The late Wong Yue, best known for his starring role in Lau Kar-leung’s groundbreaking kung fu comedy SPIRITUAL BOXER and later in Lau’s DIRTY HO, stars in yet another, lesser kung fu comedy, this time under the direction of Lau’s brother Kar-wing. Wong plays a tricky-brained bounty hunter with lousy kung fu skills who relies on other fighters to do his dirty work. When fellow manhunters are unable to stop a spiritual-boxing bandit played by Wilson Tong, Wong comes armed with women’s undergarments as a counter spell and his own newly-developed eel kung fu style.
DIRTY KUNG FU is the first in only a handful of kung fu movie productions from the Lau Brothers Film Co., a forerunner of sorts to Gar Bo Films, the company formed by Lau Kar-wing, writer-producer Karl Maka and Sammo Hung. Sammo is absent but Maka appears, as he usually does, as a bald-headed police captain. He also likely had a major hand in writing the comedy along with fellow comedy cohort Dean Shek, who appears as a cross-eyed bandit memorably performing King Kong kung fu against Wong.
The film’s concept is sound and borrows from old Cantonese comedy conventions. It’s just that the execution is lacking. Basically, this is a parody of the kung fu and wuxia genres with Wong Yue in a role similar to what Stephen Chow made himself famous for in films like ROYAL TRAMP and KUNG FU HUSTLE.
Wong is a self-centered know-it-all who uses his wits to take advantage of others with little or no regard for morality. He goes so far as to steal a corpse right under the noses of the bereaved in order to collect on a bounty and, in what must be similar folklore concerning the effects of dog’s blood, he steals a prostitute’s soiled underwear from a brothel to cancel out Wilson Tong’s ability to call upon fighting spirits to possess his body.
Wong and Chow both owe their trickster screen personas to Hong Kong’s songgun films of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s that featured similarly repugnant characters in comedic situations. The first of these was THE JESTER’S TRICKS, released in 1935. Whereas Chow successfully repackaged this familiar convention with modern nonsense speak, Bruce Lee references and increasingly big-budget action, DIRTY KUNG FU relies on far less sophisticated dialogue and situations all too familiar in low-budget kung fu movies.
Wong simply goes from one confrontation with bandits to the next with no real plot other than for the lead character to earn some money. Wilson Tong livens the film up considerably once he arrives as the lead villain but he is so poorly developed as a character that we have no idea why he’s in the area or what he’s done to earn a $1000 bounty. Granted, once he starts killing bounty hunters it can be surmised that it might have something to do with murder.
One challenge that viewers may face is getting over the fact that Wong Yue’s lead character is lousy at kung fu and only manages to do well when he’s cheating, thus giving reason for the film’s English title of “Dirty Kung Fu.” His invented kung fu style, modeled after the slippery movements of eels, is pure nonsense but adequately choreographed by Lau to convey some semblance of effectiveness within the unreal realm of movie martial arts. It’s still a poor substitute for more entertaining movie martial arts inventions such as Jackie Chan’s emotional kung fu in FEARLESS HYENA or Gordon Liu’s scaffolding kung fu in RETURN TO THE 36TH CHAMBER.
More entertaining is Wong’s mocking of chivalric martial traditions such as we see when Tong engages in a little pre-fight banter with Norman Chu before they begin a nicely arranged classical straight-sword duel. Both fighters act as straight as their weapons while Wong sits on the sidelines and ridicules their long-winded speech. It’s a great moment best appreciated by devotees of swordplay films and DIRTY KUNG FU could have greatly benefited from more of the same.
Like most kung fu movies of the era, comedic or otherwise, action takes precedence over plot, character development and dialogue. Judged solely on action, this is where DIRTY KUNG is a cut above many similar low-budget genre films with lesser talents. Lau may not have had the same level of success as his brother but his martial arts choreography and screen fighting ability are both nearly as good when put to the test. Veteran stars Norman Chu, Fung Hak-on and Wong Shu-tong all deliver solid performances with Wilson Tong stealing the show from everyone.
An accomplished stunt actor and action director, Wilson Tong has the difficult task of interpreting at least four distinct martial arts styles for this movie, performing each of them extensively in sets incorporating up to 20 movements. Styles include Lau family interpretations of southern Eagle Claw, Crane Fist and Drunken Fist, as well as northern Tai Chi straight sword. In one excellent match against Lau, Tong works his way through all three southern forms. The latter two are represented as manifestations of spiritual kung fu, a theme the Lau brothers previously introduced in SPIRITUAL BOXER. Personally, I found this element to be an unnecessary distraction. The bounty hunter premise and parody of martial arts movie convention would have been more than enough to give this film distinction without having to lean on past successes.
The final match between Wong Yue and Wilson Tong is both a disappointment and, in its own way, amusing. Wong’s character has to be able to counter all four of Tong’s styles and it’s never adequately convincing. Wong’s movements are primarily played for laughs so some viewers may feel cheated out of a worthy conclusion following decent fighting between Tong and his other co-stars. Taken as the comedy sequence that it is, the fight is more tolerable as it still possesses a fair degree of creativity.
The production is virtually non-existent with actors wearing stock kung fu suits and sets being made up of rural locales. The English-dubbed audio track features familiar voice acting talent with poor Norman Chu getting an awful match. The track repeatedly uses a modernized version of Tchaikovsky’s “Chinese Dance” from “The Nutcracker.” It’s actually a good choice that enhances the playfulness of Wong’s character while giving us something other than Spaghetti Western scores to listen to.
All-in-all, DIRTY KUNG FU is a great showcase for the comic talents of Wong Yue and the fighting talents of Wilson Tong. It’s not the best work from any of the talents involved but a solid kung fu comedy nevertheless.
Although he cites his previous action directing work on KING BOXER as his best, Lau Kar-wing subsequently had one of his finest directing and acting gigs in THE ODD COUPLE. Wong Yue also had a superior showcase under the direction of Lau Kar-leung in DIRTY HO. Wilson Tong’s performances are harder to pin down because he usually played villains or supporting roles, while his performances remain consistently good through most of his films. It would be safe to say that DIRTY KUNG FU is one of his fighting highlights as he easily outshines the rest of the cast.REVIEW: Dirty Kung Fu (1978),
Crane Fist • gallery • Genre: Kung Fu • Genre: Shapes • Lau Brothers Film Co. • Lau Kar-wing • Norman Chu • Snake Fist • swordplay • training • Wilson Tong • Wong Yue