A more fitting title for “The Secret Rivals” might have “Battle of the Kicking Machines”. In one fell swoop, this is the film that simultaneously launched the careers of two of Hong Kong’s most notorious masters of leg combat – John Liu and Hwang Jang-Lee, and at the same time, shot their fellow action star Tao Wong into the spotlight. A far cry from the more fanciful wire-fu popularized by the likes of “Iron Monkey” and “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”, the action in “The Secret Rivals” is as grittily down to earth as it gets, a virtually ceaseless martial ballet blending traditional Kung fu with Korean Tae Kwon Do. The beautifully filmed scenery of Korea’s indigenous pagodas and Buddhist temples is simply the icing on the cake!
“The Secret Rivals” is a decidedly three-man show with limber leg fighter John Liu leading the pack as Shao Yiu-fei, an exponent of the kicking styles of Northern China arriving in Korea on a personal mission of vengeance. Playing opposite is Liu is Tao Wong in the role of Shen Ying-wei, master of the powerful boxing arts of the South who arrives in Korea to apprehend the thief of a cache of silver stolen from China. Handling villainous duties is the legendary king of superkickers himself, Hwang Jang-lee in the role of Silver Fox, easily his most notorious role apart from his villainous turn in Jackie Chan’s “Drunken Master”. With both roles, Hwang set the standard for villains stealing the show in Hong Kong cinema, and the action remains among some of the best work all three men have output throughout the entirety of their careers!
The head martial arts instructor of Korea’s Huo palace, Lo Kung, informs his overlord, Prince Huo of the impending arrival of General Sun and his right hand-man Shen Ying-wai from China, on a mission to apprehend the thief of a shipment of silver stolen by Huo and his associate Silver Fox. Huo decides to pre-empt their arrival by announcing a tournament among the local fighters which will select his new personal bodyguard, with the winner claiming the position and a lifetime of wealth. Once selected, Huo intends to send the winner to kill Shen Ying-wei, after which he himself will be disposed of. As the tournament begins, a Russian fighter who is also the European champion arrives and prepares to fight against Huo’s henchman Lung-lun, but before the fight can proceed, Huo halts the tournament for the day, fearing the loss of face that will come should the Russian fighter prove victorious.
The Russian fighter later drunkenly barges into a local inn to pick a fight, but a resident staying at the inn wards him off with the promise that the two will face each the next day in the tournament. The Russian accepts, not knowing that the gentleman in question is Shen Ying-wei himself. The next day, Ying-wei interrupts the duel between the Russian and Lung-lun and after easily defeating the foreigner, is declared the winner of the tournament and of the coveted position of Huo’s bodyguard. To Huo’s dismay, however, Ying-wei (still concealing his identity) turns down the position on the grounds that he is insufficiently skilled for the job, and that he only competed in the first place to teach the Russian a lesson. However, Huo is able to salvage his plot convincing Ying-wei to perform a personal favor for Huo after attending to some personal matters. Later, Ying-wei runs into Hsia Yu-fei (also keeping his identity a secret), whom Ying-wei has already developed a rivalry with when both begin courting the affections of the daughter of the local inn’s owner, Chin Tsing-tsing. Yu-fei warns Ying-wei that Huo is a duplicitous individual, and claims that had he entered the tournament, Ying-wei would have lost. The two men agree to settle the dispute with a private duel, but are soon interrupted by Tsing-tsing.
Meanwhile, Huo modifies his original plan to have Ying-wei assault General Sun upon his arrival, after which Ying-wei will be arrested for murder. Later, his partner in crime, Silver Fox arrives and decides to evaluate Ying-wei’s skill in a fight, after which he speaks favourably of his combat prowess. Shortly thereafter, Yu-fei inexplicably arrives at the palace to challenge Silver Fox, ultimately losing, but later revealing to a young orphan whom he has taken on as a student that his loss was intentional in order to evaluate Silver Fox’s style and how best to combat it. Yu-fei subsequently modifies his kicking style to adapt to the trapping technique Silver Fox used to defeat him. That night, Ying-wei challenges Yu-fei to a fight, which Yu-fei initially accepts, only for him to leave a note the following morning eschewing the fight between the two and revealing his identity to Ying-wei. Yu-fei later hears that Tsing-tsing has been kidnapped, and arrives in time to successfully fight off her abductors. He continues his departure, which is slowed when he is attacked by Lo Kung and Silver Fox’s student Black Fox, both of whom he defeats.
