Director: Joseph Kuo
Cast: Nick Cheung Lik, Chan Lau, Mark Long, Jack Long, Max Lee Chiu-Chun, Fan Mei-Sheng, Jeanie Chang, Yeung Chak-Lam, Hwang Jang Lee, Bolo Yeung
Running Time: 92 min.
By Paul Bramhall
When it comes to the old-school kung-fu genre, the year 1979 almost comes with the equivalent of a “satisfaction guaranteed or your money back” kind of deal, as an almost unlimited deluge of quality releases graced the 12 months that would mark the end of the 70’s. Lau Kar Leung unleashed the likes of Dirty Ho and Mad Monkey Kung Fu, the Venoms were cranking out classics like The Kid with the Golden Arm, and Sammo Hung was coming into his own with the likes Knockabout, The Odd Couple, and The Magnificent Butcher. It would be easy to continue, but then we’re not here to talk about those slices of kung-fu excellence that could seemingly do no wrong, we’re here to talk about The 36 Deadly Styles which, frankly, does quite a lot wrong.
Helmed by Taiwanese Indie maestro Joseph Kuo, by 1979 as a director Kuo had already left an indelible mark on the kung-fu genre with classics like The 18 Bronzemen, The 7 Grandmasters, and Born Invincible. Almost as if someone had told him there was going to be a ban on kung-fu movies in the 1980’s, Kuo pushed himself to the limit in 1979, directing a total of 7 movies (plus a co-director credit on 1979’s Immortal Warriors), more than any other year since he made his directorial debut in 1958. Amongst his output for the year were classics like The Mystery of Chess Boxing and The World of the Drunken Master, as well as passable kung-fu flicks like Dragon’s Claws and The Fearless Duo. Sitting squarely at the bottom of the heap, and certainly in the lower rungs of Kuo’s filmography as a whole, is The 36 Deadly Styles.
It’s probably best to address the elephant in the room first – I’m pretty sure I only counted 8 or 9 styles at most, so those clocking in for a veritable smorgasbord of kung-fu styles should check your expectations at the door, as you’ll come away severely short changed. The 36 Deadly Styles is one of those productions that looks like it was filmed in and around other more enjoyable kung-fu flicks that Kuo helmed in 1979 (see the previous paragraph), and each time cameras started rolling again a little piece of coherency got lost. I cite the evidence of at least 2 of the actors – Nick Cheung Lik and Chan Lau – suffering from interchangeable hair length between various scenes, indicating that at least 3 or 4 months must have gone by if my hair growth time estimations are on point.
The plot here is especially loose, and for that to be said about an old-school kung-fu flick, you know things have to be bad. On paper at least, it goes something like this – Mark Long (Ninja Hunter, Death Cage) is the head of a vicious martial arts clan, and is less than impressed when one of the members, played by Jack Long (The Super Ninja, The Boxer’s Adventure), deserts the clan and runs off to Tibet with the 36 Deadly Styles manual before anyone has had a chance to read it. The clan enlist the help of superkicker Hwang Jang Lee (Lackey and the Lady Tiger, Blood Child) to track down a quartet in league with the defector, and after barely surviving the initial confrontation, Max Lee Chiu-Chun (who’s also on fight choreography duty) sacrifices himself to the Koreans fearsome kicks so the other 3 can get away.
10 years later, the trio are laying low – Fan Mei-Sheng (Amsterdam Connection, The Young Master) is running a food stall with his daughter, played by Jeanie Chang (Winter Blossom, Flyer of Young Prodigal), while Yeung Chak-Lam (The Cheeky Chap, A Fiery Family) has become a senior monk at a temple. Sham Chin-Bo has stayed close to the son of Chiu-Chun, now played by Nick Cheung Lik (The Dragon Lives Again, Bruce Lee the Invincible), however when the clan finally catch up with them, they find themselves outnumbered, with Chin-Bo leaving Cheung Lik in the care of Chak-Lam at the temple where he’s become a monk. Naturally, being a kung-fu movie, this is the part where Cheung Lik should train to get his revenge, but no, in this case what we actually get is an insufferable amount of juvenile comedy.
