Shaw Bros. Wong Fei Hung film with a spectacular Lion Dance finale
RIVALS OF KUNG FU (1974) is the second Wong Fei Hung movie made about the character after the long-running series starring Kwan Tak Hing as Wong (99 films, 1949-1970) ended. It followed MASTER OF KUNG FU (1973), also from Shaw Bros., which starred Ku Feng in the role, but in the physician/martial artist's later years. RIVALS was even directed by the man who directed nine of the last films in the earlier series and it co-stars Shih Kien as Wong's antagonist, a role Shih played in most of the films in that series. So it may not be idle speculation to consider this film an unofficial continuation of that series. (Kwan Tak Hing would make guest appearances as Wong in numerous unrelated kung fu films over the next decade or so.) RIVALS stars Shih Chung-tien, a relative newcomer, as Wong, his first and possibly only starring role.
RIVALS is rather loosely plotted and its main plot line, about preparations for a Lion Dance competition and the question of who Wong will aid in getting the trophy, goes by the wayside quite frequently for comic vignettes or violent confrontations involving other characters. One subplot involves Wong's offer to "treat" the effeminate tendencies of his benefactor's only son, who's due to get married, and the treatment seems highly suspect. In any event, when the triumphant wedding procession begins, the film cuts abruptly away to some other business and never comes back to it. I found this meandering style of narrative tiresome in parts, but the film is worth sticking with until the end, since the Lion Dance finale is lengthy and quite detailed and ranks with some of the best Lion Dance sequences I've ever seen in a kung fu film. The film was shot entirely on Shaw Bros. studio sets.
Shih Chung-tien came to the film with a strong background in martial arts. According to the biographical info provided on the Celestial R3 DVD, he was a judo and karate coach at the Taiwan Police Academy. He's not the most charismatic kung fu star I've seen, but he carries himself with some authority and handles the fight scenes very well. He went on to appear in dozens of subsequent kung fu films, many of which I've seen, but I can't identify any other starring roles he had. His chief student in the film, a wiry and scrappy fellow named Ah Chi, is played by Liang Chien-lung, aka Huang Chien-lung, the name given on the DVD case, and also known as Bruce Le. He has a substantial martial arts background, too, and went on to make many more kung fu films, although I've seen very few of them. He has more than a few good fight scenes in this as well. Both of them fight Master Shen (Shih Kien, who had played Han in ENTER THE DRAGON a year earlier). Wong's final fight with Shen is especially exciting.
There are a number of notable performers among the supporting cast. Ricky Hui, one of a trio of brothers who became prominent comic actors in Hong Kong films (the others being Michael and Sam), appears as Little Rat, a hanger-on in the entourage of Master Shen, and has a funny scene involving grave-robbing. Two fighting femmes, Lily Li and Sharon Yeung Pan Pan, who would excel together in Lau Kar Leung's 8 DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER (1984) a decade later, play Wong's female students. Lily has no fight scenes but she does participate in the Lion Dance. Sharon has one fight scene. Ching Miao plays Boss Chou, Wong's wealthy backer and the one who pressures him to join the Lion Dance competition, while other familiar Shaw Bros. character actors play other key roles in the tight-knit Guangdong community depicted in the film.
Given the timeline of Wong Fei Hung's actual career, I would guess that the film is set in the 1880s or 1890s, which makes the inclusion of a hospital truck and a motorcycle in the final sequence something of an anachronism. (Wong lived to see such conveyances, but he would have been in his 60s or 70s by then.) While this isn't one of the best Wong Fei Hung films I've seen (which are too numerous to list here), it has its distinct pleasures and should be seen by fans of this unique kung fu subgenre.
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