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Some martial-arts purists think that comedy was the worst thing that could have happened to the old-school kung-fu flick; and it is true that the introduction of comedy into the genre signaled the end of the "chop-socky" period in Hong Kong film. But the fact is, one can only carry-on a primarily physical exhibition of prowess for just so long, then everyone gets bored with it. And that's really why the chop-socky died and how the Hong Kong "New Wave" action film was born: the producers, the actors, the directors all just got bored with hitting people for ninety-minutes straight.
Given that, and given the fact that Liu Chia Liang is a professional director with a considerable list of films in his resume, this film has to be seen as something other than just another kung-fu comedy. Rather, it is a comic film within the martial-arts genre, and in fact one of the best ever made.
What Liu has done with this film is really a pleasant surprise: he has taken a martial-arts plot and re-constructed it along the lines of a Hollywood-style musical! Complete with episodes of singing and dancing! It was around the time of the making of this film that some film-makers and film fans began to recognize that the cinematic performance of martial-arts (really derived from the acrobatics of the Chinese opera) has more in common with dance than with fighting. (I will continue to point out this connection until most Americans realize what they are actually supposed to look for when watching a martial arts film - well-choreographed body movements, using the plot of an action film as an excuse for their performance.) At any rate, quite clearly Liu Chia Liang made this connection and decided he would explore it close to its limits.
The result is an incredibly charming entertainment, filled with marvelously human characters attempting miraculous kung-fu (and tripping over their own shoelaces as often as not when they do so). and the film being set at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, allows Liu the opportunity to explore the nature of the Westernization and Modernization of China that contributed so greatly to the making of the China we know today. So the film has considerable historical import as well.
Also, fans of Stephen Chow's recent Kung Fu Hustle should really watch this movie carefully, as Chow clearly learned from it before the making of his own film.
A very amusing, well-made film. Oh, yes, and the kung fu in it is really, really good.
Purists won't admit it, but this is probably director Liu's best film.
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