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Samo Hung is a good director to be sure. He was crucial in Jackie Chan's success, starring across from Chan in a few classics and directing others. But Hung, a stockier, more clownish actor never seemed to excel in the spotlight as Jackie did. They Call me Phat Dragon is a classic kung-fu film in the sense that it is totally familiar to anyone who has seen a handful of 70's kung-fu films. The set-up is nearly identical and the standard landmarks are all there.
Although the video cover capitalizes on Hung's presence much more than the other lead actor, Hung does not play the protagonist, the part that Chan would have been given if he had been cast. Typically (for those who don't know) the star of the picture is a young student of kung-fu who is always getting in trouble and is not wise in the way of the world. This is the part usually played by Chan, but here it's played by another actor whose name I forget in favor of the character's name: Kung-Fu Ching. Unforgettable. Hung plays the teacher, a critical role to be sure, but the one that would win "Best Supporting Actor" were such awards given for such movies.
The style of this picture is a prime example of 70's fu. You get full-body shots without a lot of cutting. You get tons of choreography ranging from the charmingly comical to the impressive. When comparing films in this genre (no longer being made what with the advent of computer effects and cable flying), the superior ones are the ones in which the choreography demonstrates true excellence of physical form: feats that really take training, that are acrobatic or extremely strong. Jackie Chan was successful because he could do these types of stunts: flying leaps, standing somersaults, sit-ups done while lashed by the heels to a palm tree. Bruce Lee had the acrobatics down cold, too, though his range didn't include as much comic manipulation of objects and people during fight scenes. Jet Li in Fist of Legend has demonstrated to me that he can do his own stunts with well-honed martial arts, but he relies much too heavily (in my opinion) on film tricks and cable flying, and so he hasn't really won my humble admiration.
As for Phat Dragon, the film opens on a basic rivalry, an important aspect in a kung-fu flick from the 70's. Two brothers, close as can be, defeat a town bully with their two styles of fighting. Before he goes into hiding, the bully foments disagreement by telling each brother secretly that it was that brother who won the fight and that the other brother would have easily have been defeated. The brothers get into an argument about which of their kung-fu's is stronger, and they have a falling out. Their dojos split and their students are not allowed to study with the other teacher on pain of excommunication (or the martial arts equivalent).
Kung-Fu Ching, our ne'erdowell, wants to study kung-fu very badly, but he has a job in a rice shop and can't get away. When he's fired, he gets into a fight and is rescued by Samo Hung, just passing through town. They form a bond when they team up to rip off a couple of 3-card monte sharks on the streets of town. (Street scenes are almost prerequisite in 70's kung-fu flicks. Ching is going to devote himself to kung fu full time. Over dinner, he asks Samo which teacher he should study with. Samo sees the martial arts as food: Some people like fish, some like pork, some like duck; Samo enjoys some of each. His kung-fu comes from picking up the best, fastest and strongest moves from every style to make his own "phat" fighting style.
Ching thinks this is a great idea and signs up with both teachers. He spends a year with them, but then is discovered as a traitor. He is ejected from both dojos. Kung-fu film viewers will recognize this as the First Turning Point, common among almost all films in the classification. It leads directly to the New Direction: in this case, becoming a student to Samo Hung.
With typical kind-yet-cruel mastery, Hung trains Kung-Fu Ching to kick ass. Ching demonstrates the abilities of his body, doing vertical pushups with his ankles tied to a pulley above his head. He learns to do the splits with his ankles resting on two separate tables. Then he learns to jump into this position, jump down while spinning, and jump right back into place. Samo spills oil on a smooth tile floor and forces Ching to walk across it--without falling--before he can eat dinner. Thus Ching learns incredible balance even when things are slippery.
The astute will recognize such tasks as the inspiration behind The Karate Kid's famous "Wax on. Wax off. Paint the fence." The idea is that one learns through necessity and repetition. Then the physical motion becomes automatic. Then the furious fists can fly!
Overall, I've seen better. There is a fair share of silliness and a good amount of full-body choreography. The plot has no surprising turns, but plenty of screen time is given to the martial dance. I don't think I'd recommend this over any of Chan's films in particular, but if you have followed or preceded me into exhausting the Chan selection at your local store, do consider the early works of Samo Hung to be fine fettle for the fighting flick fix.