The present film, alternatively titled Operation Scorpio, dates from over a decade back. It is most notable for two things: a later screen appearance of martial arts legend Chia-Liang Liu, and as one of the most memorable examples of leg fighting seen on the big screen since the 1970s, the heyday of Hwang Jang Lee.
Liu, who has also the screen name of Lau Kar-Leung, made a name for himself with such classic martial arts epics as Shao Lin San Shih Liu Fang (aka: 36th Chamber Of Shaolin, 1978) and, a personal favourite, Wu Lang Ba Gua Gun (aka: Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, 1983). Jung Yuen, who here made his screen debut with his portrayal of the eponymous supervillain Sonny the Scorpion, provides the astonishing leg fighting. By some accounts Korean Yuen, a striking taekwando and wushu expert, is something of a elusive figure. He has only made four films and at one point was even rumoured dead through AIDS.
The Scorpion King relates a tale common in martial arts cinema. Kok Lar Chin plays Yu Shu, a dreamy student and talented artist of manga, who yearns to become a hero and worldly success. He falls in love with Mei (May Lo Mei-Mei), a coy servant girl lusted after, and menaced by, the villainous Mr Wong (also called Mr Wang in the subtitling). Wong's plan to sell her into prostitution is aided by Inspector Hua (Shun-Yee Yuen). Yu Shu's activities cause his expulsion from school and he enters the service of noodle chef Master Lo (Chia-Liang Liu), where Mei also finds refuge. The bulk of the film is taken up with Yu Shu's clumsiness, his rather gauche romancing of Mei, then his semi-humorous attempts at physical improvement at a training college run by one Bull (Jean Pull). Finally he acquires respect in his own eyes and those of the patiently despairing Master Lo during improvised martial training, then a long-telegraphed final bout with Scorpion.
Much of this is filmed in a casual knockabout way, with much of the flailing action handicapped on the DVD by the irritating pan-and-scan version of the film offered here. The plot is eminently forgettable, even though the malicious Mr Wong with his gold teeth, oriental cackle, furs and wheelchair, provides all the attributes of a memorable villain. When he is not responding to his father's call for aid (a necessary prologue to most of the action) Sonny the Scorpion sports a curious quaff and drainpipe suit, reminiscent of Burt Kwouk's Cato in the Pink Panther films. The lightweight matter of the film, especially the almost obligatory 'training' sequence, as the eager Yu Shu uses gigantic woks and melons to practice fighting techniques, recall some of the early films of Jackie Chan. Sadly, Kar Lok Chin has less of that actor's grace and charisma. His wooing of the girl, and their scenes coming together over the rice grinder, is pleasant but such romance is really just padding between the real drama of confrontation elsewhere.
Bull's fitness academy, into which Yu Shu blunders and later discovers help and friendship against adversity, is full of rippling biceps, mighty thighs and close ups of sweaty pectorals. Some of this display will be familiar to those who remember the outright narcissism of some of Bruce Lee's work. In fact, to Western eyes the latent homosexual atmosphere of this group of butch men, working out together (unostentatiously looked after by chunky blondes), is so obvious that a Western audience might expect it to be further developed. The conservatism of martial arts cinema excludes this possibility. Bull and his buddies are there purely as fall guys, the eventual humbling of such a massive physique only emphasising the slender Scorpion's effectiveness as a fighter.
As Scorpion, Jung Yuen is blessed with immense kung fu skills, if not with convincing dialogue. In fact the whole DVD is best enjoyed in the original language with subtitles, a situation familiar to those who have watched much in this genre. The variable English dubbing, while pleasingly colloquial, is a distraction. Sonny gets to mouth such sentiments as "However hurts my father will pay - with his left foot!" This, with his aforementioned hairstyle, means it is only his memorable fighting style that redeems him as a creditable character.
Scorpion style is Sonny's preferred combat technique (Yu Shu develops his own based on the writhing of a snake, involving flapping on the belly like a flounder). Sonny's astounding method is to confront opponents dropped down on two arms and one leg, his other limb arching up over his back to strike out like the creature he imitates. This physically unlikely, but impressive, technique is worth the price of admission alone and its employment brings the house down each time. Many of his stunts appear to be done without props or wires, which makes them all the more impressive.
At the climax, Yu Shu and Master Lo confront the Scorpion in an extended fight, which, as one might expect, is the best thing in the film. Clearly choreographed by the older star, the combat between Lo and Scorpion is so exciting it makes one wish that that which had preceded it was on the same level. Martial arts film fans will want to see this, given the calibre of the participants, the novelty of the action and relatively high production values.
The DVD includes a Jung Yuen showreel, interviews with some of the principals, and biographies.