Review: Dirty Ho (1979)

Directed by:
Cast: , , , , ,

Not available in Australia on DVD (to our knowledge)

Dirty Ho‘s title may inspire sniggering from the back of the class, nowadays, but it’s a very different film than you’d think: the film does open inside a brothel (a floating one, no less!), but the Ho of the title is a male thief and kungfu practitioner (played by Wong Yue), and his dirtiness is conferred by a poisoned wound he receives early in the film. So, if you’re after something more like The Golden Lotus, I’d suggest skipping over to that review instead.

What you do get in Dirty Ho, however, is an extraordinarily well-choreographed kung fu film from Lau Kar Leung, one of the masters of the genre. I’ve raved about his work before: the films Lau Kar Leung made for Shaws are among the best martial arts cinema ever made, and Dirty Ho displays some nice comic flourishes and some unusual departures from his more serious films.

As the film opens, we see Ho (Wong Yue) and Wang (Gordon Liu), a wealthy jeweller, trying to outspend each other, vying for the company of some young women (including one played by Kara Hui) in an elaborately decked-out floating brothel. The argument gets more heated until eventually the police are called in. Here, Wang tricks Ho out of his latest haul of stolen jewels, covertly revealing his identity to the head of police (and the audience) as a member of the royal court. When Ho returns to get his revenge, Wang, who’s taken a liking to him, fends him off without revealing his kung fu, eventually managing to give him a minor scratch on the temple with a sword. As is traditional in this sort of plot, this sword was poisoned — and only Wang has the antidote. In return for it, Ho must take Wang as sifu: it is obvious that Wang wishes to reform the young thief, and intends to feed his disciple the antidote slowly while he teaches him some manners.

Meanwhile, a whole host of evildoers are attempting to do away with Wang, now revealed as the 11th Prince, in order to remove him from the succession. These encounters are often hidden from other characters (such as the hapless Ho) who only sees his master drinking or examining paintings while he does battle with his attackers. Much of the comedy in the film comes from these encounters, with Gordon Liu exchanging pleasantries and examining ancient artifacts while fending off blows from their owners.

It’s Lau Kar Leung’s choreography and the physical performances from the leads are the really impressive things in this film: all of the action sequences are intricately designed and beautifully timed, particularly the ones with Gordon Liu. For much of the film he’s hiding his talents, or using another person as a prop, and it’s hard not to pause the film every few minutes to work out how a particular series of moves was done. Other Lau Kar Leung regulars show up in the film as well: Hsiao Hou (from Mad Monkey Kung Fu), Johnnie Wang Lung Wei and Kara Hui, among others.

Anyone interested in martial arts cinema should see Dirty Ho. It’s a lighthearted film compared to many of the more serious, bloodthirsty releases from Shaws, but it’s no less impressive from a technical standpoint. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun, too.

9 flying Ming vases out of 10.
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