Director: Lee Tso-Nam
Cast: Chang Yi, Don Wong Tao, Lee Kwan, Ma Cheung, Jimmy Lee Fong, Shih Ting Ken, Tommy Lee Gam Ming, Wang Tai Lang, Got Heung Ting, Miu Tin
Running Time: 90 min.
By Will McGuire
Lee Tso-Nam is one of the most distinctive directors of independent kung fu films during the 70’s. A favorite of Tarantino, his energetic, workmanlike, style produced kung fu films that stood out from the pack like The Hot, The Cool, and The Vicious and The Leg Fighters. Recently Gold Ninja Video rescued his 1979 film Phantom Kung Fu from pan and scan limbo and delivered a limited edition of a 2K scan from a 35mm print. As fans of old school kung fu know, the correct aspect ratio is crucial in actually enjoying the choreography and so now that we’re seeing the film for the first time the way the director would have intended – how does it hold up?
Phantom Kung Fu is, as the title indicates, a film sold on its narrative gimmick. In this case, the villainous Manchurian overlord Ta Te Lu (Chang Yi, in an absolutely ridiculous mustache that makes him look like a sultan from the Ottoman Empire) is hunting a group of Ming Rebels called the Sun Moon Alliance led by Xiao Jubei (Don Wong). Now, Ta Te Lu is feared throughout the land for his “Poison Palm Fist” technique which is instant death to any who taste it, and after tracking down Xiao he demonstrates this ably.
However, he soon hears rumors that Xiao has learned a centuries old technique of spiritual kung fu that allows him to come back from the dead. He begins seeing Xiao everywhere, and sure enough Xiao returns again and again throughout the film to terrorize Ta Te Lu, who slowly loses his mind from the pressure of not being able to kill the man, once and for all.
For me, the film is a mixed bag: Lee Tso-Nam is known for his energetic fights, but the action in this film doesn’t really pick up until two thirds of the way into the film. The first two thirds of the film are very talky, the fights are short, and nothing really plays to the strengths of Lee as a filmmaker. Compare this to something like The Leg Fighters, where the fights move along at lightning speed and you’ll see what I mean about how slow everything is for the first hour.
Happily, there are a lot of positives at play: Ta Te Lu’s slow descent into madness pays off gorgeously with a final showdown that almost plays on gothic horror tropes; the two fights featuring a pair of monkey stylists signal a real charge of energy in the final act; there’s an incredible fight between Xiao and Ta that seems to be filmed in an unplanned shower and it adds a lot to the feeling of reality; and finally in a true rarity the story is paid off with a perfect final twist that recontextualizes the entire story. You don’t get that very often in old school kung fu, and it made the thing almost feel like a classic detective story.
It’s almost exactly 90 minutes, so your enjoyment is really going to depend on how the plot hook sinks in for you until you get to the really good stuff. I will say that when I saw The Hot, The Cool, and the Vicious or The Leg Fighters for the first time, I really felt like I was discovering a lost treasure. I didn’t get that here – this is more of an oddity. It’s got a fun gimmick, and I really do like the finale, but even by the standards of Taiwanese independent kung fu, it just takes too long to “go for the kill” to get a recommendation.
Will McGuire’s Rating: 5/10