Enter The Fist – Magnificent Butcher (1979)
SNAKE IN THE EAGLE’S SHADOW (1978) and DRUNKEN MASTER (1978) re-wrote the rules for kung-fu film-making. Peking opera-inspired storylines mixed with Cantonese comedy and acrobatic and charismatic performers to form a style that was both highly entertaining, and quick to produce. It’s no surprise then that within a year of these film’s overwhelming success a slew of imitators began to flood the Hong Kong film market in an attempt to capture this new, enthusiastic audience. My favorite of the films inspired by this new style is Yuen Woo-ping’s massively entertaining MAGNIFICENT BUTCHER, which plays more like a thematic cousin to DRUNKEN MASTER rather than a straight copy. With much of the same creative talent both in front and behind the scenes, it’s no surprise that BUTCHER was able to help propel Sammo Hung to stardom and capture much of the success of his Peking Opera classmate Jackie Chan.
Now, you may remember that DRUNKEN MASTER concerned a heavily fictionalized version of Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung; a character (and person) that audiences in China would have been intimately familiar with thanks to a long-running series of films through the 50s and 60s starring Kwan Tak-hing. Fei-hung was a real life kung-fu expert, and was generally portrayed in films as a stoic philosopher, until Yuen Woo-ping and Jackie Chan created this new rebellious and youthful variation. But Wong Fei-hung wasn’t the only historical kung-fu personality that captured the public’s imagination. One of Fei-hung’s student was Lam Sai-wing, a Butcher by trade who was a Hung Ga expert and whom became a notable trainer himself in the early 1900s. Hmm… a BUTCHER, you say? Indeed, Lam Sai-wing (aka “Butcher” Wing) is the main character portrayed by Sammo in MAGNIFICENT BUTCHER, playing a rebellious, slightly buffoonish variation on a real-life character.
But just featuring Lam Sai-Wing isn’t the only way that MAGNIFICENT BUTCHER ties into real-life history. You may recall from my LEGENDARY WEAPONS OF CHINA review that one of Lam Sai-wing’s notable students was Lau Cham, the father of director/choreographer/actor Lau Kar-leung. Kar-leung began his career working on the 50s Wong Fei-hung films. How popular were these films? In 1956 they released 25 of them, all starring Kwan Tak-hing. Tak-hing would play the character more than 130 times, including in.. MAGNIFICENT BUTCHER. This sort of melding of fantasy, folk-legend and reality is a hallmark of kung-fu movies, but this film more than most manages to capture the martial arts zeitgeist of the time, bridging the older and newer styles beautifully.
The plot features many similarities to DRUNKEN MASTER, including a beggar drunken master character played by Fan Mei Sheng that is clearly meant to be the Beggar So character from DRUNKEN MASTER. In fact, Simon Yuen (who played Beggar So in DRUNKEN MASTER, and in multiple imitators, and was the father of Yuen Woo-ping) was originally cast as the Beggar So/Sam Seed character in this film, but passed away just after filming had began. When they re-started filming, they actually switched some of the cast members into other parts, though promotional materials still featured Simon Yuen.
The film begins with Sammo as Butcher Lam Sai-wing, recognizable in his usual over-sized, well-intentioned form. While attempting to stop what he believes is a thief, Wing beats up one of Master Ko’s (Lee Hoi San) men, who immediately travels to his school to complain about his embarrassing beating. Telling his master that Sai-wing disparaged the school, and that Wong Fei-hung called him a coward, Ko visits Butcher Wing’s school to get revenge. We’re introduced to Wong Fei-hung (Kwan Tak-hing, still impressively limber despite being in his 80s(!) at the time of filming), who is performing calligraphy when Master Ko and his men arrive. What follows is an incredible calligraphy-based kung-fu fight, with Fei-hung determined to finish his writing despite the best efforts of Ko. It’s a testament to Yuen Woo-ping that despite extensive doubling of Kwan Tak-hing, the fight scene is absolutely seamless.
Despite embarrassment at his loss, Ko complains about Lam Sai-wing’s behavior which gets the Butcher into hot water with his master, much to the delight of his fellow students Leung Foon (Yuen Biao, who likely did much of the doubling in that first fight) and Chik (Wei Pai). He gets punished in the usual kung-fu movie way, with wacky, urine-related results.