By now, Huo has learned Ying-wei’s true identity, and Silver Fox dispatches a group of henchmen to assassinate him, after which Yu-fei arrives and reveals that he holds a personal vendetta with Ying-wei after the latter had falsely arrested him. After Ying-wei defeats his attackers, Silver Fox recruits Yu-fei to defeat him once and for all. Yu-fei subsequently confronts Ying-wei and emerges victorious, with Silver Fox arriving to congratulate him. However, Yu-fei then challenges Silver Fox to a duel, and the angered Silver Fox accepts. At first, Silver Fox holds his own easily, but then Ying-wei joins in and together marshal forces against Silver Fox. Yu-fei then reveals to Ying-wei that Silver Fox killed his parents many years ago, and their fight was a ploy for him to draw out Silver Fox. With Huo’s apprehension now certain, the two men part on good terms, vowing to meet again one day in China.
You know you’re in for some serious foot-to-face action when Hwang Jang-lee’s involved, and “The Secret Rivals” was the film that launched him on his path to becoming the king of Hong Kong’s high-kicking hitmen. Despite not appearing until well past the half-way point of the film, Hwang’s commands the viewer’s total allegiance from the moment he steps on screen! Few men in the history of martial arts cinema can make this kind of powerful, blazingly fast kicking look so easy. However, his fighting style isn’t restricted to his legs. Hwang also makes impressive use of White Crane Kung-fu throughout the film, and shows himself to be highly adept with all manner of animal combat. Nevertheless, his kicking was his calling card when film was released in 1976 and it wouldn’t surprise me if he were still up for it now! The film’s two leading men are certainly up to the challenge of keeping up with their adversary.
John Liu solidifies himself as a highly skilled leg fighter in his own right with his breakout role in the film, and he and Hwang are a perfect match to compliment each other’s kicking repertoires. While Hwang relies more on a circular approach emphasizing roundhouse/spinning kick combinations, Liu favors a more linear assault that makes use of chasing the enemy with lead leg kicks. However, he’s also skilled at adapting his kicking skills to short-range fighting, and this method proves instrumental in his battle with Hwang. Not to be outdone, Tao Wong brings considerable versatility to his character’s fighting skill, favoring the planted, power-based approach of Hung Gar while supplementing his Southern animal boxing with liberal use of high kicking as well. The end result is a cornucopia of near-ceaseless action that sees all three men seemingly spending half the film with one leg in the air -superb!
“The Secret Rivals” is what old school martial arts cinema is all about, and it is not a film to be missed by any fan of the genre. All three of its leading men showcased some of their finest work ever in this one film, and while the grounded style of the action and very traditional utilization of Chinese and Korean styles may not fly with modern audiences less accustomed to twenty-second long camera holds, it remains an indisputable martial arts classic!
- Born in Taiwan in 1944, John Liu studied Tae Kwon Do under legendary kicking machine and fellow Hong Kong action alumni Tan Tao-liang aka “Flash Legs”.
- Despite not appearing in the film’s sequel “The Secret Rivals 2”, Tao Wong would go on to appear in many Hong Kong martial arts films, including “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow II”, as well as “Drunken Tai Chi”, notable as the film debut of Hong Kong’s current martial arts movie monarch, Donnie Yen.
- Prior to his involvement in the Hong Kong film industry, Hwang Jang-lee was a Tae Kwon Do instructor in the South Korean army, and far from being strictly in the realm of film fighting, his kicking skills are nothing less than lethal. Once while stationed in Vietnam, Hwang was assaulted by a knife wielding opponent seeking to test the efficiency of his Hwang’s Tae Kwon Do skills, the ending was fatal, teaching us that brawling with intent with a real martial artist is never a good idea…