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The Unbeaten 28
cast: Meng Fei, Jack Long, Mark Long, Jeannie Chang, and Hsu Feng

producer and director: Joseph Kuo

90 minutes (15) 1980
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
MIA DVD Region 2 retail
Also available to buy on video

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
A film that simultaneously demonstrates why kung fu films inspire derision as well as cult following, The Unbeaten 28 is a rough and ready affair that, never the less, proves surprisingly entertaining along the way. Fei Meng plays Tiger, the child brought up on strict martial training (and 'a special diet of tiger's milk and wild herbs', hence his nickname) to restore the honour of his clan and win access to a special kung fu manual. His archenemy, Yin (Yan Nan See), head of the Kun Chung clan, had previously ordered the murder of his Wu Chan clan folk, and Tiger was forced to hide out and be raised by the kindly Pu Chien in Lin Wan Mountain. If such a welter of names and titles is confusing, then that's not a problem, as characters in this sort of drama are largely interchangeable stereotypes, and the fighting is the thing.
   Reared in his mountain hideaway, Tiger undergoes a rigorous training programme from his earliest years. It includes such kung fu standards as plunging his hands 'into hot sand until his fingers were the strength of tensile steel' (as the slightly portentous narrator describes), balancing and posing neatly on the rims of rice baskets, and having large weights thrown at his chest. The film suffers from the kind of dubbing painfully familiar to those who watch much of this genre. Voices sound like drunken uncles shouting in auntie's spare bedroom did them, while the enthusiasm of common sound effects (fists crunching against faces, rice sticks flailing air, and so forth) is betrayed by unusual inaccuracy. Fortunately, the ugliness of the dubbed sounds aside, the film gives little weight to the dialogue in the course of the plot, apart from carrying broad points.
   Atrocious voicing aside, a lot of the weaknesses of the film can presumably be laid at the door of the writer-director-producer Joseph Kuo, an obscure figure who directed a number of such chop-socky fests until he disappeared from view in the 1980s. (The Unbeaten 28 is the penultimate film out of his 15 listed). Character development is peremptory, and there is no attempt to suggest that Tiger is anything more than a primed fighting machine, and no moments of quiet reflection or attempt to sustain a real love interest. Kuo is more interested in the mechanics of training, and it is this fascination that produces a series of set pieces in the centre third of his film, which make it so memorable.
   The representation of martial ordeal is common in kung fu cinema, as it is only through such structured dedication and suffering that the adept find true enlightenment and triumph. By extension of this process, some films draw out this process to great, almost surreal, lengths where - as in 36th Chamber Of Shaolin (aka: Shao Lin san shih liu fang, 1978) for instance - the process of testing becomes, in effect, the point of the film itself. Kuo's film offers a sustained low budget variant on this theme. The now fully grown, and trained, Tiger sets off to T'ai Ching Temple to face an 18-strong martial obstacle course and gain possession of the prized kung fu manual.
   What follows is worth the price of admission alone. Poor Tiger (who has to return to the Temple three times to complete his tour of the gruelling test circuit) faces by turn challenges such as: heavy bronze doors; a one-armed, giggling stone man; fighting statues; nunchuka attack; missile firing foil men; breath control; jumping skills, the fearsome '36 blows' ordeal from two monks, and (most amusingly) a 60-year-old fey fighter down a well. In the single most impressive sequence, Tiger battles a clutch of faceless stone men in a tight corridor, then a 'room of illusion' fluttering with red sheets - scenes of some flair, showing the imagination which Kuo was capable of.
   After such struggles the final conflict is something of anticlimax. Tiger and his girl (Lisa Chang) naturally get to fight Yin in an outrageous battle, which involves flying hats, then him hanging upside down to fight from tree trunks. Although punched definitively in his weak spot, Yin finally retreats to his secret lair and, recalling the baroque travails of Tiger's obstacle course, employs a giant Buddha and a fire breathing stone dragon to try and subdue his pursuer.
   Its technical shortcomings aside the vigorous naïveté of Kuo's film, ultimately, has an appeal that belays the harshly staged opening scenes. Once Tiger grows, and faces a succession of challenges, matters come alive. The result is great, undemanding fun, if no masterpiece. For elegance and fine cinematography, you'd be best directed to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; for a film in which the hero gets mugged by a statue, this is the one worth considering...
   DVD extras: English dubbed version, trailer.

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