Old school kung fu action film directed by Yuen Woo-ping and starring “Beardy” Bryan Leung Kar-yan as the real-life martial arts master, Fok Yuen-gap (Cantonese), also known as Huo Yuanjia (Mandarin).
A beardless Bryan “Beardy” Leung Kar Yan stars as “Huo Yuanjia / Fok Yuen-gap”. A regular star of 1970’s and 80’s kung fu films, Leung is probably best known for his roles in “Knockabout“, “The Victim”, and “Odd Couple”. Still active as an actor and director, in recent years he appeared in Donnie Yen’s “Ip Man 3“.
Action director and stuntman Yuen Yat-chor plays the “Young Huo Yuanjia / Fok Yuen-gap”. Part of the legendary “Yuen Clan” he is the son of Simon Yuen Siu-tien (the Drunken Beggar in Jackie Chan‘s “Drunken Master“) and brother to Yuen Cheung Yan, Yuen Shun Yi, Yuen Woo Ping, Yuen Chun Yeung and Yuen Lung Kui. He has appeared in or performed stunts in dozens of classic Hong Kong action films including “Boxer from Shantung”, “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow“, “Drunken Tai Chi“, and “In the Line of Duty 4“.
Yasuaki Kurata stars as “Chiang Ho Shan/ Kong Ho-san”. One of the martial arts movie genre’s finest screen fighters, Kurata has appeared in films such as “Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars“, “Millionaires Express“, “Eastern Condors” and “Fist of Legend“. He recently appeared to great acclaim in the movies “The Brink” and “God of War“.
Prolific director, screenwriter and actor, Phillip Ko Fei stars as Huo Yuanjia’s father, “Huo Endi/ Fok Yan-tai”. He appeared in over 200 films including “The Killer Meteors”, “Eight Diagram Pole Fighter“, “Dreadnaught”, “Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars“, “Millionaires Express“, “Magic Crystal”, “Eastern Condors“, “Heart of the Dragon“, and “Tiger on the Beat“. He sadly passed away on 30th March 2017.
Huo Yuanjia, the fourth child of renowned martial arts master Huo Endi, developed asthma and jaundice at an early age. Fearing he will be too weak to learn the family style, his father refuses to teach him martial arts.
Instead, Huo Endi hires Chiang Ho Shan, a tutor from Japan, to teach his son academics. Chiang has a hidden motive however, as he wants to learn the secrets of the Huo’s kung fu style.
When Huo Yuanjia is set upon by bullies, he is unable to defend himself. Chiang comes to his rescue and Huo discovers his academic teacher is actually a skilled fighter. He makes a “pinky promise” (no joke!) not to reveal Chiang’s secret. Huo Yuanjia covertly observes his father teaching martial arts to his students during the day. At night, he secretly practices kung fu with Chiang, who has also been spying on Huo Endi and replicating his forms.
An adult Huo Yuanjia eventually becomes a renowned fighter, beating challengers to the family name, and famously a Russian boxer who claims the Chinese are the “weak men of Asia”. When he defeats the Japanese rival Sanaka, it results in a deadly duel for the pride of the nation against a surprising opponent.
The action opens with Huo Endi demonstrating a kung fu form to his sons, smashing an egg at the bottom of a glass without touching it! He is interrupted by someone spying on their training session, initiating an inevitable duel. The fighting style is very much from the old school, with lots of traditional kung fu poses struck to a staccato rhythm.
When Huo Yuanjia is attacked by a local bully he defends himself with limited success. It’s here that we get a good look at Yasuaki Kurata’s incredible fighting skills. His legs are swift and flexible and the height of his jumping kicks are almost superhuman.
There are some amusing training scenes, including Chiang using calligraphy as a method of teaching the young Huo kung fu strikes and blocks.
When an Eagle Claw student arrives to challenge an aging Huo Endi, the elderly master is unable to properly represent himself. Finally revealing his secretly learnt skills to his father, an adult Huo Yuanjia leaps in to save the family honour. Now played by Leung Kar Yan, he is in fine shape with toned muscles, as he battles the Eagle Claw student in a rhythmical duel of fist postures.
Although most of the action is taken seriously, Yuen Woo-ping revisits the comic action of his previous hits “Snake in the Eagles Shadow” and “Drunken Master”, with a slapstick brawl between a pipe-smoking Yuen Cheung-yan and spiv-like conman Fung Hak-on. Martial arts movie fans will recognise Yuen Cheung-yan from his roles as the Puppeteer in “Drunken Tai Chi” and as the Beggar from “Kung Fu Hustle“. The late great Fung Hak-on had a prolific career appearing in such classics as “Iron Fisted Monk”, “Warriors Two“, “Magnificent Butcher“, “Police Story“, “Kung Fu Hustle” and “Ip Man 2“.
