Shing Lung, a martial arts prodigy, has lived with his grandfather, Chen Peng-Fei, for all his life in a remote Chinese village. Chen teaches his grandson the family’s style of martial arts, but tells him that he must never let anyone know of his skills. Breaking his grandfather’s rules, Shing soon finds that some secrets are better left in the dark.
Released internationally as The Fearless Hyena, the film is one of Chan’s earlier works, crediting him as Jacky Chan. The film stars an eclectic mix of people I should probably know but don’t because, admittedly, I’m a newcomer to the world of martial arts films. The character of Chen is played by actor James Tien, someone actually not much older than Chan. The actor was dressed up in make-up to age him 50 or so years so as to have him make a believable old man. Hey, it fooled me.
Without Chan’s trademark comedic fighting and directing, this would probably be just another non-notable action film from a long ago era. The story follows the traditional stereotype of needing to avenge one’s master upon their death and training like hell to be strong enough for the task. The fighting is frantic and fast paced, making you feel as if the fighters themselves don’t know what move they’re going to pull off next until they actually do it. I definitely enjoying the bo-staff fighting scene more than any other in the film.
The basic story involves Shing’s daily training with his grandfather, rinse and repeat, at least that’s how Shing feels. Shing is a bit of prodigy when it comes to his skills in martial arts, but he becomes tired with the entire process. Why? His grandfather has forbidden him from ever fighting anyone who isn’t him or even telling them what style he practices in. Shing thinks this is just his grandfather being a cranky old man, but there’s a very good reason for these secrets.
At the start of the film we see a group of men on the run from an attack and his three guards. Yen Chuen-Wong, the attacker, manages to kill one of the men, a member of an ancient and dying clan. Yen’s mission in life seems to be the total eradication of any member of this specific clan and guess what lucky old man just so happens to be a member of this clan? Grandfather? You know it! Totally original.
Shing eventually finds himself hired out by a dojo in town after a run in with three of its, er, prized students. The master pays Shing to defeat any challengers who want to start their own schools. Oh, he’s not doing this for honor, by the way. The master basically just wants to steal away students from other potential dojos in order to make more money off of them. For the most part, Shing has no problem with this and gladly does this as long as he gets paid.
Shing isn’t a random rebellious rookie, despite what the basic premise of the film might make one believe. He would probably have an easier time adhering to his grandfather’s rules if his grandfather actually told him why fighting or letting people know of his name is forbidden. It’s one of those “what you don’t know can’t hurt you.” sort of things and, for the most part, it’s easy to understand Shing’s motives. The guy is a star and he just wants to fight, but he can’t and he just doesn’t understand why.
Of course Shing isn’t very bright, but he’s not that stupid either, he still tries to follow his grandfather’s rules. Well, some of them. He’s definitely fighting, but he isn’t letting anyone know who he really is. As a means of showing off just how great the dojo is, its master dresses Shing up as a retarded sweeper he took pity on and trained. The idea is basically, “Hey! See this handicapped guy over here? Yeah, I’m so good even HE can kick your ass!” and that should theoretically bring more students in. This disguise is what brings on the first flavors of style to the film as far as fighting goes. Shing fights in this very fluid, unthinking form that leaves the opponent with no idea what he’s going to do next. The opponents wise up to the idea that fighting a retarded cleaner is going to be easy very fast as they find themselves on their butts.
At one point, Shing finds himself dressing up as a very ugly woman. Well, he isn’t trying to look ugly, but he does, it’s…it’s not pretty. Figuring out his next opponent is a sex crazed fighter, he figures its best to play with distraction and man does it work. The fighter is making grabs for his orang-um, breasts, butt, pretty much anything womanly on him, until the disguise is blown. Shing makes quick work of the guy regardless.
Chen gets wind of what’s going on when he finds a pot of silver and a note Shing left for him in case he should ever die. Chen is growing old and sick and more than anything, Shing wants to earn money to give his grandfather a better life. While he admires this, Chen is angry at his grandson for breaking his rules and goes to the school, where he learns just what Shing’s been up to. Shing bolts for the exit in the middle of a fight and goes off to mope while his grandfather continues searching for him. Shing unknowingly leads Yen and his men to his home before realizing far too late that doing that probably wasn’t the best idea.
And this is where the movie sort of falls apart for me. The rest of the film is what you would expect, grandfather dies and it’s time for revenge. There was a colorful group of characters making up the cast of the film up until this point and the film drops them in favor of Shing’s uncle, Unicorn, who appears out of nowhere. Unicorn holds back Shing and more or less makes him watch his grandfather’s death because he knows he would get himself killed if he tried to help. Shing, now pretty enraged, prepares to find Yen, but Unicorn single-handedly defeats his nephew. The whole point here is that, if Unicorn, a cripple, can defeat Shing, he has no chance of beating Yen.
Training montages! Okay, they’re rather interesting and fun to watch and the movie does take the formula on its head a bit. Shing randomly finds Yen on the streets and proceeds to get his ass kicked without giving away the fact that the man he killed was his grandfather. Upon seeing this, Unicorn realizes that Shing’s problem isn’t strength, it’s focus. Thus comes the family secret and presumably the reason Yen wants to wipe the clan out, we’re never told really, anywho! The laughing fist!
The laughing fist teaches the user to feign different emotions to…er, confuse their opponent? I don’t know. The film is really shaky on the reason as to why laughing or crying or acting angry somehow makes you stronger, but, hey, it works! Shing goes up against the guards and beats them with his own strength before taking on Yen in a battle and busting out the laughing fist, getting vengeance, and carting away his beaten but alive uncle in a barrel. Roll credits.
It’s not the best movie, I don’t even think it’s a great movie by martial arts standards. I don’t have much to compare it to since I’m still relatively new, but it’s not as great as the films of the genre I have seen. I actually have a lot of fun with the setting and characters in the first half of the film, but by the time Yen shows up, this all gets thrown to the wayside. Unicorn is a fun and quirky character, as are most people in the film, but I wish there had been some way to continue the story without essentially writing out most of the cast. What’s worse is that this all happens in the last half hour or so before they’re written out and we get what really does feel like a different film.
What hurts the movie the most for me is that it does feel like there’s a lot going for it. The idea that there’s this really powerful guy out there hunting down members of a clan feels like it can carry a movie on its own, but doesn’t mesh well with what we’re given. While there is comedy in the last quarter, it’s nothing compared to the rest of the movie and creates this really jarring change in tone. What’s worse is that you can’t really have one without the other here, Shing needs to be in those funky disguises because of his grandfather’s rules, so it’s not something that can be split off to become its own movie. Don’t get me wrong, this is definitely an enjoyable film, but by the end of it there was this sense of yearning for more. I wanted to see more of the comedy, more of Shing’s interactions with the cast, heck, more of the cast.
As far as the directorial style is concerned, it’s nothing too great. This is early on in Chan’s career, so I imagine the guy still had a lot to learn and hadn’t quite yet found his style. There are a lot of staged shots that don’t feel too natural and there are plenty of zoom-ins to be found all over the place. Given the quality of what this was filmed on, it gives it this very dated look, which isn’t a bad thing, it just means you can definitely tell what era this is from. One thing I have to mention is that the fights are so well shot in this piece. There are plenty of dynamic shots, the camera tries to match pace with the fighters and a lot of tricks that aren’t too innovating, but make the fights fun to watch. My biggest problem with martial arts films in the past has been the set up for the fights, often looking like you’re watching a fight out of a fighting game rather than an actual film.
It’s not the worst film out there, but it definitely leaves you wanting so much more in the long run.