Directed by: Got Si Ho
Cast: Lee Yi Min, Chang Yi, Goo Jing, Lung Fei, Ma Chin Ku, Siu Foo Dau, Ching Kuo Chung, Suen Shu Pau, Cheung Chung Kwai, Cheung Taai Lun, Li Chu-Yong
Duration: 84 mins.
By Martin Sandison
The genres of Italian western and classic traditional kung fu film have many similarities. Both were born out of a turbulent and highly creative period in their respective industries, were low-budget but groundbreakingly innovative, and were filmed without sound and dubbed in the studio. Both also spawned many mediocre to bad films, such was the market demand for their product, and they were a genre based in part on new ways of depicting violence. Italian westerns served as inspiration for the traditional kung fu film. In their settings, the American West and vintage China, respectively, they reimagined these time periods in a colorful and bold way. As far as I know, the only time an Italian western has been legitimately remade in the classic kung fu mold is Lee Yi Min’s late 1970s star 7 Commandments of Kung Fu.
The film follows many of the same story beats as Tonino Valerii Day of Rage, but I see it more as a retelling. What’s interesting 7 commandments it’s how he fits these narrative points into the kung fu genre and the mentor/student relationship that is at the heart of many old school films. Plus, the genuine emotion it creates with the subversion of the villain character played by the great Chang Yi.
Hsiao Peng (Lee Yi Min, The world of the drunk master) lives in a small town and works in a Chinese medicine shop, while living with his uncle (Ku Cheng, Crippled Kung Fu boxer) who teaches him kung fu. One day the Mantis master Lung Szu-hai (Chang Yi, Lady Turbine) arrives and argues with Ho Chien-Tien (Lung Fei, An armed boxer, courageous kind and extraordinary mustache grower). He is injured and meets Hsaio Peng, who lends him a hand. Peng follows Lung around, learning kung fu from him. A twist in the tale means the two are destined to meet in combat.
The first third of Day of Rage well stages the scene with Giuliano Gemma’s submissive and weak young man insulted by the citizens, then welcomed by Lee Van Cleef’s tough gunslinger. In contrast, the first third of 7 Commandments of Kung Fu it’s mostly an extended laxative shit joke. It’s boring and daunting, in a way most fans of the genre are used to. The broad one-note comedy in this section also sits uncomfortably with the rest of the film, which is played relatively straight and brash. I saw this movie for the first time last year and was very disappointed after 20 minutes. And that’s after loving the opening where Lee throws shapes around a room with big papier-mâché mantises running around. A split-screen shot shows Lee executing moves in two different styles, with their equivalent jabs and blocks on screen simultaneously. He is inspired. But then we come to the painful comedy. I guess the inclusion of this is due to Lee Yi Min’s “Taiwanese Jackie Chan” nickname which lasted a couple of years and took on films like Drunk limbs and crippled fist.
Lee’s martial skills have never been in doubt and he, like Jackie, was trained at an opera school in Taiwan. His classmates were people like Robert Tai, creator of the crazy, colorful Ultimate Ninja Duel. Sometimes Lee pulls off the physical comedy well, as in the masterful The world of the drunk masterin others it is a little painful, like the beginning of 7 commandments. However, at the 25-minute mark, the film suddenly transitions into classic cutting-edge kung fu territory. Ho ambushes Lung and stands atop a wall about 40 feet up. Cut to Lung Fei’s double side stunt, who launches himself from the wall to the ground and immediately swaps a couple of moves! It’s a snatch-a-long, jaw-dropping moment that I’ve rewound at least half a dozen times, and it’s up there with Chin Kar Lok’s similar move in Bury me high. Kudos to that stuntman, whoever he is.
From this group battle onwards, the film’s depiction of the film’s Forme-style combat is of the highest quality and speaks volumes about the skills of lesser filmmakers in the Hong Kong and Taiwanese industries of the time. Here the choreographer is Sun Shuen Pai, who has also lent his talents to other Lee Yi Min vehicles such as The secret of Shaolin Kung Fu. Along with the paper mache mantises at the beginning of the film, towards the end Lee creates and trains with massive mantises made of hay. The flashback showing him destroying them using the same moves on Lung is inspired again. Lee’s acrobatic and hand skills are put to the test, even if they fall short of his similar efforts 7 Great Masters AND Kiss and kill mission. The latter is perhaps her least celebrated classic, and it’s a recent discovery of mine that has rekindled the flame of my old-school love.
Chang Yi is among the greatest villains of the old school and his mastery of on-screen combat is a good display 7 commandments. His performance and his character really lit up the screen, as the film begins to follow suit Day of Rage. Lung has genuine affection for Hsiao Peng and agrees to teach him to pass on his skills and have someone by her side. In the vast majority of old school kung fu movies the villain is a blank canvas, an abstraction onto which the viewer projects. Here Lung is depicted as a master who has grown tired of the martial world, an assassin who still values connection with other beings. This depth sets 7 Commandmentsa part of the package. Despite the brilliance of Chang’s performance and her unique approach to her character, a couple of terrible plot points drag the film down the drain and are ludicrous in their execution. One occurs a year after Hsiao Peng followed Lung around, and someone mentions Hsiao’s uncle. He reacts with surprise and exclaims that he has completely forgotten about the man. Sooooooooo… the man who raised you, who you’ve lived with all your life and is your relative… do you forget about him completely for a year to follow a stranger who kills people? Right. Okay.
7 Commandments of Kung Fu it falls short of true classic status, but it’s a more than entertaining watch that earns credit for the ambitious nature in which it works with its source material. In terms of dramatic acting, Chang Yi puts in one of my favorites in any old high schooler. A white-haired villain with real depth and shades of humanity, I found myself rooting for him in the final duel. He forgets those first twenty minutes and his painful laxative jokes.
Rating by Martin Sandison: 6.5/10