No, not that Scorpion King. Erase the horrifying CGI amalgam of The Rock’s head on a scorpion’s body and the still-running franchise that it became from mind. This Scorpion King is way more interesting to watch. First glimpsed by a school kid through a window at night, he’s ever-ready to spring to the defence of his disabled father with his superlative martial skills and distinctive scorpion-style moves. Hero material. Except his father is a lecherous slave trader and the Scorpion — Sonny to his dad — is the chief enforcer of the evil operation.
The real heroic candidate of this film is the school kid. Yuk-Su (Chin Kar Lok) is a nerdy private school boy, bullied by teacher and classmates alike for his dreams of being a hero like the comic characters he draws. Winding up expelled from school and chafing under the seemingly mundane noodle-making Master Yat (Lau Kar Leung), Yuk-Su resolves to learn the martial arts to defend the weak and be a true hero.
The comic book theme allows The Scorpion King to indulge in an otherworldly air. The film opens with one of Yuk-Su’s flights of fantasy, visualising himself as a wu xia hero in a land of villains, ordinary good folk, lurid lighting and extreme wire-fu. Real world 1920s Hong Kong is less exaggerated, but still feels surreal. The action is still sprinkled with wire-assisted moves and much of the film takes place at night or in darkened interiors, dominated by a blue and yellow colour palette and lots of smoke and mist moodily backlit by out of sight stage lights. It’s stylish work from photography team Wong Bo Man and Tsang Che Chung, lending the feeling of an alternate reality behind the everyday, the flat glare of daytime springing to life at night or in the shadows.
Frustrated with his new noodle shop assistant role, Yuk-Su skives off work to join a bodybuilding club run by muscleman Jean (Frankie Chi-Leung Chan) and ultimately learn his five hundred pound punch. Jean is critical of Chinese nutrition and techniques, believing western methods to be the key to turning into a superman. This sets some east versus west pressure simmering in the narrative since Yuk-Su works at a noodle shop run by freaking Lau Kar Leung, scion of Chinese martial arts on film. Master Yat is surely not just a master chef, right? However, the tension never boils over and by film’s end, fighters of all flavours band together to take down the evildoers.
Action director Yuen Tak, and action consultants Lau Kar Leung and Corey Yuen, pull together an acrobatic and showy style for the action that complements the comic book tone and takes full advantage of the main performers’ strong skills. Actual fights are sparing, but splendid when they do break out. Grounding the nerd wish fulfilment narrative somewhat, there are plenty of hard yakka training scenes, several of which double as earnest song montages. There’s also a riff on the everyday actions as fighting movements unavoidably comparable to the wax on/wax off routine from Karate Kid.
As the title character, Kim Won-jin is the standout action performer. Joining the ranks of Korean superkickers such as Hwang Jang Lee and Whang Ing-Sik, he fills the screen with graceful flips, spins and superlative leg extensions. He also sports a distinctive haughty look, with an emo fringe and attire based around royal purple and vests. Chin Kar Lok, a hard working stuntman and supporting actor for much of his career, steps up to a lead role that fittingly emphasises a good strong work ethic. There’s not a lot of nuance to his character, but he’s fine as the good-hearted if sometimes misguided hero, and brings a wide variety of fighting techniques to bear with equal vigour. He isn’t spared some hard knocks along the way either, putting all the stunt experience to use. He also manages to pass as a school student despite being in his late twenties.
The best of the action is definitely saved for last, as the good guys storm the bad guys mansion to liberate all the slaves, in particular Siu-Yu (May Lo) — saved by Yuk-Su early in the film from a grim fate, but never more than a wallflower. Dispensing with a respectable legion of henchman, the heroes inevitably arouse the ire of the Scorpion. In the grand tradition of final showdowns, Yuk-Su has to combine elements seeded throughout the film, from training techniques, to his own comic book illustrations which recall the kung fu training manual trope, all with his sifu advising from the sidelines. A worthy capper to all the build up — although it occasionally gets goofy, as with Yuk-Su’s counter to the scorpion style using another animal totally not called worm style because that would be too on the nose, and air-juggling his foe like this is a match from the Tekken videogame series.
Featuring a likeable star turn for Chin Kar Lok, an enjoyable later role for Lau Kar Leung that rests on his reputation as an industry elder statesman, and a fun comic book aesthetic, The Scorpion King is a minor classic. It also has one of the most endearing freeze-frame endings ever.