A large part of The 36 Deadly Styles involves teeth gratingly bad comedy, usually complimented by everything from The Pink Panther soundtrack, to the overbearing sound of a gong being hit every time someone takes a trip or a fall. I was half expecting clowns to come running into frame from the side of the screen. I confess I’ve written the above synopsis from a chronological perspective, but onscreen it’s a complete mess. Opening with Chin-Bo and Cheung Lik being pursued, the whole backstory of Jack Lam running off with the manual and Hwang Jang Lee’s apparent 10-year pursuit of his acquaintances is told through a series of muddled and incoherent flashbacks. Amusingly, Mark Long and Jack Long’s combined screentime totals less than 10 minutes, despite their characters decisions being the crux of the plot. The good news is that about half of that time is them facing off against each other, in a rare highlight.
Joseph Kuo would work with Hwang Jang Lee a lot during 1979, with the pair also collaborating on Dragon’s Claws and The Fearless Duo, however here his face is frequently obscured by a hideous grey glam-metal wig. This would seem to be a deliberate choice, as I could swear there are scenes when Kuo is pulling a Fearless Hyena 2, and it is in fact someone else doubling for Jang Lee, likely to film scenes that he realised were needed for attempted coherency after Jang Lee had already moved on to other productions. No such excuse can be used for the other wigs on display. Chan Lau (The Dragon, The Hero, Blind Fist of Bruce) plays one of the clan members in pursuit of Chung Lik, flanked by Lau Kwok-Shing (The Drug Connection, Last Hurrah for Chivalry) and Bolo Yeung (Writing Kung Fu, Bruce Strikes Back).
Usually Kwok-Shing’s blonde centre parted wig would be enough to steal the show, however he looks fairly plain when compared to Bolo’s multi-braided, heavily fringed Rastafarian inspired get-up. There are simply no words to describe it, and it’s so epic that in one scene he actually has to hold it in place when breaking into a run. Unfortunately it’s these supporting characters which keep The 36 Deadly Styles mildly bearable, as Nick Cheung Lik doesn’t have much presence as a leading man. One of countless competent screen fighters attempted to be billed as the next kung-fu comedy star following the success of the previous years Drunken Master, he was soon back to turning up in Bruceploitation fare (Treasure of Bruce Le came out later in the very same year!).
The real scene stealer here is Jeannie Chang, an actress who appeared in just 6 movies spanning 1979 to 1982, all of which (with the exception of one) where for Joseph Kuo. Attractive, bubbly, and clearly a martial artist, she lights up the screen whenever she’s on it, and after being initially paired with Cheung Lik as his equal, it feels almost criminal that she gets relegated to the side-lines for the finale against Hwang Jang Lee. Before that though, there is at least an entertaining sequence of fights that sees Cheung Lik, Chang, and Fan Mei-Sheng team up to take on Hwang Jang Lee, Lau Kwok-Shing, and Bolo Yeung. Max Lee’s choreography isn’t quite as sharp as his peers like Corey Yuen or Tommy Lee, and this was only the second time for him to choreograph solo following Erotic Dreams of Red Chamber from the previous year (which admittedly may have required a different type of choreography), but it’s serviceable at least.
After some underwhelming training sequences involving a fence made of bamboo, Cheung Lik eventually faces off against Jang Lee in a fight which fails to make any real connection to the significance of his training. Unlike Lau Ga-Yung in Dragon’s Claws, here Max Lee’s choreography fails to make a convincing case that Cheung Lik could defeat Jang Lee, and as such the finishing moves feel rather uninspired, leaving the obligatory ‘The End’ that flies onto the screen seconds later as both a frustration and a relief. Considering Kuo’s output for 1979, it’s perhaps not surprising that not every movie he cranked out was going to be top tier quality, but still, knowing that definitely doesn’t make The 36 Deadly Styles any easier to sit through.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 4/10