But unbeknownst to Sai-wing, his long lost brother Lam Sai-kwong (Chiang Kam), along with his wife Yuet Mei, has come to the town in search of him. However, he first runs into Master Ko’s asshole son Ko Tai-hoi (Fung Hak-on), who lies about knowing Butcher Wing, taking the pair back to his house before having Sai-kwong beaten and stealing his wife – with all of this being watched by Master Ko’s god-daughter Lan Hsing. To add insult to injury, when Sai-kwong later attacks Tai-hoi on the street, he’s stopped and beaten by Lam Sai-wing! Beaten by his own brother – though he’s still unaware of that fact at this point.
Depressed at his failure to beat Tai-hoi, and the loss of his wife, Sai-kwong decides to hang himself. But he’s stopped by a drunken beggar (Fan Mei Sheng) who – after stealing all of his possession (including his noose) – convinces Sai-kwong that he’ll help get his wife back. Meanwhile Tai-hoi is bonding with Sai-wing after Wing saved his butt earlier, which will come into play very soon.
The next day Beggar So heads to a local restaurant to buy himself a drink. Yes, his alcoholism is, as always, played for laughs. Guess who just happens to show up? Yep! It’s Ko Tai-hoi, who manages to get absolutely demolished by Beggar So in an acrobatic fight that involves So first physically manipulating Tai-hoi’s friend, before breaking plenty of wine bottles in a one-sided brawl. He even forces Tai-hoi to pay for the drinks! He eventually lets Ko leave, with the promise that they will meet at a restaurant later where Tai-hoi will deliver Sai-kwong’s wife.
Tai-hoi tells Wing that the Beggar is actually trying to steal *his* wife, and asks Sai-wing to accompany him to the restaurant and fight the beggar. Wing – who is sort of an idiot – agrees, which leads to a series of hilarious misunderstanding, and a fight between Beggar So and Sai-wing which leaves Wing with two black eyes and wounded pride. Tai-hoi, seeing his new “friend” being beaten, runs off right before Beggar so, recognizing Wing’s use of the Hung fist, eventually clues him into the truth. Sai-wing sheepishly visits his brother, and the three concoct a plan to get Sai-kwong’s wife back.
The plan is fairly simple. Wing goes to Tai-hoi’s house with a tied up Beggar So, saying that after Tai-hoi left the restaurant he was able to win the fight. Tai-hoi walks them through the house, eventually leading them to where Yuet Mei is imprisoned. At that point So and Sai-wing beat up Tai-hoi and his men, and they run off with Yuet Mei, along with Master Ko’s god-daughter Lan Hsing. Simple, but effective. Eventually the group all congregate at Sai-wing’s house, where they celebrate a job well done. At least, most of them do. Lan Hsing is super bitchy about the “rescue”, and we get snippets of her inner monologue where she decides just to be a huge bitch to everyone.
Now things get weird! After Lam Sai-kwong and Yuet Mei leave, Lan Hsing decides to be really irritating to Sai-wing, which eventually leads to him heading out for drinks with Beggar So. While they are gone, the total prick Ko Tai-hoi shows up and tries to rape her, before eventually smothering her to death with a pillow after she tries to scream – alerting a nearby night-watchman who finds Tai-hoi’s ring at the scene. Tai-hoi returns to his home and tells Master Ko that Sai-wing kidnapped his god-daughter, bringing the entire crew to Wing’s place just as he discovers a corpse on his bed. How embarrassing.
Hopelessly outnumbered, Sai-wing runs away. This sends Master Ko to his school in search of him, and everything that is about to happen is awesome. Ko and his men confront Leung Foon and Chik, who are both awfully confused and legitimately don’t know where Sai-wing has gone. Two fights begin: Leung Foon (Yuen Baio) vs the late Lam Ching-ying (from the MR. VAMPIRE films), and Chik (Wei Pai) vs Yuen Miu. While the latter fight features some great, unique monkey pole fighting, it’s the Baio/Ching-ying fight that truly impresses. In fact, despite featuring two secondary characters, it’s one of the best kung-fu fights ever. Ching-ying’s spring-loaded blades match with Yuen Baio’s awe-inspiring acrobatic skills, and create something truly awesome. Just check it out.
