If you were to try to list every Wong Fei-hung movie ever made by Hong Kong filmmakers, that list could wrap around a house two or three times! In the realm of both martial arts films and Chinese culture, Wong Fei-hung is a legend on par with Wyatt Earp, William Tell, or Robin Hood, so it’s no surprise that so many Hong Kong action legends got their start playing him. Or, in the case of Sammo Hung in “Magnificent Butcher”, one of his most well-known disciples.
In the role of “Butcher” Lam Sai-wing, student of legendary Hung Gar master Wong Fei-hung, is Sammo Hung. Still a newcomer to being a leading man, Sammo was and still is an anomaly in martial arts films – a rotund and generally unassuming fellow completely unrestrained by his girth the moment he’s called upon to unleash the tremendous martial arts and gymnastics skills instilled in him during his years at the Peking Opera Academy. Yuen Biao also appears in the film in just one of his many of collaborations alongside Sammo in the role of Leung Foon, another of Fei-hung’s better known students. In the role of the duo’s mentor is Kwan Tak-hing, in an appearance that effectively amounts to fan service, since Kwan had already portrayed Fei-hung over seventy times prior. Imagine Sean Connery appearing alongside Daniel Craig in the next 007 movie (since they apparently couldn’t work up the courage to ask him to do so in “Skyfall”!) and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how Hong Kong audiences would have reacted to Kwan’s appearance in the film.
Lam Sai-wing, better known as “Butcher” Wing, spends his days mastering kung fu under the tutelage of the renown Hung Gar master Wong Fei-hung, when, one day, his long-lost brother Sai-kwong comes into town with his attractive new bride Yuet Mei. The pair’s arrival attracts the attention of Ko Tai-hoi, the son of Master Ko, and he promptly kidnaps her. Tai-hoi’s attempt to rescue his wife is ultimately thwarted by Butcher Wing, who knows nothing of the kidnapping nor recognizes his brother. The despondent Sai-kwong is saved from committing suicide by Fei-hung’s close friend and famed Drunken Master, Beggar So Can. The two men first confront Butcher Wing, believing him to be the true kidnapper, but after realizing that Sai-kwong and Butcher Wing are brothers and learning that Tai-hoi is the true kidnapper, the three men unite to rescue Yuet Mei.
With the untimely death of Bruce Lee still fresh in the minds of martial arts fans across the globe, “Magnificent Butcher” came at a time when producers in Hong Kong were searching for the “Next Bruce Lee”. But like Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung wisely went out of his way to position himself as everything that Bruce Lee was not. Whereas Jackie crafted himself as the underdog to Bruce’s ubermensch, Sammo used his stocky build coupled with his amazing athleticism to truly set himself apart. Even in comparison to the rest of his filmography, Sammo is truly something else in “Magnificent Butcher”. If you didn’t know that he was Bruce Lee’s glorified punching bag in the opening scene of “Enter the Dragon”, you certainly wouldn’t guess that after seeing him go from back-flips to tornado kicks in the blink of an eye here. Any Olympic-level gymnast would tip their hat to his abilities.
Of course, the same can be said of Yuen Biao, who, like Sammo, was just at the beginning of his career with his appearance in this film, and yet still puts many action movie and martial arts veterans to shame. Easily his best bit in the film comes in his duel with a fan-wielding Lam Chin-ying, which he spends a good portion of with one leg in the air! What really stands about Yuen Biao however, is not only his athleticism, but also his absolute surgical precision with his movements. In the heat of his fight with Chin-ying, he is constantly shifting from offense to defense while also transitioning from one classical stance to another, and shows not even the tiniest hint of difficulty in doing so or in selling each stance or technique as anything less than textbook worthy.
As any stunt person or action actor will tell you, perfecting fight choreography is as challenging a task as martial arts itself, and one can clearly see that even in the earliest days of his career, Yuen Biao was an absolute natural at both. It’s also testimony to “Magnificent Butcher” as a true relic of its time with just how long and elaborate every fight in the film is. When Yuen Biao and Lam Chin-ying square off, it’s five minutes and several hundred individual fist and foot techniques before a victor emerges, affording both men the chance to show the full extent of their capabilities to the viewer. The end fight of the film, pitting Sammo against Lee Hoi-san, is just as remarkable in the sheer number of techniques that each combatant trades with the other, and in just how in-depth the choreography is. It’s also a winning point to witness how negligible a hindrance Sammo’s robust frame is to him!
No one will walk away from “Magnificent Butcher” feeling like they hadn’t gotten their money’s worth. Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao were both at the very top of their game in the late 70’s, and “Magnificent Butcher” is proof positive of that. It’s also a genuinely hilarious comedy, and as history has shown, comedy and martial arts make a terrific pairing.
- Yuen Biao portrays Wong Fei-hung’s student Leung Foon in the film. Twelve years later, he would reprise the role alongside Jet Li in “Once Upon A Time In China”.
- The film is directed by Yuen Woo-ping, whose earlier film “Drunken Master” also featured the character of Beggar So Can, played by his father Yuen Siu-tien.
- Woo-ping had originally intended for Siu-tien to reprise his role of Beggar So Can in this film, but he died before production began and was replaced by Fan Mei-sheng for the role.