“The Kung Fu Instructor” is a re-release of the 1979 Shaw Brothers film by director Sun Chung, probably best known for the action classic “City War” as well as the infamous “Human Skin Lanterns”. The film is of special interest for the fact that it was the first by the studio to feature the use of a steadicam, which gives a very different feel to many of the martial arts sequences.
The action takes place in a small town dominated by two rival clans whose ancient feud has left the town quite literally split in half, with a boundary running through the middle that none dare cross on the pain of losing a limb. Into this tense situation comes Wong Yang (Shaw Brothers regular Ti Lung, “The Water Margin”), a kung fu instructor brought in by family head Mong Fan (Ku Feng, another of the studio’s long running stars) to train his men and help wipe out the hated Chows.
Unfortunately, it soon becomes apparent that Wong Yang has been tricked, and that the Mong family are a wicked bunch, perfectly willing to kill all who stand in their way and subvert his noble teachings. A righteous man, the kung fu instructor finds a more suitable student in the form of Chow Ping (Wang Yu, “The Executioners from Shaolin”), whom he teaches the skills of the mighty pole. As the Mongs call in outside assistance from some bloodthirsty bandits, Wong and Chow fight back with the help of Jir Jir (Angie Chiu Nga Chi, “Heroes Shed no Tears”), a beautiful young woman desperate to escape from the evil clan.
The plot of “The Kung Fu Instructor” is obviously inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” (or “A Fistful of Dollars” for Western audiences unfamiliar with the Kurosawa classic) though with the obvious change of the central protagonist being a good and fiercely moral man whose aim is to end the conflict between the families rather than to profit from it. This makes for a great story which, although perhaps more obvious and traditionally moralistic, is still packed with dastardly plotting and betrayal. Although the director does keep things light hearted throughout, with a fair amount of slapstick comedy being involved, he never strays too far from what is an essentially serious premise.
The kung fu instructor himself is a charismatic and likeable character who the viewer really roots for. As well as those moments which allow the character to display his considerable fighting skills, Wong has some great scenes with Jir Jir, who has quite clearly taken a liking to him. One scene in particularly is amusing, in which she attempts to engage him in conversation, and he genuinely cannot understand her desire to talk about anything other than martial arts.
The use of the steadicam does make quite a difference to the look and feel of the film, although thankfully it is not used with wild abandon. Since many of the studio’s films had, up to this point had been markedly static affairs, the fluidity the camera brings to “The Kung Fu Instructor” is noticeable, and on the whole works well, allowing for a greater exploration of the locations and some fairly kinetic scenes of characters running.
The action comes thick and fast, with some memorable fights, especially during the climax, when Ku Feng, whose skills are incredible despite his age, joins the fray. The choreography by Tang Chia (who also worked on the likes of “The Heroic Ones” and “The Sword of Swords”) is excellent and makes for exciting viewing, with some very well organised sequences in which Ti Lung takes on multiple opponents using the pole.
Although not particularly well known, “The Kung Fu Instructor” is very enjoyable and is a worthy addition to the collection of any Shaw Brothers fan, or indeed anyone who enjoys martial arts cinema.
Chung Sun (director)
CAST: Feng Ku, Lung Ti, Wang Yu Yang, Wah Yuen