Every now and then there comes along a genre movie that really proves the true greatness that a film within the boundaries of that genre is capable. Consider the greatness of a movie like Drunken Master 2, where smart film making -- camera work, editing, mise en scene, acting -- came together with sometimes innovative, always exciting, and expertly performed fight choreography to make a spectacularly watchable film. Drunken Master 2 offers a tremendous spectacle of the physical mastery that was absolutely worth filming and is still worth watching for that reason alone. It reaches the pinnacle of the genre without doing anything but being a great genre film.
Choy Lee Fut is neither of these things.
It was unlikely to be the first from the start, let us face it. Not too many film makers have the sort of extremely personal focus of Wong Kar Wai (most people, regardless of their vocation, do not, could not). But genre films that are worth watching because they are just so great at what they do are not so uncommon. Never the less, they are difficult to make. So let’s set the bar a little lower.
There are those genre films that would pretty much suck ass except that they give genre fans what they want. There may be no perfect meeting of film making and generic elements, but the fans get what they want. These are the bread and butter of genre fans and film makers. Sure, I don’t have a great deal to say about the worthiness of, say, Bastard Swordsman (Lu Chin-Ku, 1983) as a movie that everyone should see, but it’s a worthwhile time for genre fans. Same for its sequel, and for even some of the less seen films of the genre I have reviewed here, like, say, Big Land, Flying Eagles (Au Yeung-Jun, 1978).
Choy Lee Fut does not even meet this standard.
It stars Sammy Hung, son of the great Sammo Hung, as Chan Wai-Yip. He’s been abroad in England, played here by the English themed Thames town in China, hanging out and with his Japanese friend Ken, played by the more convincingly Japanese Kan Kosugi, and essentially accomplishing nothing. Ok, seriously, movie. Your England is full of Chinese people and white people who speak with heavy Chinese accents. Who do you think you’re fooling here?
So Wai-Yip and Ken get into a fight in the cafe where Ken works because some guy is being chased by a multicultural band of thugs who attack Ken and Wai-Yip when Ken tells them to leave the cafe. That night, Wai-Yip’s dad (Sammo Hung, in a nice bit of recursive casting) shows up out of nowhere, to try to convince him to come home to China and take over the Choy Lee Fut school he runs there. Wai-Yip makes no promises, but the following day, he heads back to China with his friend Ken in tow, because Ken wants to learn Kung Fu. But not any Kung Fu, only Choy Lee Fut will do.
So they go back to the school, which is in a relatively poor part of Southern China, and are greeted by Wai-Yip’s uncle, Tin-Cheuk (Yuen Wah, stealing every scene he’s in), who is smoking a traditionally huge water pipe made out of bamboo. Wai-Yip gifts him a western style briar pipe, which he smokes constantly, and I can say as a former pipe smoker, correctly, throughout the movie. Some more expository scenes follow, introducing Wai-Yip’s cousin and elder student, Si Hai (Lau Wing-Kin), and his wife, who is only there to provide unfunny comedy moments and some flat drama that doesn’t really matter. Oh, and Wai-Yip’s dad is still abroad.
Still here? Good, because the actual plot is about to start here, twenty or so minutes into the movie. There are people who want to buy out the Choy Lee Fut school. They are called the “Pan-American Corporation.” If you are wondering what a “Pan-American Corporation” would be doing by acquiring a martial arts school, or why that corporation is in China rather than America, or why everyone involved with it, save for one of its fighters, is Chinese, you should just accept that it makes no sense and it doesn’t matter. So for whatever reason, the Pan-American Corp thinks they can make money acquiring martial arts schools, and the leader of this project, Ha Yu-Fei (Wang Jia-Yin), shows up at Wai-Yip’s school to make the offer, which he refuses. She then says that his father already agreed to it, and he still refuses.
So Yu-Fei makes an offer that they will have a “tournament” to decide. The Choy Lee Fut school will match three fighters against her three fighters, and winner of two out of three matches will get ownership of the school. Wai-Yip agrees, even though her three fighters, Qian Xing (former Jackie Chan stunt team member and co-director Sam Wong), the ridiculously named X-Man (Ian Powers, the aforementioned sole white guy in the Pan-American Corporation), and Yu-Fei’s boyfriend Cho Cheung-Heung (Steven Wong Ka-Lok).
There’s still a good bit more run-time left, which, in a typical kung fu movie, would be devoted to training montages. There’s some of this here, and it’s actually pretty fun. Tin-Cheuk trains Wai-Yip, Ken, and Si Hai at one point by standing around and waiting for one of them to ask a question. They wait for hours before he tells them he’s waiting for them to ask him something. There are also appearances here from three martial arts masters who help train the Choy Lee Fut fighters, including an appearance by Lau Kar-Wing. This is great for a couple of reasons: we get to see Lau Kar-Wing appearing again in a movie with Sammo Hung, even if they don’t get to share any screen time, and he’s appearing in a movie as a trainer for his real life his son, Lau Wing-Kin.
