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Skinny Tiger, Fatty Dragon (1990)

Sammo Hung and Karl Maka (less known to western audiences but a famous comedian in Hong Kong, and completing a trilogy of films with Sammo here) star in this bizarre buddy-cop comedy, that is surprisingly funny and a hell of a lot of fun.

They play two bungling detectives who constantly bicker and excessively beat up criminals, who try to take down a drug dealer (played by legendary Shaw Brothers player Lau Kar-wing, who also directs here) who is brought to their attention when they get intelligence that a lady boy is being used to make a drug drop. Of course they fail to apprehend the suspect and get accused of groping a woman who works for the drug kingpin instead. As you would expect the film is full of great action, luckily it is also plentiful. Sammo starts by beating up a bunch of bank robbers, then moves onto the drug dealer’s thugs and even takes on some ladyboy killers from Thailand, yes, it’s that sort of film! Strangely Sammo is doing his Bruce Lee shtick here, complete with howls and nose thumbing, last seen in 1978’s Enter the Fat Dragon (a strange film where Sammo plays a Bruce Lee enthusiast, which features a Chinese stunt man blacked up!) There is no reason given for this style of fighting but with Sammo utilising Nunchaku brilliantly in the film’s conclusion, why question it?

After the experience of the mainly painful Lucky Stars series, which contain extended silliness for most of the runtimes, it is a breath of fresh air that the exchanges between Sammo and Karl (called Fatty Dragon and Baldy respectively, naturally) are entertaining, the two leads have chemistry and there is a charm to their relationship, so often lacking in films of this era. Yes, the middle section of the film where they go on holiday to Singapore, after Fatty ruins the Police Deputy Commissioner's wedding (even though that scene is hilarious), is an odd departure and we could have done without Sammo dancing. This does become a plot point however, when Fatty and Baldy meet two young girls, who they want to retire with in Singapore once they crack the case.

Despite the protagonist’s constant bickering wearing a little thin towards the end, this is a very entertaining, rare film, with bone crunching abundant action, which Karl also gets involved in. Skinny Tiger, Fatty Dragon contains some genuinely funny, politically incorrect moments that you wouldn’t get away with in modern filmmaking. Hong Kong Legends released it on DVD, but it is currently only available through eBay, or on import site Yes Asia. If you are a Sammo fan, this contains all his finest elements with the idiocy tap turned down.

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Once upon a Time in China IV and V (1993 & 94)

Avoided by many and often given bad reviews, these two movies are hard to come by. They were available on a region 1 disc through amazon, but this is currently unavailable. To my surprise they are both enjoyable films, and although worse than the original trilogy, there is still much to enjoy here. Currently they are only available through a torrent site, packaged with all the films in the franchise. 

Once upon a Time in China 4 was released in 1993, only months after the third instalment, Jet Li was replaced by Vincent Zhao ( a fellow wushu practitioner, was seen as the next big thing but mainly made his living on TV. He has since established himself as the actor known for Wong Fei Hung with 2018’ s Unity of Heroes and Wrath of the Sea). Tsui Hark is replaced in the director’s chair by choreographer Yuen Bun, and we begin directly after part 3, Wong Fei Hung having won the lion dance tournament, his disciples Iron Foot and Leung Foon are exploiting the win and foolishly attack a Manchu general, who has come to see Wong. He explains that the the Eight- Nation Alliance (evil foreigners) have challenged China to an ultimate lion dance tournament and he needs the skills of Wong to restore Chinese pride. He explains that the foreigners have a variety of animal costumes, including a multi-headed dragon and a giant turtle, these are explained using brilliant diagrams on scrolls, suspecting it could be a trap, Wong excepts, to protect China, naturally. 

The Red Lantern Sect is also causing problems, like the White Lotus in part 2, they are an anti- foreigner organisation that claim to have mystical powers, the only difference being that they are all women, interestingly they were a real group during the Boxer Rebellion. Although there is more of a reliance on wirework, we do get some great little passages of martial arts from Vincent Zhao, showing his skill in jumping kicks and beautiful Kung Fu forms, completing four or five attacks in one shot, that would be taken up by one kick in a western production of the same era. We also get some great work from Iron Foot, dispatching enemies with his kicking ability. There is a fair amount of silliness at the beginning, but this gets less and less, as the film has to get on with its two main plot points, both handled well. We are also introduced to, two new villains who are helping the foreigners, played by Billy Chow, who punches horses and knocks them out, yes you read that right and Chin Ka Lok, who uses a sword. The most memorable scene sees them dispatching a member of the Red Lantern Sect, after slicing her throat, Billy Chow proceeds to punch her head off, yes it’s worth watching just for this! 

Jean Wang replaces Rosmund Kwan as the love interest, playing her sister, which doesn’t really add anything and Wong Fei Hung’s Dad also appears a bit redundant. It doesn’t have the potent story telling and characterisation of part 1 or the fight scenes of part 2, but despite the changes, it crafts a familiar tale with stand out moments and a refreshing ending, Wong Fei Hung realising that although he can win the tournament he can’t ultimately save China.

Once upon a Time in China 5 (1994), sees Tsui Hark return as director and again picks up where we left off, with Wong and crew, arriving back in their home town of Foshan, only to find it in a desolate state, the officials have fled and the town is being terrorised by pirates. This is a much simpler film, Butcher Wing (Kent Cheng) returns to the series, for the first time since the first movie, to help his friends defeat the pirates . Like the first film, we get prolonged silliness at the start - a scene with Leung Foon trying to get Butcher Wing’s attention by barking like a dog goes on for far too long, and Rosmund Kwan returns, so we get a tedious love triangle between Wong and the two sisters, which is not exciting or funny. But we quickly leave this behind as Wong and his disciples discover a chest of guns and go after the pirates. Even though guns have been an important part of the plots of previous movies, this is the first time our protagonists use them extensively, with Bucktooth So discovering he is a natural, it gives him a skill and adds an extra idea to the franchise. The pirates themselves are clearly influenced by Jackie Chan's Project A (1983) down to their attire and cave base. The pirate leader, who has a supernatural element to him, as he is in a mummy like state when he is discovered, is brilliant. Vincent Zhao was supposedly injured for this film, so does less fighting, with Iron Foot really shining here, again there is a lot of wire work, but flashes of great kicking and martial arts techniques abound. They defeat the pirate leader half way through the film, which is a little odd, but luckily the pirates come ashore, looking for revenge, in what is a non-stop and exciting second half of the film.

Although the film is very basic, it does come up with some welcomed new ideas, such as gun play, not fighting westerners and an abandoned town, plus Wong Fei Hung versus pirates is a great idea, that is executed pretty well. A surprisingly satisfying end to a franchise that could have been ruined with the introduction of a new lead, these are two rare films worth searching for. 

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