Monday, 20 September 2010

Descendant of Wing Chun (1979)

Inspired by a brief conversation I had with achillesgirl on her blog about the conventions of Kung Fu villainy, I decided to revisit an old school fight flick from 1979, Descendant of Wing Chun. It was a classic forms film that was made just before the Hong Kong film industry made it's transition into more contemporary movies in the 1980's and began to move away from the traditional martial arts movie. As it is Descendant of Wing Chun is not the must see fight flick it tries to be but is a good enough entry to recommend to fans of the genre. It's worth mentioning the film makes an appearance in the Chow Yun-Fat actioner Bulletproof Monk and is the film Sean William Scott watches in the Chinese movie theatre he works in, I'm guessing they couldn't get the rights to a more famous Kung Fu flick.

The Film is based around the Wing Chun self defence system. It is a concept based martial art that uses both grappling and striking at close range. Bruce Lee was known to have used it as a foundation when creating his own style Jeet Kune Do. The story centres around Leung Jan, a real life martial arts master who was known for using the Wing Chun style and has also been portrayed many times on screen, most famously by Yuen Biao in the absolutely astounding Prodigal Son.

Here he is portrayed by Melvin Wong making what was, at this point in his career, his second credited film role. Leung Jan ends up intervening in a fight between a bandit and local police. The bandit (Played by fan favourite Lee Hoi-San) vows revenge on Leung Jan, along with the help of a fellow bandit played by another familiar face Fung Hak-On. So, the plot isn't anything special, it was common for independent productions like this one to forgo character development and narrative structure in favour of putting together as much on screen fighting as possible with the hopes of making money not only on the local market but overseas as well, hence the plot revolving around the two bandits is put to one side in favour of another plot involving a rivalry between a heavy set martial arts braggart (Hong Yee-Sang) and a local money changer (Chui Siu-Keung) who end up being taken on by Leung Jan as his students.

This is where the film sags the most, had they concentrated more on the two bandits and gave the movie a more serious tone, Descendent of Wing Chun could have been held in such high regard as other films of this era but as it stands, it just interferes with the whole flow of the movie and almost renders the entire film unwatchable. However, I did say almost. There is one slightly amusing scene which I'm sure is meant to be a parody of the well known TV series Kung Fu starring David Carradine, where Hong Yee-Seng's character goes to his Shaolin master for spiritual guidance only to have him spout a load of pseudo philosophical guff about an orange but when questioned about the meaning of it all, the monk simply shakes his head and says he doesn't know, all the while a wall of candles glow dimly behind him. Pop-culture references aside, the cast itself is very much a who's who of Hong Kong action cinema. I already mentioned Lee Hoi-San, Chui Siu-Keung et al so if you're a fan of any of the people appearing in this and haven't seen it yet, I would definitely recommend it.

Melvin Wong does well enough as Leung Jan, his strong jaw and serious demeanour work well in conveying this is a man who is to be respected and not taken for a fool, he also does well enough in the various fight scenes which is impressive given as Wong was never a serious martial arts practitioner, only performing it when required as part of a film. His moves do come off a little stiff some times but that is to be expected as he's never really had the years of training his fellow cast members had. Which leads me to talk about Chui Siu-Keung, who's career started as a young actor at Shaw Brothers and by this point in his career was well known from films such as 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Heroes of the East, here he gets to show off his flair for Kung Fu and does some pretty decent acting but as you'd expect the film doesn't really give him much to work with except smirk and beat the crap out of the bad guys. I'd talk about the rest of the cast but really they are the only two worth mentioning at any sort of length.

Now we can get to the good stuff, the martial arts action. Yes, it does have a few fights in it and yes they are good not great but good. The odd thing is, the DVD credits the fight choreography is credited to someone named William Cheung, who is apparently a real life Wing Chun master and the film's director Heung Ha (A former Shaw Brothers contract player and later action director) but when looking up the film on HKCinemagic the site credits the film's bad guys Lee Hoi-San and Fung Hak-On as the action directors, so it's difficult to tell who exactly had a hand in the choreography but it isn't entirely unbelievable that Heung Ha had anything to do with the fighting as he has done the action for a number of other films but the most interesting to note is that Descendant of Wing Chun is his only credit as a director and he proved to be quite a competent one (Who maybe didn't quite have a handle on the narrative of a film's story) and it's a shame he never went on to do any others and improve his directing. Going back to the hand to hand stuff as I said it's good, the moves are all varied and interesting and flawlessly executed by the actors but it all falls just a tad flat, while it's great to see these guys go at it on screen (Especially Lee Hoi-San and Chui Siu-Keung who share a rare one on one battle) the rhythm and pace in which it moves comes off a little limp. Yet it's nice to see the cast getting show what they can do.

However the film does make good use of the Wing Chun style, the actors pull off all the fast paced and quick hand and foot combinations well enough and if you like form films like this one then you may enjoy it but it still doesn't quite come close to other films featuring the style such as, again, The Prodigal Son and Warriors Two.

So when you couple together a meandering plot with some decent action, Descendant of Wing Chun isn't the instant classic that I feel it was reaching for but it's a good enough film that deserves at least one watch from serious fans of old school Kung Fu flicks.


  1. I haven't seen this (or much Melvin Wong) but I love form films, and Lee Hoi Saang and Fung Hak On are two guys that make even bad movies good for me. I will most def check this out, and if the story's really crappy then it's Insta-Action time! Thanks for the post!

  2. William cheung was one of Bruce Lee's main wing chun teachers. And lee Hoi San is actually a wing chun master himself.