Half a Loaf of Kung Fu (1978) Half a Loaf of Kung Fu / Yi Zhao Ban Shi Chuang Jiang Hu (1978/1980/1985) *½

     Before 1978, Hong Kong martial arts movies had been many things, but it was extremely unusual for them to be funny. Drunken Master changed that, touching off a years-long explosion of kung fu comedies, and creating a whole new constellation of star actors who shared some of Jackie Chan’s talent for combining zany slapstick with breathtaking displays of martial arts prowess. Just the same, if you were really serious about funny kung fu, Chan himself was the man you wanted if at all possible. That put independent producer Lo Wei in a unique position. Some months before Drunken Master, Lo had humored Chan, director Chen Chi-Hwa, and screenwriter Tang Ming-Chi by greenlighting Half a Loaf of Kung Fu, a chaotic farce about a dishonest and lazy young man bullshitting his way into genuine heroism. Lo was appalled when he saw the finished product, and locked it away in the company vault, where it could never besmirch the hard-won good name of Lo Wei Productions. But as the vogue for kung fu comedies wore on, and as Jackie Chan’s stardom shone ever brighter, it inevitably occurred to the producer that he had something nobody else could offer: he had Chan’s very first comedy. Eventually, in 1980, temptation overmastered shame, and Lo released Half a Loaf of Kung Fu after all. It wasn’t a huge success, but its domestic box office take was still two or three times that of Lo Wei Productions’ early, straight-faced Chan vehicles. Half a Loaf of Kung Fu even got picked up for American release in 1985, during the twilight of the independently owned and operated commercial theater! Just the same, I’m inclined to say that Lo was right about this movie’s prospects in the context of early 1978. It’s a lousy film for most of its length, and if it had come out when there was no Chanmania, and no kung fu comedy boom to prop it up, Half a Loaf of Kung Fu might even have prevented those phenomena from coming to pass in the first place.

     Jiang Tou (Chan, also in The Fearless Hyena and The Big Brawl) needs a job— but preferably not the kind that would require him to work, you know? Because he’s extremely agile and athletic, with genuinely impressive gymnastic abilities, he’s hoping he might bluff his way into a post as some rich sucker’s bodyguard. However, at the villa where he attempts that scam, there’s an entrance examination designed expressly to filter out con men like him. The chief of security there (Yu Bong, who played similarly minor roles in Kung Fu Girls and Wandering Dragon) has armpit stink stronger than Jiang, and it’s all the hapless applicant can do to keep pelting him from a distance with eggs and live chickens from the villa owner’s coop until he manages to flee the premises. Somewhat chastened, Tou settles for a houseboy gig at the palace of Mr. Wan (Miao Tian, from A Touch of Zen and Love of the White Snake). Jiang, however, lasts just long enough in the position to enjoy a square meal and a nap (during which he dreams of being the badass he so signally isn’t in real life), because he quickly runs afoul of his employer’s honored guest (Julie Lee Chi-Lun, of The Eight Immortals and Gecko Kung Fu), whom the rest of the household staff take to be a witch. That may or may not be true, but she is the matriarch of a bandit mob called the Poison Clan, and she doesn’t take kindly to being peeped on through keyholes. Jiang escapes her wrath with his life, but the fellow who was conducting his employee orientation (Chui Yuen, from Dragon Fist and Spiritual Kung Fu) is not so lucky.

     Obviously the smart move at this point is for Tou to slip out of town as quickly and quietly as possible. New trouble finds him even in the surrounding woods, however, when he blunders onto the scene of a duel to the death between the “whip hero” Lu Lu-Long (The Face Behind the Mask’s Ma Ju-Lung) and the notorious highwayman So Dai-Chung (Li Min-Lang, from Calamity of Snakes and Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin). Jiang manages to keep out of sight until the two combatants kill each other, and then finds something extremely relevant to his interests on Lu’s corpse: a wanted poster advertising a $500 reward for the capture or slaying of So Dai-Chung. That’s a lot of money for Jiang— enough to make him rethink his decision to go on the lam despite the risk of running into either Wan or Poison Lady in the future. But because Jiang also helps himself to Lu’s very distinctive whip (with which he poses a much bigger danger to himself than to anyone else, by the way), he is mistaken for its rightful owner when he comes before the local oligarchs to collect the bounty.

