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Fist From Shaolin
cast: Kwan Wong, Sharon Kwok, Taam Chiu, Gin Gwok-yau, and Chi Chuen-hua

director: Martin Lau Kwok-wai

90 minutes (15) 1993
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Dragon DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 5/10
reviewed by Donald Morefield
Essentially, this tells the same story as Tsui Hark's superior Once Upon A Time In China (1991), which starred Jet Li as real-life folk hero and martial arts legend, Wong Fei-hung. Although it's not as slickly polished as Hark's film, Fist From Shaolin (aka: Huang Fei Hong zhi nan er dang bao guo) offers a similarly appealing mix of Chinese historical farce, cross-cultural misunderstandings, frequently hyper martial arts, and a smattering of broad comedy.

Hapless peasants choose to spend a month in the big bustling city of corrupt nobles, violent hoodlums, predatory femmes, a bunch of kung fu kids (like Dickensian urchins with Manchu ponytails), and colourful street theatre in the form of a traditional 'lion dance'. Wong Fei-hung's Aunty Yee (Sharon Kwok), a sophisticated lady and fashionably attired photographer, pays an overdue visit, travelling all the way from America. She's bossy and chides her relative for his modesty and lack of ambition, so he opens a free clinic for the benefit of poor folks. Local wannabe chanteuse Sho Lan willingly becomes a servant girl for the apparently bashful Wong, but she winds up lovesick and rejected by the mighty monk, and then runs away to join a convent (one that's actually a secret brothel, making her rescue a priority for Wong's desperately well-meaning but terminally inept sidekicks).

"Wong Fei-hung?"
"The same man; and in person."

Kwan Wong is fine here, as the intrepid Wong Fei-hung, a turn-of-the-century champion of the underprivileged and downtrodden masses (celebrated by many other Asian films before this) who, due to his determined stand on social justice for all, becomes the default leader of a rebel army fighting the emperor. Armed only with an umbrella, Wong tackles mad axe-men and homicidal swordfighters alike. Among the numerous torments and tragedies, played with such brio we might as well consider if the director's intent was to amuse, are: castration with scissors, poisoned-limb amputation, attempted suicide by hanging, beheading executions, and slave-trading activities (a devilish plot accompanied by hot-iron buttock-branding) by local prefect Wu (Gin Gwok-yau) who conspires with the particularly vicious Master Eleven (Chi Chuen-hua Chi).

Fist From Shaolin is hardly great cinema, but it's a compelling mix of dodgy jokes and fearsomely energetic kung fu sequences.

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