AKA: Iron Head
Director: Kim Si Hyeon
Producer: Kang Dae Jin
Cast: Dragon Lee (Mun Kyong-sok), Yuen Qiu, Chui Man Fooi, Gam Kei Chu, Bruce Lai, Kim Young Suk, Seo Jeong-Ah, Moon Jeong Kum, Gam Gei-Fan
Running Time: 83 min.
By Martin Sandison
In the barren wasteland of UK DVD releases of classic kung fu films, one company has taken it upon themselves to be a beacon of light. The company called Terracotta has worked tirelessly to promote Asian film in the last few years, with a film festival in London every May and now a platform for DVD releases.
Their most recent release is The Dragon’s Snake Fist (aka Disciple of Yong-mun Depraved Monk), a pretty rare old school kung fu film shot in South Korea with a combination of Hong Kong and South Korean talent. The star Dragon Lee is my favourite Bruce Lee imitator, and here he shows his acting and martial arts chops are up to a good standard. I found it difficult to surmise if the director of the film is actually the notorious Godfrey Ho, as many South Korean productions of the time attached his name for publicity purposes, when in fact he had nothing to do with them. Also some sources credit a co-director as Kim Si Hyeon who also directed Dragon Lee vs the 5 Brothers, which has most of the cast from Dragon’s Snake Fist. The film does bare a lot of the hallmarks of Ho’s style, and comparisons to The Dragon, the Hero (see my review) are obvious, especially because Dragon Lee appears in both.
The plot is classic old school stuff, with Lee being the exponent of the Snake Fist school whose father had a duel with the Crane Fist school as a younger man to decide who’s school would rule the land. He loses, and plots his revenge. Lee encounters the Crane Fist schools exponents throughout the film, and doesn’t know how his father was injured or his want for revenge. The narrative is fractured and characters motivations are left unexplained, but the movie moves along at a rollicking good pace, and again when it comes to old school kung fu flicks these glaring faults can be forgiven. In fact these faults are part of the charm. The cast features a good selection of minor old school stars, and each has the chance to shine.
Dragon Lee himself, despite not appearing in as many films as a lot of his peers, certainly made a mark on kung fu cinema. His Bruce Lee mugging can become annoying at times, but his agility, ripped physique and reasonable charisma make up for it. One movie of his I’ve yet to see that sounds intriguing is Five Pattern Dragon Claws, wherein Lee gets to battle the legendary Hwang Jang Lee. Martin Chui Man Fooi (a kung fu star with my name! Yes!) has a good role as Dragon Lee’s master, and is one of the long line of leg-crippled master characters (other notable ones being Tommy Lee in The Hot, The Cool and the Vicious and Tan Tao Liang in Secret of the Shaolin Poles). He had small roles in some notable early Golden Harvest Productions including Bandits From Shantung and Lady Whirlwind.
One of the main villains in the film is none other than Gam Kei Chu, who appeared in one of the most famous kung fu movies ever made, King Boxer. His menacing demeanour and expert martial arts skills meant that he had a healthy career. He was also in two of John Woo’s early films Hand of Death (see Zach Nix’s recent review) and The Dragon Tamers, and one of my favourite bashers Gambling For Head. Chang Yi Tao from the magnificent Blooded Treasury Fight has a small role as another villain. The real surprise cast member is Yuen Qiu who plays Dragon Lee’s love interest. Most well known as the Landlady from Stephen Chow’s comic fung fu blowout Kung Fu Hustle, here she plays a typical damsel in distress and looks very young.
Hilariously the filmmakers give up on introducing characters or having much reason why they fight, purely in the old school vein. The fights themselves are shapes in style, and they are countless. The quality varies, but not that wildly. Dragon Lee’s form in both group and one-on-one fights is at a pretty high level, but he does tend to reuse a lot of the same moves fight-to-fight. It’s definitely one of his best action performances though. Most of the actors aquit themselves well, with each getting a standout fight scene.
Some of the editing is inventive and crisp, while at other times completely illogical. This doesn’t bother me too much with old schoolers, but when it happens all the time annoyance sets in. There are some cool uses of pressure point kung fu in the movie, with Fooi using them in crazy ways. One of the lesser bad dudes continually tries to steal every scene he’s in by either pretending to shave with a straight razor or playing with knives. You can’t keep your eyes off him. He eventually fights Lee by breathing fire at him and throwing down Ninja style throwing stars, that make him meet a grisly end.
As a footnote the Terracotta DVD features an interview with Thomas Tang, only a few weeks before he died in the ‘Garley building fire’ in 1996, wherein he discusses the state of kung fu cinema and The Dragon, The Hero being one of his biggest successes. It’s pretty enlightening and sad. All in all The Dragon’s Snake Fist is a decent production that lacks that spark of brilliance but does enough to keep you watching.
Martin Sandison’s Rating: 6/10