The Magnificent Butcher (1979)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2005-08-25
Summary: As good as it gets.
Magnificent Butcher

The disc I watched was a successful digital remastering of this kung-fu classic, issued by Fortune City. Very well done widescreen transfer from what must have been a prime source. It has very sharp colors but not over-contrasty and deep blacks. Everything is distinct and even fights that take place in the shadows are easy to follow. This is important since a lot of the action takes place in relatively low light—candles, a single lamp and a watchman’s lantern. The 5.1 Dolby digital sound is crisp, immediate and very well separated between channels.

It was shot in basic, by-the-numbers 1970s kung fu cinematography with sudden zooms to a close-up of a character making an important decision and no real attempt to disguise much of the necessary doubling, especially of the actors playing Beggar So (Fan Mei Sheng) and the astounding Kwan Tak Hing who played Wong Fei Hung for one of the last times in his illustrious career. While Sammo Hung is the star and source of energy for this film, both Kwan and Fan steal the spotlight from him occasionally. “Magnificent Butcher” is a wonderful movie.

Sommo Hung seems to be at the top of his game, capable of any series of kung-fu that he or anyone else can devise. His footwork is phenomenal—very fast, accurate and continuous—as is his handwork, especially in his fight with the perfectly evil Ko Tai Hoi, played with villainous relish by Fung Hak On.

The conflict that pits Wong Fei Hung and his school against Master Ko (Lee Hoi Sang) is set up early. The immediate cause is the mistaken pursuit and assault of one of Ko’s people by Butcher Wing, although it is obvious that there is a fundamental clash between good and evil, light and darkness, peace and anarchy behind it. The fights themselves start small and escalate with perfect precision to extended, vicious and exhausting looking battles. The first is simply a war of words between Butcher Wing and a rival meat seller, which Wing wins through cunning and guile. The second is a “proxy” war between two old men—probably old friends--using a chess game. This one leads to Wing beating up one of the men who he had mistaken for a thief. Next is the first confrontation between the contending schools in which Wong Fei Hung defeats Master Ko a duel using calligraphy pens as swords—you have to see this one to believe it, and should. This fight is very well imagined and executed and necessary (and obvious) doubling for Kwan does not detract from it at all.

The conflict turns deadly. Master Ko and two of his acolytes show up at the Hung Gar school but are defeated by Foon (Yuen Biao) and Chat (Wai Pak). Foon goes against Lam Ching Ying who is armed with a fan, while Chat is confronted by Yuen Miu, the “Pole Man” who uses Monkey kung-fu. Yuen Biao is powerful, graceful and tireless—he makes it clear why he is admired by so many lovers of kung fu action.

The last three fights feature Butcher Wing. In the first, which takes place in a funeral home, he is attacked by Chung Fat who plays a warrior who has mastered a cat like type of kung-fu. Master Ko dispatches Wildcat with orders to bring back Wing—either dead or alive. As can be expected, Wildcat is all over the place, climbing pillars and jumping from the ceiling, clawing, hurting and tiring Wing. He is almost a match for Wing who is helped at the very end by his new teacher, Beggar So.

The next one isn’t much of a fight—it is short and brutal, essentially the execution of Ko Tai Hoi for killing Lam Sai Kwong, Butcher Wing’s brother. This is not kung-fu as such, but and enraged man using whatever is at hand to beat another to death. Ko tries everything—“reasoning” with Wing, pulling a knife (the same one he used to kill Lam Sai Kwong) and finally prostrating himself in front of Lam’s funerary shrine while begging for his life. It doesn’t work—Butcher Wing tells him that his brother wants company, then kills Ko.

The final fight is between Master Ko and Wing. As befits a match with an acknowledged kung-fu master it is highly stylized although deadly. Many different types of kung-fu are displayed—Crane Fist, Foaming Waves, Cosmic Palm—as are a few comic touches. It ends with Master Ko on the ground crippled, again after the intervention of Beggar So.

In many kung-fu classics the plot is no more than a device to get the characters from one fight to the next, which is not the case in “Magnificent Butcher”. Sammo Hung’s character is plausibly left to fend for himself. The murder of Lan Hsing makes perfect sense in the context of the movie, as does the venal watchman deciding to blackmail Ko Tai Hoi for the murder, an action which sets the stage for the heightening and resolution of the conflict. Neither comedy nor tragedy—and there is plenty of both—are “tacked on” or extraneous. Beggar So is a funny character, an almost universal type, a drunk who can still think and fight, either despite or because of his wine soaked brain. He comes across as a useless bum until his kung-fu skills are needed, then goes into effective action. Wing has a number of funny physical bits and is always in trouble with Wong Fei Hung. But the violent kung-fu world is also unforgiving, with two vicious murders and a kidnapping and (one assumes) rape. One short scene that really stood out for me was when Butcher Wing the body of his brother—the brother who he hasn’t seen for ten years and who he is just getting to know again. While his sister-in-law weeps, Wing’s face shows sadness, despair and anger, all in extreme close-up. Sammo can fight but he can also act.

Highly recommended, especially the Fortune City disc reviewed here.
Reviewer Score: 9