Mad Monkey Kung Fu is another of director Lau Kar Leung’s classics from his Shaw Brothers heyday. 1979 also saw the release of his top notch hoe-down Dirty Ho, but this time we get to see him act in his own film as well. Having put mantis style to celluloid the year before with Shaolin Mantis, Lau brings another animal to the party here and it’s barrels of fun all round.
The film opens with a prologue of sorts. Chen (Lau Kar Leung) and sister Miss Chen (Kara Hui) are Chinese opera performers watched admiringly from the front row by wealthy businessman Mr Duan (Lo Lieh), although it’s clear he holds particular admiration for Miss Chen. After the show Mr Duan invites the siblings to dinner and engineers a situation to land Chen in a shamefully comprising position. The upshot is Chen has his hands maimed and Miss Chen is forced to become Mr Duan’s mistress. It’s obvious where this scene is leading as Chen becomes more and more sloshed while demonstrating his monkey kung fu prowess and Miss Chen is sent off with Mrs Duan for what is rather hilariously termed “ladies chit-chat”. It’s overly drawn out, but saved by Lau Kar Leung playing a funny drunk and there’s some neat fan work to distract you from yelling at the character to stop as much as his sister.
Flash-forward an indeterminate number of years and Chen makes a living as a street performer with an actual pet monkey, while Mr Duan has grown a mo, all the better to stroke like the slimy villain he is. We’re also introduced to some bullies who make life difficult for the locals and Little Monkey (Hsiao Hou) a homeless young man who tries to undercut the bullies whenever he can and reappropriate some of their ill-gotten gains for himself. Fascinated by the crippled, yet obviously still skilled Chen, Little Monkey begins to hang out with the older man. When the bullies take things too far and Chen’s pet monkey is callously killed, Little Monkey pleads with Chen to train him in the animal’s place and the two start a great master-apprentice relationship that will eventually result in the truth about the dark night in Chen’s past coming to light and a showdown with Mr Duan.
Despite being one of the real animal-based styles of fighting, monkey kung fu is mostly depicted on screen in a jokey way, perhaps because of a famous monkey character’s mischievous reputation. (Scamper over to the same year’s Knockabout for some more monkey business incorporating a different take on the form as part of its overarching “mish-mash style”.) Mad Monkey Kung Fu is still highly comedic in tone, almost cartoonish at times, enhanced by jazzy big band music licks and video game arcade sound effects. However director Lau unsurprisingly dedicates solid time to serious kung fu film tradition and does not skimp on the training sequences. The distinctive splayed monkey fingers are strongly emphasised and Little Monkey is drilled hard on the five hand positions. It’s not 36th Chamber of Shaolin levels of training, but the mastery Chen is known for at the opening of the film has to be earned.
As the trainee, Hsiao Hou gives a fantastic physical performance. Even before he officially becomes Chen’s apprentice he displays some stereotypical monkey-like tics; scratching and twitching and blinking. Once he’s into the swing of things he’s prancing, crouch-hopping and otherwise gadding about, having a swell time and enjoying a great rapport with Lau Kar Leung. He gets to do some sweet staff twirling dressed as the Monkey King at one point and I strongly suspect Hsiao Hou is behind the make up for the Monkey character in the opening opera scene. Once he starts proper fighting it’s full of acrobatics and that swagger, which he’s had all along, is now backed up by the real deal. Bullies beware.
Lo Lieh makes a dependable antagonist the audience can look forward to being bested, although his martial abilities matching those of Hsiao Hou takes some suspension of disbelief. Kara Hui joins the action late in the film but is disappointingly underused. It’s the part, but still a bummer. It was a few years before she really broke into the big time with the likes of My Young Auntie and Martial Club. Considering her youthfulness, it’s also a stretch having her and Lau Kar Leung playing siblings, though there’s always the possibility translation has misrepresented some other familial relationship.
The whole rambunctious affair is wrapped in the Shaw Brothers’ opulent production design, showing off elaborately appointed sets and costumes. A few outdoor excursions into the Hong Kong New Territories look drab by comparison. A couple of very fake props stick out, such as the giant lily pads and some ropey-looking vines — although the training moves Hsiao Hou pulls on these would have a gymnast nodding approval. On the other hand the tinted spotlight used as a setting sun is suitably dramatic.
For classic kung fu aficionados, Mad Monkey Kung Fu is a very satisfying watch. And for anyone who spent time messing about on the school playground’s monkey bars, this film will show you all the sweet moves you wished you could pull off.