King of Beggars (1992)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2006-01-15
“King of Beggars” is an entertaining hodge-podge of styles and themes, a movie that veers from low comedy to melodramatic bathos with stops at martial arts and family drama. There is also a hint of romance between the lazy son of a general and a beautiful prostitute who tries to kill him, mistaking him for an evil court official. When the particularly well done wire work is included, there is something for just about everyone in this movie. It touches on the need to belong to a group, the role of class and wealth and on how filial love transcends material troubles. There are images of Imperial China—the Great Wall, the Emperor, the pageantry and pomp that accompanies the royal court—together with images of the lowest of the low, including starving beggars eating rice meant for dogs.

Two scenes a few minutes apart show this ambivalence quite well. The both take place during a sequence in which So Chan becomes the Beggar King. The current King has been mortally wounded in combat with the evil Chau. He arrives at the beggar’s encampment and tells them that a new leader must be chosen—it is clear from a pan across the faces of the assembled men (there seem to be no female beggars) that none of them are up to the task So Chan rouses himself long enough to announce that he will be the new King. As he shambles up the stairs of an outdoor platform he falls—it is a well done pratfall but isn’t funny at all. Both the audience watching the movie and the audience inside the movie—the assembled beggars—are shocked that the only possible candidate to lead them can’t even make it up a flight of stairs.

A few minutes later Chow, in the middle of showing the beggars that he is just the man for them, accidentally breaks the “waddy”, which is the King’s badge of office—a turquoise stick that is a cross between a stout pole for fighting and a monarch’s scepter. It has magical properties, although whether it is a conduit for the power of the King or has its own energy is never really made clear. When he breaks the waddy So Chan does a perfectly timed double take, a signal for both audiences that he is in control and that need not fear the loss of the symbol. So within a couple of minutes there are two basic physical comedy bits—a pratfall and a double take—that indicate opposite things much like the movie itself jumps around.

Each member of the excellent supporting cast played to his strengths. Norman Chu as the evil magician Chau was obsequiously attentive when dealing with the Emperor’s minister, loathsomely lewd when he turned his attentions to the lovely Ru Shan, demonically demented when drinking the blood of an infant and always the perfect bad guy. Sharla Cheung, as the resistance leader working undercover as a prostitute was, as always, drop-dead beautiful. She didn’t have to stretch her acting muscles too far in this role and filled it admirably. The role of So Chan’s father was made for Ng Man-Tat the wily scene-stealer for whom this was the sixth of sixteen movies released in 1992. The early 1990s must have been exhausting for him—he was in sixty movies released between the beginning of 1990 and the end of 1993. Not much of a father figure, he was more a comic sidekick a not untypical role for this actor. He was able to set aside the comic persona during a few scenes that established his parental pride in and love for his son.

Stephen Chow gave a more understated performance than he often does—even the comic bits at the start of the movie were toned down from what one often expects from him. His fitness and athleticism were put to very good use in the sequences in which he discovered and then used his “sleeping fist” kung fu. His non-comic acting skills were still being developed in 1992 but were more than adequate for this role.

Production design and costumes were lavishly and lush, if occasionally silly. Sharla Cheung had a number of costumes that highlighted her beautiful face and alabaster complexion but one of them was very odd. When she went on scouting missions for the beggar’s army she wore all black, topped with a huge black hat that towered over her. The hat was a direct copy, although much larger and with a ridiculously huge brim, of the one worn by the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz”.

The opulent costumes and excellent scenic design were shown to their colorful best by the use of extreme depth of field by the two credited cinematographers. They and the director made almost all the right decisions to make this a striking looking picture.

Poison smoke at the end was an anti-climax, almost as if the director didn’t have the time or money (or both) left to film a proper clash of armies and ideologies. The conflict between the Emperor’s men, the rebels led by Chau and the beggar’s clandestine resistance to the rebels abruptly came to and end simply because the wind shifted, blowing the smoke at the rebels. This unexciting ending, combined with a coda which was a scene between the Emperor and So Chan, had a tacked on, thrown together, thought of at the last moment feel that lowered my rating of this movie by one point.
Reviewer Score: 7