Based on actual newspaper reports from the time, Huo Yuanjia accepts the challenge of a Russian boxer who claims no Chinese can beat him. Historically what happened is disputed, although the newspapers claimed Huo Yuanjia the victor, elevating him to national hero. Following a short but sweet boxing match, the film follows suit.
Sanaka, a Japanese martial arts master, makes a point of humiliating Chinese kung fu schools. When he encounters Huo Yuanjia, his rock hard karate blows are countered with Huo Yuanjia’s flowing kung fu. Leung Kar Yan performs some incredibly high jumping kicks without the aid of wires or a trampette, captured beautifully in wide-framed slow motion. It’s astonishing to think that he never formally trained in martial arts!
The consequences of this fight leads to Huo Yuanjia being openly challenged by the Japanese to a duel to the death. The scene is set for an emotional showdown between Leung and Kurata as they each fight for the honour of their respective nations and arts. There is some intricate footwork as the two stars attack and defend. Kurata is in particularly fine form, not only at performing his own strikes, but also in selling Leung’s.
Seasonal Films producer Ng See Yuen had had record-breaking success at the Hong Kong box office from his previous collaborations with director Yuen Woo-ping. The kung fu comedies “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow” and “Drunken Master” had launched Jackie Chan‘s career into the stratosphere, and made Yuen Woo-ping one of the most sought after action directors in Hong Kong. They reunited for this tale of a real-life Chinese national hero, Huo Yuanjia (known as Fok Yuen-gap in Cantonese), the master who inspired Bruce Lee‘s own box office smash, “Fist of Fury“.
Whereas the kung fu comedies had somewhat controversially made fun of another real-life Chinese hero, Wong Fei-hung, for “Legend of a Fighter” a much more serious tone was taken. There are still hints of slapstick and some comic relief, but on the whole, this is much more respectful of the subject matter.
Yuen Woo-ping himself has talked about the styles of Hong Kong martial arts choreography changing and following trends. At a time when the reign of Shaw Brothers was on the wane, and stars such as Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan were taking a less traditional approach to their fight scenes, in movies such as “Winners and Sinners”, “Yes Madam“, “Project A” and “Police Story“, this film marks perhaps the end of an era for Yuen Woo-ping. As history has shown, each decade he successfully re-invigorated his career with action movies like “Tiger Cage“, and then again during the “new wave”, often collaborating to great success with Jet Li, and even into the new millennium with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “The Matrix“.
Having set such incredibly high standards with his work on Jackie Chan’s career-launching hits in the 1970’s, “Legend of a Fighter” never quite reaches those heights. It is however a more than respectable bookend to this phase in the career of one of the greatest martial arts choreographers of all time. A must-see for fans of intricate old school kung fu!
- Jet Li‘s movie about Huo Yuanjia “Fearless“, was originally going to be called “Legend of A Fighter”. The casting director and Hong Kong film expert Mike Leeder informed the producers that this 1982 film already existed with that name. Coincidentally, not only would the films have shared the same Chinese and English titles, they were both action-directed by Yuen Woo-Ping. Yuen had previously been unaware of the 1982 film’s English title.
- In real life, Huo Yuanjia died of arsenic poisoning in 1910. This inspired the fictional plot for Bruce Lee’s box office smash “Fist of Fury”, in which he plays a student who seeks revenge for his master’s death.
- Yasuaki Kurata, who plays Chiang Ho Shan in “Legend of a Fighter”, appeared as Fumio Funakochi in “Fist of Legend“, which is a remake of “Fist of Fury”, telling the same plot of the poisoning of Huo Yuanjia.
- In the original Hong Kong trailer for this movie there is footage of a sword duel that was cut from the final film. Sadly, Seasonal Films did not keep the negative of the edited footage, and the only remaining evidence of it’s existence is in the trailer.
- “When facing an opponent be cool, confident and think only of victory.” – Chiang Ho Shan
- “You couldn’t even beat the weakest member of our family. How can you expect to beat my father?” – Huo Yuanjia
Film Rating: 8/10
Do you remember this title, which other 80’s kung fu movies do you remember as being outstanding? Which storylines really get you going, themes such as patriotism, honour, revenge or needing to prove something else? Let us know in the comments below, share this with your buddies-in-FU, join in the conversation on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. (For more exciting, fight-tastic action, get in on our other movie reviews!)