     There are advantages to having people think you’re a famous defender of the downtrodden, of course. Lots of folks want to buy a whip hero a drink, and small-time street-corner toughs are in no hurry to tangle with one. On the other hand, the real Lu Lu-Long was hated by every criminal organization in the province (including but by no means limited to the Poison Clan), so maintaining the imposture could rapidly become hazardous to Jiang’s health. For instance, that guy in the wicker hat with the pinky-orange hair (Lin Chao-Hsiung, of Ape Girl and Three Shaolin Musketeers) doesn’t look at all like someone whom Tou would want following him around if he had any choice in the matter, and while the old man who also takes to spying on him (Lee Man-Tai, from The Devil’s Skin and The Killer Meteors) seems less overtly sinister, it’s surely bad news for Jiang that the latter knows he isn’t the real whip hero. But before any of that gets a chance to matter, Jiang has a curious run-in with an incessantly farting young beggar (Dean Shek Tin, of The Seven Coffins and Eighteen Fatal Strikes) who, in exchange for a few coins from his fraudulently acquired bounty, teaches him a wee bit of kung fu to go along with his otherwise empty reputation. It isn’t much— just an en-passant arm bar and hip check called the Concubine technique— but unlike any of the improvised moves that Tou tried in his failed attempt to become a bodyguard, it actually kind of works.

     It’s a good thing, too, because Jiang is destined in the very near future for a reunion with both Mr. Wan and the mistress of the Poison Clan. The Concubine technique isn’t enough to defeat either of them, of course, but it saves Tou from being killed long enough for his two stealthy stalkers to come to his rescue. First Mr. Wan is taken out by an envenomed dart hurled by Flamingo Hair, and then the old dude intervenes more conspicuously against Poison Lady. Do you even need to be told that a geriatric weirdo in a kung fu movie is the greatest living master of some advanced fighting discipline? No, of course not. Recognizing when she’s outmatched, Poison Lady withdraws from the fray, at which point Jiang comes to a recognition of his own regarding the sheer depth of the shit that he’s inadvertently waded into. He immediately begins pestering Dragon Fist Geezer to take him on as a student, but the old man isn’t having it. If Jiang is Lu Lu-Long, the famous whip hero, then he can’t possibly have anything to learn from such an old fogey, Dragon Fist or no— and if he isn’t Lu Lu-Long, then he’s a swine without honor who doesn’t deserve the secrets of the Dragon Fist. Eventually, though, Tou wears the old man down just a little. He’ll teach Jiang his Dragon Fist kung fu, but only on the condition that Tou first carry out an important mission, delivering a certain small item to a man by the name of Fung Wei (Lee Hae-Ryong, of Hard Bastard and Dragon Lee Fights Again) at a tavern in a neighboring town.

     Unsurprisingly, Jiang is not immediately successful in his mission for the old master. He goes to the tavern alright, but instead of meeting with Master Fung, he gets distracted mooning over a pretty girl (Doris Lung Chun-Erh, from Jade Fox and The 18 Bronze Girls of Shaolin) whom he’s too thick to realize is his intended contact’s daughter. Then he gets distracted again by the siren song of petty crime, pick-pocketing a pair of big galoots (Gam Sai-Yuk, of The Zodiac Fighters and Snake Woman, and Kao Chiang, from A Co-Ed’s Diary and The Hand of Death) who were annoying staff and customers alike by having a drunken punch-up in the dining room. Trying to get while the getting is good after that, Jiang once again runs into that flatulent beggar, who teaches him two more kung fu moves— a strike called the Steel Finger and a duck-and-block called Bow to the King— before wandering off to stink up some other place. Tou has occasion to put both techniques to the test almost immediately, when he runs afoul of the Galoot Brothers on the road out of town. Jiang is in the process of getting his ass kicked when he ducks into a seemingly abandoned house and comes face to face with Fung Wei. Fung chases off the Galoot Brothers, and at last reveals that there is in fact a plot operating somewhere within this film.

     It happens that Fung Wei is Dragon Fist Geezer’s nephew. He and his retinue are transporting two priceless treasures— a broad-spectrum poison antidote called the Evergreen Jade and a second drug called the Soul Pill, which can actually counteract death if swiftly administered— from Who Knows Where to Search Me, and Fung was sufficiently observant back at the tavern to notice and recognize the trinket which Jiang was supposed to deliver hanging from its cord around the lad’s neck. Fung knows no better than Jiang what the old man really intended by bringing them together, but it’s a safe bet that he has a plan of some kind. Meanwhile, the beggar with the brimstone ass turns out to be Dragon Fist Geezer’s apprentice, and a designated player in his mysterious scheme as well. He surfaces a third time right after Jiang’s impersonation of Lu Lu-Long is exposed once and for all by the whip hero’s sister (Kim Jeong-Nan, from Tigress and Bruce and Shaolin Kung Fu), and impresses upon Tou that the reason why he hasn’t benefited from any of the beggar’s instruction so far is because he’s a lazy sack of shit who wants everything handed to him. Hearing his faults laid out so explicitly results in a major change of heart, and Jiang dedicates himself going forward to becoming worthy of the trust and confidence that all these strangers have so inexplicably placed in him.

