AKA: The Unicorn Palm
Director: Tang Ti
Cast: Unicorn Chan, Meng Hoi, Gam Dai, Kitty Meng Chui, Yasuaki Kurata, Wang In Sik, Tong Dik, Mars, Lily Chen, Tina Chin, Chow Siu Loi, Goo Man Chung, Alexander Grand, Tai Yee Ha, Tong Kam Tong, Paul Wei, Ji Han Jae
Running Time: 82/90 min.
By Jonathan Mitchell
Fist of Unicorn (also known as Bruce Lee and I and The Unicorn Palm) is a film noted for its minimal, but direct, association with Bruce Lee rather than for the quality of the film itself. The only movie to have been choreographed by Lee apart from his own starring vehicles, Fist of Unicorn features Unicorn Chan in the leading role. Chan was Lee’s closest friend, and as children they had performed together in films like Kid Cheung. (The viewer will recognize him as “Jimmy”, one of the waiters in Lee’s self-directed The Way of the Dragon.) Here, Chan portrays a reluctant hero who resorts to violence only after his opponents have spilled innocent blood. Despite the fact that they were staged by Bruce Lee, the fight scenes bear no resemblance to his other work and Lee does not appear onscreen… at least not in the original version of the film.
Unicorn Chan plays Lung, a drifter in search of room and board. He befriends Tiger (Meng Hoi), a bald, garrulous adolescent who persuades his widowed mother to give Lung a job as a fixup man. One day, mischievous Tiger incurs the wrath of some thugs employed by Mr. Wong, a wealthy weapons trafficker who runs the town. Lung refuses to fight, but receives some welcome assistance from a martial arts instructor (Ji Han-jae, the hapkido fighter from Bruce Lee’s Game of Death, in a brief cameo role). Meanwhile, Mr. Wong’s stuttering son (Gam Dai, Lee’s comic foil in Way of the Dragon) has developed a crush on a young woman (Kitty Meng Chui) who belongs to a troupe of wandering acrobatic performers. The thugs, led by veteran Hong Kong movie villains Yasuaki Kurata and Hwang In-shik, slaughter the entire troupe except for the woman, who barely escapes with her life. Lung finds her, and she takes refuge in the home of Tiger’s mother. When Mr. Wong’s hired goons come to call, they kill the mother and kidnap Tiger and the young woman. Thus begins a series of lengthy fight scenes in which Lung squares off against the bad guys. Having dispatched a small army of thugs, Lung defeats a Russian karate expert (Alexander Grand, who regularly portrayed Caucasian villains in low-budget Chinese martial arts films) before the mysterious Mr. Wong finally emerges. He’s played by the film’s director Tang Ti — best known as “Smiling Face” in The One-Armed Swordsman —and the final confrontation ends with Mr. Wong dead and Lung, apparently, mortally wounded.
The preceding was a summary of the original Chinese-language version of the film. When the folks at Sing Hui Film Company were preparing Fist of Unicorn for international release, they had a trick up their sleeves: they had secretly filmed a few seconds of Bruce Lee on set (despite the fact that he had expressly declined to appear in the film at all), and this wobbly footage was added to international prints of the movie. But that wasn’t all. The filmmakers appended a prologue which revealed that Mr. Wong had murdered Lung’s parents when Lung was a boy, and in which Unicorn Chan shared screen time with a Bruce Lee double filmed from behind. In the ensuing years, there has been some controversy regarding Chan’s involvement in this fiasco. Was he a willing participant in Sing Hui’s efforts to exploit his best friend’s star power, or not? The embarrassing, poorly edited scene to which I have just referred should lay any doubts permanently to rest. Chan knew what he was doing, and understood the filmmakers’ intent. (Not surprisingly, Lee filed a lawsuit against the company.) The English opening credits in the international version of Fist of Unicorn are a sight to behold: Chan is billed as “Sheau C. Lin” (a mangled romanization of his stage name, Hsiao Chi-lin) while Yasuaki Kurata becomes, for some unfathomable reason, “Tsant T.B. Jau”.
With its standard revenge motif, a stolidly righteous hero and almost cartoonishly unpleasant villains, this is a by-the-numbers kung fu film in every sense. (An eerily surreal scene in which Mr. Wong’s stammering son realizes that the “woman” he’s been romancing is actually a man in drag is handled with unexpected cinematic flair. The discovery is made off-screen: the viewer sees nothing but the curtain drawn around the son’s bed suddenly billowing in a phantom breeze as he gasps in horrified surprise. It’s as though Tang Ti were channeling King Hu or Akira Kurosawa, but the inspiration was fleeting; the rest of the film plods along artlessly.) The fights themselves are competent but not extraordinary. The most interesting thing about them is that, with the exception of a few punches aimed directly at the camera, they fall well within the boundaries of traditional Hong Kong choreography. Because the rapid-fire style in which Bruce Lee staged the action scenes in his own movies was not suitable for Fist of Unicorn, he opted for a more conventional approach, and the ease with which he shifted gears speaks to his capacity for adaptation (a key element of his martial philosophy).
Fist of Unicorn was released on DVD (on the disreputable VideoAsia label) in 2003, and the disc is still available. It contains the original Mandarin version, with burned-on English subtitles, as well as the English-dubbed international version with the extra footage; both prints are heavily battered, but watchable. Unicorn Chan died in a car accident in 1987, having never broken the big time. It’s bitterly ironic that one of the few films in which he managed to secure a starring role was responsible for setting in motion the unsavory phenomenon of Bruceploitation — even before Lee’s untimely death!
Jonathan Mitchell’s Rating: 4/10