One of the groundbreaking martial arts films in history, this 1949 production would revive Hong Kong and Chinas martial arts film industry in a whole new light.
The film opens with a lion dance being performed by martial arts master Wong Fei-Hung (Kwan Tak-Hing). He runs the Po Chi Lam institute where he discusses the lineage of the martial arts masters that come before him, including Luk Ah-Choy and Fei-Hung’s father, Wong Kei-Ying. All begins well until Mr. Sang, a local shop owner, comes in with serious injuries. Fei-Hung soon learns the story.
Mr. Sang sells medicine but not always from his shops. He had a trusted friend, Hung, who learns of Sang’s unethical business methods and hatches out a plan to use it against him. Even more, Hung plans to steal Lai, Sang’s wife. When Wong Fei-Hung learns of what has transpired, he attempts to confront Hung, only to find himself taking on Hung and his various henchmen. Fei-Hung’s disciple Leung Foon (Walter Tso) and a few others try to help their master.
Wong Fei-Hung escapes, but is injured. He is nursed back to health by a young woman, Ma Fun-Ah. She has feelings for him, but he cannot reciprocate due to his martial code. When he recovers, he heads back home only to find a potential new rival in Wong Kei-Yau, a martial artist who has insulted Fei-Hung and his legacy.
This early classic film broke major ground in Hong Kong upon its release in 1949. Four years after the end of World War II, film production was back in the special administrative region. When director Wu Pang read an article about Wong Fei-Hung, he approached the writer of the article, who just happened to be a former protégé of the martial arts master and medical practitioner. They agreed to bring the story to the screens and hired Cantonese actor and martial artist Kwan Tak-Hing in the lead role.
Kwan embodies the role to a tee. With his background, Kwan seemed the perfect fit to play Master Wong, a martial arts master who teaches his disciples various techniques as well as practice medicine. He doesn’t use his martial arts skills for the sake of teaching anyone a lesson, but only when he feels threatened. After the opening lion dance sequence, Wong doesn’t go into action for at least twenty minutes of the film.
Walter Tso plays disciple Leung Foon well. He does show some of Foon’s qualities, from being a decent kung fu expert to letting his temper get the best of him.
The action sequences of the film show action in a different light. Back in the old days, most martial arts films consisted of swordfighting. Here, we are introduced to a more realistic style of hand-to-hand combat mixed with more traditional Chinese weapons. Wong Fei-Hung can be seen fighting with not only swords but staffs and chained weapons as well. The cast performed all of their own stunts as they were trained martial artists. A team of six choreographed the elaborate battles and for 1949, it would set a new standard in action choreography in Hong Kong.
THE STORY OF WONG FEI-HUNG (PART 1) is truly one of the best classic martial arts films of the time. Kwan Tak-Hing embodies the role of the martial arts master and the fight scenes, for its era, are unlike any seen before…in a good way. The film does leave a cliffhanger, which delves right into Part 2.