     That’s all well and good, but before Jiang can make much headway on fulfilling his vow, Fung’s treasure caravan falls into a triple ambush. First on the scene is the bandit mob led by Flamingo Hair’s master, Iron Palm (Chiang Long-Sheng, of Beggars Have No Equal and Magnificent Bodyguards). Fung and his retinue (which by this point includes both Jiang and the Lu girl) are having a rough time of it already when the Poison Clan launches an attack of its own. Paradoxically, however, the Poison Clan onslaught functions almost as a rescue, because the two mobs fall to fighting each other in preference to their ostensible targets. The same goes for the Galoot Brothers, who try to slip out with the goods (despite having no clue what those actually are) amidst the chaos, but get pinned down fighting Flamingo Hair instead. Indeed, so confusing is the general melee that Fung’s caravan manages to get away without any further casualties, although their losses have already been heavy enough.

     Matters grow considerably more serious for our heroes from there. Fung was seriously injured fighting Iron Palm, while Lu’s sister was felled by an agent of the Poison Clan soon after the retreat. Luckily, they’ve been carrying around exactly what’s needed to deal with both of those eventualities, right? There’s no magic drug for betrayal, however, and Fung’s most trusted retainer, Mao (James Tin Chuen, from The Dragon Tamers and Mr. Vampire, Part II), is a double agent! Worse yet, the three rival bandit factions spend the downtime following their first, unsuccessful attack concluding an alliance, so that the next time they waylay Fung, they’ll be able to present a united front. And as if all that weren’t enough, there’s an Extra-Special Bonus Villain (Chin Kang, of Shaolin Kung Fu Mystagogue and Killer Dragon Returns) waiting in the wings on a quest to avenge his son… who I guess was one of the lesser baddies who’ve gotten killed along the way? Good thing Jiang really has been studying the shit out of the Dragon Fist manual, even if he’s still got a couple chapters to go when the time comes to put his learning to use.

     This feels like something of a turning point for me. Watching Half a Loaf of Kung Fu, I feel for the first time sufficiently confident in my esthetic judgment of a kung fu film to say, “Nah, man— this movie fucking sucks.” It’s a barely coherent picaresque that lacks the self-assurance to remain one of those, and finally shoehorns in a plot that it’s ill-equipped to support. The very weird opening credits, which successively spoof half a dozen previous martial arts hits, together with the dream sequence during Jiang’s brief tenure as Mr. Wan’s houseboy, promise an altogether more sophisticated— and more importantly, altogether funnier— style of comedy than the rest of the film delivers. What we actually get is, in the main, Ritz Brothers-grade slapstick and barely-trying toilet humor, with each feeble gag underlined by the silliest possible sound effects or musical stings. New characters with no discernable personality traits are introduced in confusing droves throughout the film, and are generally identified only in retrospect, if they’re identified at all. Extra-Special Bonus Villain Ying Fu is the most egregious example, because his existence is never so much as hinted at prior to his appearance halfway through the climactic battle, and at least in the English dub, it’s never entirely clear who he’s even supposed to be. The most thematically apt interpretation would make him So Dai-Ching’s father, since that would turn Ying Fu’s last-minute intervention into the final punishment for Jiang’s misappropriation of Lu Lu-Long’s identity and renown, and maybe that’s actually correct. Again, though, there’s no way to be sure on the basis of the version I watched. And incredibly, even most of the fight scenes are distinctly lackluster given what I know at least some of the performers were capable of, and go on long enough to wear out their welcome.

     But then comes the final showdown between Fung’s allies and the united banditry of an entire province. For this sequence and this sequence alone, Half a Loaf of Kung Fu gets just about everything right, in ways that prefigure the triumph of Drunken Master. Jackie Chan’s fight choreography comes into its own at last, to say nothing of his onscreen performance. The combatants start displaying some hints of individuality in their fighting styles, even it’s too late for them to develop individuality in any other form. Best of all, the jokes start landing along with the punches and kicks. The “spoofing the hits” tease from the opening credits attains just a bit of fruition, the slapstick takes on a fantastical, absurd edge, and the score starts working with the jokes instead of just baldly asserting their supposed funniness. And despite stretching on for a preposterous seventeen minutes, the ultimate clash is so well paced, and so dramatically constructed that it retains its interest and excitement to the very end, in a way that none of the previous, much shorter fights ever managed.

     My favorite aspect of the climax, though, because it makes such inventively absurd use of a premise taken far past its logical conclusion, is the running gag with the Dragon Fist manual. Remember how I said that Jiang never quite finished reading the thing? Well, he understands how that might place him at a disadvantage, so he brings it with him into the final fight, and sneaks peeks at it whenever he gets the chance. The joke comes into full flower when Jiang squares off against Ying Fu, who is of course impervious to any of the techniques that Jiang has already studied. At one point, the pages of the manual get scattered all over the battlefield, and the duel becomes a frantic, running affair as the outmatched youth scrambles in pursuit of one Lost (or rather, Mislaid) Kung Fu Secret after another. I truly do not understand how it’s possible for this sequence and the entire rest of Half a Loaf of Kung Fu to belong to the same movie.



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