Martial Club, shot in 1981, is one of action director par-excellence Lau Kar-leung’s later films for Shaw Brothers. It stars Gordon Liu as Chinese historical figure Wong Fei-hung, who’s been brought to the screen many times by many different actors. Notable in this list are Kwan Tak-Hing in some 100-odd Wong Fei-hung films, Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China and Jackie Chan in Drunken Master I and II. Gordon Liu played him in Challenge of the Masters, also directed by Lau Kar-leung. Master Wong is a favourite character in Hong Kong cinema, loved for his sense of morality and honour as well as his mastery of martial arts.
Gordon Liu plays him as a young man in this film, studying kung-fu under his father’s tutelage and contending with his friend from another local school, Yinlin (played by Mai Te-lo). The two of them share a rivalry over whose abilities are strongest, and are constantly picking fights with random passers-by in an attempt to one-up each other. Yinlin doesn’t have Fei-hung’s moral fortitude and spends his nights at a local brothel, showing off his kung-fu in order to impress the ladies (and win favours without paying!)
Trouble arrives in the form of a third school of martial arts, who are obviously interested in provoking a fight and doing away with the competition. One night Yinlin is tricked by them as he’s performing kung-fu tricks in the brothel and winds up with his legs broken, having been beaten while tied up and unable to defend himself. We also see the entrance of Johnny Wang Lung-wei as a martial artist from the north who’s come south to see southern martial arts — as a guest of our evildoers. He adheres strictly to a code of ethics and comes across as guileless, almost naive. His hosts attempt to keep him in the dark so that he’ll hang around, increasing their prestige and teaching their students. Naturally, it’s up to Wong Fei-hung to sort out this mess and deal with the rogue school, despite being a youngster surrounded by so many masters.
Johnny Wang Lung-wei is a real surprise in this movie — in most of his films that I’ve seen, he plays a fairly two dimensional Manchu general, the almost stereotypical bad guy of the genre. Here he’s reminiscent of Kurosawa’s Sanjuro — an uninvolved character that could be a huge advantage, sauntering into a conflict. He presents an example of how a master should act, in contrast to the duplicity of his hosts.
As usual for a Lau Kar-leung production, the fight choreography is fantastic. There’s a particularly impressive extended fight scene at the end of the film between Gordon Liu and Johnny Wang Lung-wei, showing off a large variety of styles in a space that becomes increasingly confined and ends up in a narrow alleyway. Both of them are excellent performers, and they really shine in this film. Kara Hui also gives a strong performance, as the feisty daughter of a master (a character we see her play often).
Worth checking out for another take on the Wong Fei-hung character and for Johnny Wang Lung-wei’s character.