Director: Yu Kong
Writer: Yu Kong
Producer: Kam Yuen Bo
Cast: Lee Wing, Pearl Chang Ling, Casanova Wong, Choi Wang, Tien Feng, Chan Wai Lau, Chu Tiet Wo, Ho Pak Kwong, Ling Yun, Ching Ching, Chuen Yuen, Tung Li
Running Time: 89 min.
By Paul Bramhall
Sporting one of the most generic titles you can come across in the vast landscape of kung fu movies, this 1979 production from Taiwan was one of the handful of titles originally planned for release on the Rarescope DVD label, before it closed shop in 2008. For a long time it seemed like the titles which didn’t hit the shelves before its closure would remain unreleased, however thankfully many of them were salvaged and put out by Jamal, with Monk’s Fight being no exception. There was something about the movie which made me drawn to check out if it was as generic as the title would suggest.
A large part of my temptation to watch Monk’s Fight is that the two main players behind it are just as difficult to find in action as the movie itself. Directed by Yu Kong, he debuted by taking on directorial duties for the forgettable Return of the Kung Fu Dragon made the year earlier, then came out all guns blazing for this movie, also handling the action, editing, music, as well as writing it and playing a minor role. He was then never heard of ever again. Lee Wing took on the lead role, his debut, and also took on the part of action director. Then just like Kong, was never heard of ever again.
So we have a movie helmed by a pair of enigmatic names in the annals of kung fu movie history, who arrived on the scene just as quickly as they left it, with information on them as hard to find as the movie itself was for the longest time. What’s just as interesting though is the rest of the cast, many of whom you’d never expect to find in the same production together. Monk’s Fight also stars the Wolf Devil Woman herself, Taiwanese actress Pearl Cheung, and then there’s Korean super kicker Casanova Wong in the mix, topped off with a bunch of recognizable faces from Shaw Brothers movies such as Ling Yun, Tien Feng, and Choi Wang.
As a curiosity piece, it certainly ticks all the boxes. Proceedings open like countless other kung fu movies of the time period, we get a spiel over a sacred Buddhist treasure which is in the care of some monks at a temple, and then within the first couple of minutes it’s (unsurprisingly) stolen. The monk played by Lee Wing, noticeably the only one of them to not have a shaved head, is chosen to track down the bad guys and retrieve the treasure, before it’s sold overseas to the Japanese. So far, so like countless other kung fu movies that most fans will have watched in their lifetime. The temple, the monks, the way events play out, it all seems overly familiar and like we’ve seen it all before.
However that’s exactly were the movie gets interesting. Wing has a distinctive look, with chiseled features and his hair tightly tied back, an easy choice for leading man material. He declares he was never suited for Buddhism, and proceeds to change from his monks robes to what we can assume he wore from before his life in the temple, which basically equates to a poncho, complete with a cigar. He mounts his horse, and rides off into the desert set to a thumping synthesizer soundtrack. In a matter of moments the movie changes tone from the generic, to some kind of Taiwanese version of A Fistful of Dollars.
The tonal shift remains for the rest of the movie, and as a result it leaves us with one of the most unique kung fu movies in the genre, especially for a production from 1979. Far from being a run of the mill genre piece, Monk’s Fight ends up as some kind of spaghetti western styled wuxia with heavy chambara overtones. Wing doesn’t have a sword, however he does keep a short cudgel in his boot which he uses as a weapon, and just like you’d expect to see in a Japanese chambara picture, his use of it results in quick but effective deaths. At the same time, unlike chambara pictures, Wing also utilizes his fists and feet, even wearing what appear to be a wuxia version of UFC gloves.
As the movie progresses Wing gets involved in a couple of one-on-one duels, notably against the bulking Ching Ching, whose arm is covered in thick metal rings. His gold vest, oversized wine jug, whispy eye brows and mohawk hair mark him as straight out of a late 70’s wuxia movie, however the proceeding fight is anything but from the era. Despite such a setting usually leaning towards exaggerated action, Kong and Wing fashion the fights towards realism more than anything else. The exchanges become more about who’s quick enough to get a punch or a jab in first, with Wing relying on a series of low kicks to Ching’s legs to wear him down, while remaining light on his feet the whole time. Surprisingly, the first thing that came to mind when watching this scene wasn’t any similarly themed wuxia movie, but Jackie Chan’s fight against Benny ‘The Jet’ Urquidez in Wheels on Meals 5 years later.
Special mention also has to go to the cinematography of Monk’s Fight, which was the first time for Lau Hung Chuen to lens a movie. Chuen would go on to be the cinematographer for many classic movies, from Ringo Lam’s Full Contact to Jackie Chan flicks like Thunderbolt. His talent is obvious, as the cinematography here adds a layer of atmosphere that you wouldn’t normally expect to see from such a production. One particular scene plays out at night between Pearl Cheung and Ling Yun, as they meet on a deserted street with just a lantern blowing in the wind above them. The shifting light from the lantern, illuminating one character and then the other as it blows from side to side in the darkness, is possibly one of the most atmospheric shots I’ve seen in a kung fu movie of the era.
Events eventually come to a head with a finale which sees Wing facing off against Casanova Wong on the top of a cliff next to the ocean. This is the only time I’ve seen Wong play a white haired villain, and here, wearing a white general’s jacket complete with gold tassels and armed with a serrated edge sword, he fits the role well. It’s an intense showdown, but again Kong shows us that he’s not here to only give us two guys going at each other. Just as impressive as any of the moves on display, is the level of tension that’s built up. Again using realism, there’s a sense that every punch or kick genuinely hurts, and one slice of Wong’s weapon could kill. It’s a classical kung fu show down, in real world trappings, and it stands out as being all the more unique for it.
Watching Monk’s Fight now, over 35 years since it was first released, I have a distinct feeling that the movie was ahead of its time. Had it come out 10 years later, I’m sure it wouldn’t be the obscure title that it is today, and would possibly have been seen as a bold re-imagining of what could be done within the wuxia genre. Eschewing the scenes of heroes flying through forests and elaborate plots, Monk’s Fight is arguably more Sergio Leone or Akira Kurosawa than it is Chu Yuan or Chang Cheh. It won’t please everyone, but for those looking for something different than your standard kung fu movie, you’ve come to the right place. Now whatever happened to Yu Kong and Lee Wing!?
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 7.5/10