Wong Fei-hung (1847-1925) was a real person, but through the many interpretations of him and his life, played by actors like Kwan Tak-hing (More than 70 films over 40 years, ending with a supporting roles in Magnificent Butcher and Dreadnaught), Jackie Chan (Drunken Master), Jet Li (Once Upon a Time in China and Last Hero in China) and, briefly, Sammo Hung (Around the World in 80 Days), he has become something of a mythic figure. Gordon Liu first played the role in Challenge of the Masters, and reprises it here.
Though he’s the central figure, Martial Club is more of an ensemble piece than one focused purely on Wong Fei-hung. Broadly, the film is about an outwardly friendly, but escalating, rivalry between three Kung Fu schools: Wu Guan, Jeng and Luk. Eventually Wong Fei-hung, his friend Yan-lam (Robert Mak) and Yan-lam‘s sister (Kara Hui) are put in a position where they have to fight back.
The first half of the film focuses almost entirely on the friendship between Fai-hung and Yan-lam, as they also argue and test each other to see who is the better fighter. Their challenges against each other and against other fighters are never serious fights, rather they are demonstrations of their level of technique. These fights apparently show off largely accurate Hung Gar kung fu, typical of director Lau Kar-leung’s respect for the style and its history and lineage. Respectful of accuracy as the choreography is, the film never gets bogged down in its tradition. Gordon Liu, Robert Mak and Kara Hui all have a playful approach to their characters and their chorography. This is perhaps best seen in Hui’s first appearance, when she and Mak joke around while fighting at the herbal medicine factory where they both work for their father. It’s a lovely, light introduction to their characters, and to how entirely charming both of them are in their roles. Hui, in particular, is a delight throughout, and I hope we’ll see more of her films, especially My Young Auntie, come to UK Blu Ray.
Gordon Liu has a slightly trickier role to play. Where Mak is always the impetuous show-off, Liu’s Wong Fei-hung has to grow from a fairly hotheaded character to a more relaxed and calculated figure, much like his father Wong Kei-ying (Ku Feng). We see this as much in his fighting as we do in other aspects of the performance. By the final alleyway fight Fei-Hung is more controlled in his movement, less impetuous, probably because the opponent he is facing—a northern master (Wang Lung-wei AKA Johnny Wang) recruited by the Luk school to unite styles—is the toughest he has faced.
Lau Kar-leung keeps the action flowing and varied. There are massed brawls in the street and at a Chinese opera performance, as well as one on one confrontations. The action also builds well; there are no bad fights here, but the film starts and ends with some of its very best sequences. The opening lion dance is a spectacular introduction to the cast’s level of technique, and also serves as an establishment of how bound up the film is going to be in respect and tradition between schools. The final sequence is also a standout, with Liu and Wang Lung-wei fighting in a series of alleyways that narrow as they go on, having to adjust their techniques to the available space. Even in this climactic bout, the film’s focus remains largely on technique and learning, rather than vengeance or violence.
Martial Club isn’t the most consequential of films. It’s probably easier to get invested in the stakes of a kung-fu movie when it’s the more typical tale of revenge, but what Lau Kar-leung does here is harder; he hooks us into a story of respectful rivalry, of tradition and technique, by marrying it to breathtaking action and wonderfully endearing and entertaining characters and performances.
The Picture and Sound
This is a sterling job from 88 Films. I watched the film in its original Cantonese mono soundtrack. It’s a basic track, obviously, but dialogue is clear, and the sound is well balanced on the whole. Neither that nor the English mono soundtrack are going be a workout for your system though. The picture is touted as an HD transfer from the original negative, what level of remastering this indicates isn’t clear, but it’s presented in its proper 2.35:1 ratio, and is impressively clean and colourful for its age. Indeed the print is clear enough that some ‘exterior’ scenes look a little silly, clearly revealing the sky painted on the back wall of Shaw Brothers studio.
If you want to see the difference between the presentation here and what the original print may have looked like, 88 Films have also included an English language print (slightly shorter and under the title Instructors of Death). It’s severely faded and damaged, but if you want a ‘Grindhouse’ experience, it’s there.
There are two audio commentaries on offer, both featuring martial arts cinema expert Frank Djeng, in the first he’s paired with actor Michael Worth, who is on a distant sounding line (blame Omicron). There is, as ever, some fascinating information on the cast and crew (especially regarding Lau Kar-Leung’s kung fu lineage back to Wong Fei-hung himself) and on cultural aspects of the film, with Djeng giving a lot of information on lion dancing in the film’s opening.
Djeng goes solo for the second commentary. He says that this second commentary is to include all the things he and Worth couldn’t fit into the first track. I’ve only had time to sample each track, and while both are likely to have some individual information that is well worth listening to, and Djeng and Worth are both knowledgable and interesting speakers, who bounce off each other well on the shared track, there is a good deal of repetition between the tracks. I’d recommend listening to both, but perhaps with decent gap between them.
There are 4 video interviews on offer. 13 minutes with Robert Mak covers his dance background, as well as his work in martial arts cinema. Johnny Wang’s interview is 21 minutes, covering everything from his beginnings working with Chang Cheh, to his bad guy typecasting and the making of Martial Club and his relationship with Lau Kar-leung. Martial Club stuntmen Hung Sun-nam and Tony Tam contribute 25 minutes on what it was like working at Shaw Brothers in the heyday of the studio, and as things wound down in the late 70s and 80s, as well as Martial Club more specifically. Last up is a 41 minute interview with Martial Club producer Lawrence Wong, who takes us from how he started at Shaws in 1970, to the behind the scenes workings of the studio and Lau Kar-leung’s working methods.
The generous set of extras wraps up with original trailers for ‘Instructors of Death’ and Martial Club.
For more details, and to buy your copy go here.