RING OF DEATH - Strong showcase for kung fu star Cliff Lok
RING OF DEATH (aka BASTARD KUNG FU MASTER, 1980) is an above-average kung fu film starring Cliff Lok (KUNG FU GENIUS) and Hwang Jang Lee (DRAGON'S CLAWS) and directed by Ng See Yuen (SECRET RIVALS, INVINCIBLE ARMOR). It tells a familiar story--in a classic three-part structure--of an underdog mistreated by his family, given kung fu instruction from an unlikely source, and redeemed when he comes back to take on foreign champions in a tournament staged before an imperial audience.
The first stage has the hero, Ah Niu (Lok), a naturally strong but unsophisticated country boy, leaving his village (where an aunt has raised him) to seek out his wealthy father in the capital, only to be sloughed off on an old retainer and subjected to humiliation by his three half-brothers and their kung fu teachers. The second stage has him finding a pair of teachers in an oddly-matched husband-and-wife team (after he has aided the drunken husband in a dispute with debt collectors) whose constant bickering leads them to each teach the boy their competing styles when the other's not looking, one at night and one during the day until poor Ah Niu is exhausted and near death. Only after they separately give him their special medicinal concoctions do they find out the stubborn secret of the kung fu instruction manuals they've been working from. Ah Niu is the lucky beneficiary of this secret and emerges fully restored to health and more skilled than either of his teachers.
Back in the capital, Ah Niu proceeds to demonstrate his new skills in a series of fights with those who bullied him, including his brothers and an obnoxious Tai Chi master (a patented comic turn by Dean Shek). Ah Niu has a heart-wrenching moment when he learns a certain truth about his father, giving the film an added emotional layer. Eventually, after several more clever plot twists, Ah Niu winds up as a contender at the big tournament, staged atop a massive wooden platform at an outdoor stadium before an audience consisting of the Emperor and assorted ambassadors and dignitaries. It all comes down to a final match between Ah Niu and Russia's champ, from "Asia Minor," played by Korean leg fighter Hwang Jang Lee. It's an intense and furious battle which makes full use of Ah Niu's newly acquired skills and covers all available space on, around and under the platform. The short-statured Lok does a good job of getting in close and landing blows to the extremely long-limbed Hwang, making for an exciting and well-staged finale.
The fight choreography is credited to Corey Yuen, Mang Hoi and Hsu Hsia. Corey Yuen, of course, went on to become one of Hong Kong's top action film directors (and fight choreographer on many HK-linked Hollywood productions). The training scenes and fights are shot, edited and staged in such a way as to consistently highlight the actual skills of all the gifted performers. In addition to Lok and Hwang, the main cast includes Shih Kien (ENTER THE DRAGON) and Lynda Lin (DANCE OF THE DRUNK MANTIS) as the husband-and-wife instructor team, who contribute some of the more humorous scenes in the film. Other familiar kung fu faces on hand include Kwan Young Moon (HELL'S WINDSTAFF) as the oldest brother, Lee Hoi San (WARRIORS TWO) as a rude monk who becomes Lok's first opponent in a crucial early scene, and Roy Horan (SNUFF BOTTLE CONNECTION) as a Russian dignitary.
Currently available under the not entirely inappropriate title of BASTARD KUNG FU MASTER in an English-dubbed, low-cost VHS edition, RING OF DEATH is one of the great finds among this reviewer's recent batch of kung fu screenings and is highly recommended to other kung fu fans.
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