Martial Club (1981)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2010-11-17
Summary: One of the best from Shaw Brothers
Like all of Caesar's Gaul "Martial Club" is divided into three parts. It begins with a spectacular lion dance competition between two competing kung fu schools, moves on to rivalry between the scions of the heads of the schools and ends with (almost) everyone coming to a new understanding of the real worth of martial arts and the place of kung fu as a foundation of Chinese civil society. Along the way we are treated to dazzling action choreography and brilliant execution by some of the best practitioners in the Shaw Brothers line-up.

First, under the credits, is a demonstration of lion dancing together with a few rules that must never be broken since to do so shows contempt for one's opponent. Among them are: never sniff the bottom of the opposing lion since this says that it is a female lion, never blink the lion's eyes when approaching the other one and never lifting a leg while engaged in combat. These may not be from the "Ancient Rules of Lion Dancing" but when the Master Lu's school breaks all of the rules it shows they are ruthless but also coarse and unrefined no matter how skilled. The shots looking straight down at the three tiered platforms, each tier supported by a group of students, reminds one of a signature shot from Busby Berkley "all singing, all dancing" musicals. Those shots look great, are much more difficult to do than it seems and can only be accomplished in studio with well equipped sound stages, a couple of hundred talented extras and a bunch of very skilled technicians.

Master Zheng's school is having a great time with their lion dance, getting ready to grab the purse and gather all the greens while delighting the young ladies who came out to watch their heroes when Master Lu and his son arrive with their lion in all his leg lifting, eye blinking and butt sniffing glory in order to disrupt the fun. When it seems that the very best Lu's school can accomplish is a draw with a good chance of losing he orders the lion dance abandoned and a general melee between the two sets of students breaks out. This is broken up and Master Wong Qiying arranges a dinner in which the competing sides can calm down, drink a few toasts and get everything back to normal. To no one's surprise this also results in a fight between the schools.

There is a third school in town, run by Master Wong. His chief student is his son Wong Fei Hung, the exquisitely talented Gordon Liu. Fei Hung and Yinlin, Master Zheng's protege are friendly rivals--the second part of the movie involves their rivalry and is full of extraordinary fights between the two of them and also with other rivals. Each wants to show superiority but knows they are so evenly matched that a real match pitting them against each other could injure both of them.

There are some inventive training sequences one of which introduces Juying, Yinlin's sister. She is played by Kara Hui who once again shows that self-confidence and accomplishment can be very sexy traits--in addition, of course, to her undeniable beauty. The plot thickens slightly but not unexpectedly when Yinlin tells her of the upcoming contest with Fei Hung--each will face a tough fighter and must defeat him using only six moves. Juying isn't happy that her brother is in competing with Fei Hung. What follows are several scenes of individual combat, two scenes of mistaken identity in which the two friends fail to recognize traveling martial arts masters and their pupils. The climax of this section is a terrific fight between Kara Hui and Gordon Liu.

Johnny Wang plays Master Shan Xiong a northern master brought in by the underhanded Lu. Xiong is a very skilled fighter, better than anyone in town, but also a bit of a bumpkin who doesn't understand the rules and rituals of southern kung fu and seems easily fooled. Lu told him that he was going to demonstrate some of his northern techniques to Lu's school but the real plan is to trick him into destroying Zheng's school. Master Xiong, for all his peasant naivete and lack of sophistication, is not as dumb as he looks.

The high point of the third section is an extremely creative fight, the final showdown between Xiong and Fei Hung. It takes place in Zigzag Alley. Each of them must be ready to either strike or parry, must always know where the enemy is and, like a chess player, have figured out his next several moves. Just before this there is a scene with a very creative use of props--bolts of colorful cloth and bags of rice--which convinces Xiong that Fei Hung will be a worthy opponent in the fight in the ever narrowing alley.

Only a couple of clunkers get in the way. In a drawn out and very unconvincing scene Lu's men trick the Zheng people into going to an opera performance without paying, thinking they were invited guests. It was important to the narrative to have something there to show the continued perfidy of Lu and the rectitude of Zheng and company but the scene dragged. It was so noticeable because it was the only one that did. Johnny Wang's character was a bit too good to be true. If he was tricked by the wily Lu he couldn't have been on the right side of things so quickly at the end. If he wasn't fooled then he should have intervened into the internecine warfare much earlier. But these are just quibbles and barely detract from one's enjoyment of the film.

There is enough high quality martial arts action in "Martial Club" for two or three movies. It is never more than a few minutes from the next great fight. The good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, honor is upheld and righteousness triumphs to everyone's satisfaction. This is a wonderful movie.
Reviewer Score: 9