the “Seven Little Fortunes” class out of the Peking Opera School. Western audiences are more likely to recognize him from the late 90s CBS series “Martial Law.”

  • It was directed by Yuen Woo-Ping, acclaimed fight director of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Yuen’s fingerprints are on several of the best martial arts movies of the last thirty years: Iron Monkey, Fist of Legend, Drunken Master, etc.

The story’s the usual spiderweb of plot twists: Butcher Wing (Hung) unwittingly starts a feud between Wong Fei Hung’s school and the school of Master Ko just before Wong Fei Hung has to go out of town. Wing’s brother Sai-kwong comes to town with his wife to find Wing, whom he hasn’t seen in twenty years. Master Ko’s shiftless son, Tai Hoi, abducts Sai-kwong’s wife – either to employ in a brothel or just to rape; it’s never quite clear. When Wing sees Sai-Kwong beating up Tai Hoi, he intervenes on Tai Hoi’s behalf (not recognizing his brother). Sai-Kwong, on the verge of suicide, gets help from the seedy Beggar So, a legendary practitioner of drunken boxing. This comes to a head when …

And that’s just the first 45 minutes. But you’re not here for the plot. You’re here for the fight scenes.

Kwan Tak Hing, the winner of the calligraphy duel above, grew famous playing the role of Wong Fei Hung. In the Fifties. Dude was 74 when they shot that scene and he can still box with the best of them. That’s due in part to Yuen Woo-ping’s masterful choreography. Watching actors work under Yuen is like watching Astaire dance. The kung fu that Kwan, Hung, Yuen Biao and the other stars of this film display resembles dance more than brawling. But you could say the same of an Errol Flynn sword fight.

Anyhow, that’s one of half a dozen fights in the film, any one of which would make Channing Tatum’s jaw soft. Rent it today.