Thursday, July 17, 2008

Kung Fu Night! The Buddhist Fist

After a while, they all start to look the same--but I'm not complaining!

The Buddhist Fist, directed by Yuen Wo Ping. Starring Shun-Yee Yuen, Sui-Ming Tsui, and Lung Chan. Peace Film Productions, 1979. Runtime 90 minutes. Unrated.

Just to be perfectly clear, the only thing I won't forgive in a Kung fu movie is bad Kung fu (curse you, House of Flying Daggers!). I don't come to these films to see deep characterization or clever plots, but to see some cool moves. Watching Kung fu is sort of like attending the ballet, except the dancers are trying to kill each other and aren't dressed like pansies. You might think of it as ballet for men.

That being said, The Buddhist Fist has most everything you could want in a Kung fu movie: it has a terrible script, plenty of lowbrow slapstick humor, a simple narrative that's somehow still hard to follow, characters who walk on and off with no development, extremely bad dubbing, and some really, really awesome Kung fu.

The plot, such as it is, follows two boys, Shang (Shun-Yee Yuen) and Si-Ming (Sui-Ming Tsui). Si-Ming for some reason or other becomes a reluctant Buddhist monk at a very young age, whereas Shang grows up to be a barber. Both of them practice Kung fu: Si-Ming is master of the Buddha Palm, and Shang is master of the Buddha Fist.

After going to the city to find his fortune and shave some moustaches, Shang returns home to find his godfather has gone missing and all the locals are curiously indifferent. Meanwhile, some masked man is blackmailing some other masked man, and the two masked men are trying to steal a priceless jade Buddha statue in order to sell it to eeeevil foreigners. While Shang hunts for his godfather, a lot of minor characters, all of whom bite large chunks out of the scenery, try to kill him, apparently on orders from the aforementioned masked men. Best of the hired killers is an outrageous hunchback whose Kung fu involves moving like a zombie from Michael Jackson's "Thriller" while making loud bone-cracking noises. The fight ends only after Shang punches him so hard in the back that his hunch bulges out of his chest. Yeah, I mentioned the low-class humor already, right?

The centerpiece of the film is of course the fighting, and Yuen Wo Ping demonstrates his characteristic inventiveness and skill at using set pieces as the characters perform limb-bending stunts in intricately choreographed bouts of chess-fu, chopstick-fu, giant-freaking-sword-fu, barbershop-chair-fu, street-vendor-fu, birdcage-fu, jade-Buddha-statue-fu, and probably several other fus I can't even remember. Even though some are quite lengthy and the lighting changes dramatically between shots, I never grew bored or confused during the fights. The plot certainly confused me, but when they stopped talking and started punching and flipping and kicking, which was frequently, my confusion turned into open-mouthed wonderment.

The movie seems to be over when Shang has discovered what happened to his godfather and subsequently flipped and slid and kicked and stabbed the man who appears to be the main villain, an evil and mysterious figure known as Big Small Feet. But that's when the plot twist happens! I won't tell you what the twist is since, if you watch the movie, you'll see it coming from miles away anyway, but for a Kung fu film of this sort, I found the twist to be an unusual surprise. It leads into the longest and most impressive of the movie's many one-on-one battles.

I find it particularly interesting that Shang in the last battle does not merely attack his opponent in blind rage and rip him to shreds as many other Kung fu heroes would do. At one point, he actually holds back a little and says, "It's time to stop fighting and start repenting." Of course, that doesn't work and they immediately start fighting again, but I found it to be an unusual bit of graciousness. At the very end, there are even strong hints that the villain showed some mercy of his own and found a sort of redemption.

So I recommend the movie, but be warned that you won't enjoy it if you have a low or even merely moderate tolerance for cheesiness and camp.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for The Buddhist Fist:

Myth Level: Medium-High (pretty much the same narrative as any other Kung fu movie)

Ethics/Religion: Medium (quite violent of course, mild sexual humor, surprising redemptive ending)

Quality: Medium-Low (low quality makes this kind of film extra good)
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