But most of this time is actually comprised of some extremely silly romantic sequences between Yu-Fei and Wai-Yip. He’s crushing on her almost immediately, and she keeps on showing up at his school (apparently she doesn’t do any real work for her job). She breaks a high-heel and Wai-Yip rubs some dit da jow on her ankle and sends her home with some flat, Chinese style shoes. Then he asks her out, even though it’s her boyfriend Cho’s birthday. She agrees to spend the morning with him so that she has time in the evening for Cho. But they spend the whole day together.
This is the most outright absurd part of the movie. Yu-Fei and Wai-Yip go driving around, feeding each other by hand and taking selfies. Then they go to the library, which is funny for all sorts of politically incorrect reasons, making duck faces at each other as they pull books from the stacks. They eat fast food, and Yu-Fei just adorably (/sarcasm) gets some sauce on her nose. They hang out at a hot spring, where Wai-Yip gets a nice ogle at Yu-Fei’s bikini-butt and receives a splash in the face as a result.
All this in one day. One single date. All that. And a cheesy Mando-Pop song is playing in the background the whole damn time, with cutaways to Cho hanging out in Yu-Fei’s office, checking his watch and looking bored. It is preposterous. And hilarious.
So Cho confronts Yu-Fei after Wai-Yip brings her home and fails at kissing her. He tells her, in possibly the most beta-male move recorded in a movie, that he doesn’t mind if she wants to be wooed by two men at the same time. She, of course, shows up at the school one last time to tell Wai-Yip that they can’t see each other again, with Cho tagging along. So now they’re fighting over the school and the woman too.
Ok, this whole movie is just silly. But most kung fu movies, regardless of when they were made, or their setting, or their actual writing, are pretty silly right? Right. So why does it not work here?
Choy Lee Fut builds on two pre-fab foundations, neither of which is stable. It is trying to balance between giving the genre fan what he or she wants to see -- training sequences and fight scenes -- and giving the mainstream Chinese movie going audience what they are known to enjoy -- light-hearted pop cinema romance and comedy. This could be done in theory, but in execution, Choy Lee Fut does neither well.
For pop-cinema romance, we get that ridiculous date sequence. But aside from that, we see Wai-Yip spending more time with Ken than with Yu-Fei. And I will certainly grant that Wang Jia-Yin is really very lovely and she and Sammy Hung actually make for a pretty nice on-screen couple. They’re cute. But there’s nothing else there of interest. And Steven Wong seems to be there solely for his goatee and spiky hair; he’s got no personality beyond glowering and then acting like a eunuch when he finds out his girlfriend more or less cheated on him. He’s seems like a jerk and then acts like a wimp. So the love triangle lacks any interest or conflict that the audience could find believable.
But the movie really drops the ball on delivering for the genre fan, since the kung fu movie elements are the stronger from the very start. The training sequences are set up well, but they are edited in montage. The training fights against the three masters brought in to help out Wai-Yip, Ken, and Si Hai ought to be genuinely wonderful, pairing up Choy Lee Fut (and Karate, in Ken’s case) against Tai Chi, Hung Gar, and Muay Thai. But these are also done in montage, so we see little in the way of extended fight scenes.
The reliance on montage carries into the final fight sequences. All three fights are edited in montage. And I do not mean that we have a lot of quick-cuts. These are genuinely shot in the style of music videos or maybe highlight reels. This makes the fight scenes so much less exciting than they would be if they were put together in the traditional Hong Kong cinema manner.
The best of the fight scenes is the one between Kane Kosugi and Ian Powers. The worst, sadly, is the finale between Sammy Hung and Steven Wong. This is likely because Steven Wong is not a martial artist.
But for all that, I cannot say that I hated Choy Lee Fut. It’s bad, badly made in parts, and laughable at various points. But I do like how cheesy it is. And it has one of the most hilarious soundtracks of all time, including an astoundingly silly Choy Lee Fut rap by some guy named J-Town. He’s trying to sound all hard and shit, but look up a video of him on youtube or tudou. Really intimidating, that guy. Anyhow, that song made it onto my workout play list. Yeah, I know.
You should re-read this post while you listen to this.
Basically, this movie is on the lowest tier of kung fu movies. It’s hanging around with a bunch of forgotten movies from the seventies and eighties for company. But I actually kind of like those movies too. Because for all that it does wrong, as much as it fails to deliver on its promise, the very real potential that it has with such a great cast and the best bad soundtrack to kung fu movie in the history of ever, Choy Lee Fut will be remembered by somebody (me) as the apotheosis of bad Mainland Chinese kung fu movie making from this era. It’s on that bottom rung, but it’s at the top of it.