Butcher Wing eventually shows up to witness Master Ko’s men being defeated. His fellow students attempt to protect him, but a pissed off Ko gives him a COSMIC PALM to his stomach. The Cosmic Palm technique is shown to be very similar to Chih-Hao’s Iron Palm technique from FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH, even using the same red glowing technique employed in that film. It even leaves a palm imprint on his gut in that classic kung-fu way. The students bring a critically injured Wing to Beggar So, who uses his previously unmentioned skill at pressure points to save his life. Humbled by his near-death experience, Sai-wing is taught the 12 ARMS OF THE HUNG STYLE by Beggar So. Yeah, it’s another “drunken kung-fu master gets undisciplined student to train his body and mind” scene, but you have to love it. I believe the 12 arms of the style are: 1) Passing 2) Dividing 3) Steady 4) Short Jab 5) Straight Jab 6) Soft Strike 7) Hard Strike 8 ) Crossed Strike 9) Standing Firm 10) Lifting 11) Trick Steps 12) Iron Fist. See! You CAN learn things from kung-fu movies.
Master Ko gets his student Wildcat (Chung Fat) to attack Sai-wing, and we get another incredibly fun and unique fight scene. As his name implies, Wildcat uses cat based attacks, though his technique resembles a house-cat more than a tiger. The fight makes for some rather obvious padding, but when padding is this entertaining.. who cares?
Oh, remember the watchman who picked up Tai-hoi’s ring at the scene of the murder? Well, he spies Tai-hoi at a gambling parlor and attempts to blackmail him for the return of the ring and to keep his mouth shut. Realizing that a payment would open him up for future extortion, he instead murders the guy, but not before (with his dying words) the watchman gives the ring to Lam Sai-kwong. Tai-hoi bursts in and fights with Sai-kwong, who tells his wife to deliver the ring to Sai-wing before getting brutally murdered. Yeah, this Tai-hoi is quite an asshole.
This would be a good time to mention that Master Ko’s character is actually rather tragic in MAGNIFICENT BUTCHER. While he’s – admittedly – a bit of a dick, his anger and frustration comes almost entirely from people constantly lying to him. His fight against Wong Fei-hung comes about because one of his students lies about Fei-hung insulting his school, while his vendetta against Sai-wing comes from his son being such an asshole and constantly blaming his own awful deeds on Wing. Outside of these incidents, he’s actually shown to be a rather honorable man, which makes his eventual fate actually rather depressing. Of course, he does deserve some of the blame simply for his unwillingness to listen when people try to explain the situation to him. Anyway, back to the carnage.
Lam Sai-wing eventually receives the ring from his sister-in-law, and returns to his brother’s house to find him dead. If you guessed that this sends him into a rage, you would be entirely correct, and he immediately heads to Tai-Hoi’s party boat to confront him once and for all. Tai-hoi, who hasn’t been shown to be particularly proficient in kung-fu in the film, gets his ass handed to him, before falling to his knees and begging for forgiveness. Sai-wing promises that he won’t kill him, before taking his brother’s funeral stone and smashing him across the head, killing him. Pretty bad-ass, actually.
Master Ko has now had his three top students, his god-daughter AND his son all killed, so he’ll be excused for being a bit pissed off. He meets Sai-wing in the middle of the town with his son’s funeral stones set up, promising vengeance. Wing tries to explain the situation, but Ko is interested only in revenge, and the fight is on! Luckily, all of that training in the 12 Arms of the Hung style has really paid off as the Butcher uses a variety of styles – including snake and dragon – to counteract Ko’s array of ocean-themed attacks. Eventually Sai-wing breaks out the dreaded IRON FIST technique (after retreating behind Tai-hoi’s funeral stone), and that’s all she wrote. Wong Fei-hung returns to discover that a LOT of shit has gone down since he left, and to browbeat Sai-wing for first destroying the school’s sign, and then hanging the replacement sign upside down. How wacky!
In a rather shocking move, MAGNIFICENT BUTCHER actually has a full set of credits instead of a simple THE END title card. I’m impressed!
While the plot is hardly original – though it’s a tad darker than other kung-fu comedy films of the period – what makes MAGNIFICENT BUTCHER work is that every aspect of it has been sharpened and honed to perfection. Sammo gives a terrific, charismatic performance in the lead, and consistently impresses with his humor and physicality. The choreography is out of this world, featuring a variety of styles and some of the best performers Golden Harvest had at the time. Yuen Woo-ping’s direction helps give the fight scenes extra punch and his choreography background gives the film plenty of forward momentum, and even the cinematography by Ma Koon-wah feels a lot less claustrophobic than many of the films of the period. It’s the culmination of the old-school style, which would soon give way to bigger budgets and more modern settings in the 1980s. One of the very best old-school kung-fu films, and a must-see for anyone interested in the genre.
NEXT WEEK: MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1976)
Long live the fist,
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