Kwan Tak-Hing, Jet Li, and
Jackie Chan have all famously portrayed Chinese folk
hero Wong Fei-Hung in their respective film series,
but even the most die-hard martial arts film fans may
be unaware that esteemed character actor Guk Fung (a.k.a.
Ku Feng) essayed the role himself in Ho Meng-Hua's Master
of Kung Fu. Released by Shaw Brothers in 1973, the
film features a Wong Fei-Hung that isn't quite as charismatic
as Li's or as funny as Chan's, but is a force
to be reckoned with in his own right.
Haunted by the accidental killing
of his own brother, Wong has renounced his "Invisible
Kick" and focuses his energies on helping the community.
When a European businessman arranges a martial arts
competition, Wong's cousin Mai Ken (Shen Chan) enters
against Wong's warnings. A nasty competitor named Lee
Tian-Dao (Wong Hsia) attempts to kill Mai Ken, and Wong
intervenes, exposing Tian-Dao as a cheater. In the process,
Master Wong wins back the trust of Mai Ken and tries
to nurse him back to health, but wouldn't you know it?
IT ALL GOES TO HELL in dramatic fashion. Mai Ken is
poisoned, two of Wong's pupils are kidnapped, and the
rest of his students are wiped out in fairly quick succession,
causing Wong to flee the authorities and take down the
criminals all by his lonesome. But will he succeed?
Well, he is Wong Fei-Hung, after all.
It's probably safe to say that
Wong Fei-Hung films hinge on the performance of their
lead actors, and Guk Fung makes for a serviceable, if
unspectacular leading man. Although he certainly commands
respect as the venerable Master Wong, and is fairly
believable in the numerous fight scenes, Guk Fung is
fairly unremarkable in the iconic role. Certainly, the
film adds a layer of pathos via his continual lamentations
over his dead brother, but it's not enough to put Guk's
interpretation in the same class as Kwan's, Li's or
Similarly, Master of Kung
Fu is more or less a formulaic martial arts movie
with little spark or sizzle to set it apart from the
pack. The closest thing to a potentially iconic scene
is Wong Fei-Hung's rain-soaked training sequence late
in the film in which he reclaims his right to the "Invisible
Kick" after renouncing it early on. But it's so brief
and treated so superficially that one wishes the director
would have not only lingered on the scene for a little
longer, but actually implemented that kind of visual
style in the climactic fight scene. What results in
the finished film is no different than what you've seen
in B-grade chopsocky films for years.
Comedy-wise, the film contains
a silly little interlude involving Wong's disciple,
Ah Kwan (Lin Wei-Tu) and the film's token female, the
buxom Hong Hua (Chen Ping). A Three's Company-style
misunderstanding results in some surprisingly bawdy
humor that's sure to elicit at least a chuckle. Although
one might expect such a digression to be a bit annoying
considering the dire straits in which Wong finds himself,
in actuality, the sophomoric goofiness is actually a
welcome respite from the film's otherwise stultifying
and unnecessarily dour tone.
In the end, a competent performance
from Guk Fung and a brief sequence of silly shenanigans
don't really add up to good Wong Fei-Hung film. Ho Meng-Hua
packs the film with a lot of nice scenery and even utilizes
the camera in some interesting ways, but Master of
Kung Fu is neither boring nor exciting - it's little
more than a workman-like, by-the-numbers production.
While it may be worthy viewing for fans of Wong Fei-Hung
or the actor Guk Fung, its bland treatment of such a
dynamic folk hero leaves much to be desired. (Calvin McMillin