Summer of Sammo: Warriors Two

One of Sammo Hung’s first films as a director, this period kung fu film is very much in the Shaw Brothers mold. It most resembles Lau Kar-leung’s masterpiece The 36th Chamber of Shaolin also released in 1978, both in its plot and its middle section, an extended series of training sequences that utilize a variety of ingenious devices to help train the hero (see also: The Karate Kid). But Hung, with his character as the hero’s pudgy sidekick, a bullied dumpling vendor and kung fu-trainee, leavens his film with slapstick and goofy wordplay, whereas Lau’s film is for the most part straight-faced, though certainly not as serious as the darkly violent epics of Chang Cheh (such as Crippled Avengers, the third great kung fu film of 1978). Lau’s later films would follow in the footsteps of Hung and Jackie Chan (and Yuen Woo-ping, whose first two collaborations with Chan, the smash hit comic action films Snake in Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, were also released in 1978) by mixing in low comedy with the spectacular stunts performed by his adopted brother Gordon Liu and never again, at least from what I’ve seen, reaching the spiritual heights of 36th Chamber (though the finale of Eight-Diagram Pole Fighter comes close).
In Warriors Two (it’s not a sequel, the title refers to there being two warriors in the story, like in Lo Wei’s 1970 film Brothers Five), Hung references the central philosophical conflict of 36th Chamber, that the hero is learning kung fu in order to exact revenge on the local gangster/tyrant, but the religious foundation of the martial art preaches disengagement and thus renunciation of vengeance, by having the master (Bryan Leung as Mr. Tsan) refuse to take on the hero (Casanova Wong as Cashier Hua) as a student because his motives are vengeful (“One party must stop seeking revenge or it will be an eye for an eye forever.” he says). The manager of the bank Hua was a cashier at turns out to be a gangster seeking to take over the town and when Hua discovers his scheme, the manager has Hua’s mother killed. Tsan, a respected doctor and renowned martial artist, doesn’t want to get involved, but when one of his students (Sammo Hung) pretends to take Hua on as his student, leading him in a series of hilariously bad exercises, Tsan agrees for the sake of the dignity of his martial art. The issue of the morality of vengeance is never again addressed. Indeed, the film climaxes in just such a nihilistic vengeance quest, though it ultimately ends with a physical comedy gag.
The fight sequences are exceptional, filmed in the Shaw-standard long-shot style, with a special emphasis on displaying the various positions and movements of the Wing Chun style of kung fu in close shots of hands, arms and feet edited together to maximize clarity and continuity of motion. Wing Chun was made world famous by Bruce Lee and is the subject of many movies, including Wong Kar-wai’s upcoming The Grandmaster which is yet another telling of the story of Lee’s teacher, the Wing Chun master Yip Man. Mr. Tsan (aka Leung Jan) is a real 19th century historical figure, and the film begins with a narration chronicling the history of Wing Chun, as it descended from master to student over hundreds of years (Yip Man was a student of one of Mr. Tsan’s students). The attention to detail and focus on hands and arms recalls the technique-display sequences in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket. As Cashier Hua, Casanova Wong is a bit of a blank, though he acquits himself well in the fight scenes. Sammo Hung is the true star presence in the movie. He plays the buffoon well and in the final battle sequences, he shows off a remarkable range of skills, peaking with a shocking display of speed and leaping acrobatics as he defeats a pair of evil swordsman. The final battle is somewhat deflated by Hung’s comic duel with the evil bank manager’s sniveling pipe cleaner of a henchman played by Dean Shek, which isn’t all that funny and is anticlimactic coming right after the sword battle. But the final showdown, as Hung and Wong join forces to defeat the bank manager (who is now revealed as an expert in Mantis Style kung fu, seen in yet another 1978 film, Lau Kar-leung’s Shaolin Mantis) is suitably intense. One final note: nearly stealing the show in an early sequence, doing a Monkey Style kung fu in defense of the town’s mayor, is Lau Kar-wing, brother of Lau Kar-leung, business partner of Sammo Hung and an accomplished director and choreographer in his own right (Five Fingers of Death, Once Upon a Time in China). Lau Kar-leung himself played a master of Monkey Style a year later in Mad Monkey Kung Fu, which I reviewed last december as part of A Very Shaw Brothers Christmas.

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