Monday, October 14, 2013

The Story of Wong Fei Hung

An actual photograph of the quintessential Chinese hero, Wong Fei Hung (1847-1924)
Who's this, you ask? Why, silly, it's Master Wong! That's right, the Master Wong. You know, Wong Fei Hung . . . of Po Chi Lum? That famous Cantonese hero? Doctor and kung-fu master extraordinaire? What do you mean he doesn't look like Jet Li!? Ugh, fine . . .

Jet Li in his iconic portrayal of real-life Chinese icon Wong Fei Hung. 
Now you know who I'm talking about, right!? Yeah, that Once Upon a Time in China guy! Yes indeed, many people who do know Wong Fei Hung probably know him from Jet Li's portrayals of the character in the well-known Once Upon a Time in China series of films and Li's portrayal in other films too. Despite other prolific actors such as Jackie Chan filling the part, Li was the go-to guy for the role in the 1990s and has since become the quintessential Wong Fei Hung in HK cinema -- but this isn't the case for everyone.

Kwan Tak-Hing as Wong Fei Hung.
For an entire generation of Chinese moviegoers, Kwan Tak-Hing was the definitive Master Wong. Just the other day I watched one of his early films, in which he played the role in 1949's The Story of Wong Fei Hung: Part 1, a.k.a. Wong Fei Hung's Whip That Smacks the Candle (yes, I know that could be misconstrued as some sort of bizarre innuendo), and you can watch it too -- right here!

This here is one of the classic Wong Fei Hung films from the early days of kung-fu cinema. The quality is not the best and the film obviously hasn't been remastered, but it's more than watchable and the subtitles are most excellent and informative! The film consists of two chapters that aren't really related to each other; I think this was meant to be part of an episodic serial that ran at local cinemas (I imagine TVs would have been pretty rare in Hong Kong in those days), especially as the second "episode" ends with a "Find out next time!" cliff-hanger (it literally says that on the Chinese title card).

The film itself is very interesting from a cinematic point of view, as the shot count is significantly lower than in a typical modern-day film (not hard to do) and a number of the performances in the film, such as a lion dance, a number of kung-fu forms, and even a traditional folk song, are filmed in their entirety. This will doubtless make things a bit slow for modern audiences, but for those of you interested in the evolution of the Chinese film form, it certainly is a good example of a (relatively) early Chinese talkie and of the prolific kung-fu movie genre -- traditional martial artists should be interested too. The fight scenes are rather engaging as well, though don't expect any high-flying stuff; they more closely resemble the multi-person forms that one might see advanced students performing in a traditional kung-fu class. Still, the production is quite charming and it is quite a privilege to have something like this subtitled in English, so I entreat thee to check it out!              

Here`s an old poster for it. I think this would make a great T-shirt!     

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