THE VICTIM is my favorite kung-fu movie.
It’s certainly not the best kung-fu movie ever made. It doesn’t have the most impressive action, or the most coherent plot. There are slow sections, lame comedy, and really obvious doubling. But I love it. It’s the first kung-fu movie I saw that had the physicality and brutality that typify many of the very best of the genre. It was my introduction to Sammo Hung as a leading man. Frankly, it opened up to me just how enjoyable a martial arts movie could be, and fed an intense love that has lasted to this day.
And it’s also damn fine movie. Despite those earlier reservations, the choreography is brilliant, and there’s a Leung Kar Yan performance at the center that just blows me away. The final ten minutes (linked here, so feel free to jump ahead) are so brilliant, I’m getting heart palpitations just thinking about. While it’s rarely listed among the best of the time period – it wasn’t a Golden Harvest production, and decent prints are hard to come by – there is no kung-fu film that gives me so much pure joy.
Sammo Hung was an extremely familiar entity in martial arts cinema by the late 70s. Coming from the same Peking Opera school as Jackie Chan and Yuen Baio, Sammo started has career as a child actor in 1961’s EDUCATION OF LOVE. Then in 1966 (when he was only 14) he began taking on roles in the SHAW BROTHERS productions (including COME DRINK WITH ME), and would serve various roles – extra, assistant choreographer, stuntman – in over 30 productions for the company. He would be more recognizable in the west for his brief role vs Bruce Lee in the opening scene of 1973’s ENTER THE DRAGON (he would later complete the choreography on GAME OF DEATH, Lee’s final film), but didn’t begin starring in films until Golden Harvest cast him in 1977’s SHAOLIN PLOT, quickly followed by his directorial debut, the kung-fu comedy THE IRON FISTED MONK. After the international success of DRUNKEN MASTER, Sammo co-directed (with Yuen Woo Ping) the similarly themed THE MAGNIFICENT BUTCHER – and that will definitely be features in an upcoming ENTER THE FIST since it’s amazing.
Outside of Golden Harvest, Sammo would also direct the Bruce Lee comedic tribute ENTER THE FAT DRAGON – where he would debut his “Fatty” character, a character (or variation on a character) that he would use in several films afterward – including 1980’s THE VICTIM. It might surprise you that this Fatty character is, indeed, fat. He’s also a kung-fu expert with a goofy sense of humor who is continually underestimated (and insulted) by opponents who don’t expect this tubby dude to be able to demolish them handily. Sammo plays into his image by packing his films with as much male nudity as possible, with THE VICTIM having an entire sequence taking place in a bath-house with dozens of semi-naked guys around. Comedy!
Sammo plays Chan-Wing (just called Fatty in the dubbed version – classy), a kung-fu expert who has made a promise to his family to become the student of whomever can beat him at kung-fu. His attempts to find a proper opponent are mostly played for comedic effect, though there is a great fight featuring a three sectional staff, and some goofy fun with a none-too-smart monk played by Karl Maka. Distressed at his lack of competition, Chan-Wing witnesses an accidental display of kung-fu skill by Leung Chun-Yau (Leung Kar Yan), and immediately starts badgering him to become his pupil. His attempts to be endearing bug the shit out of the no-nonsese Chun-Yau, who abuses dear Fatty at every turn – even while his wife feels obvious sympathy for the fat, dopey idiot sleeping in her front yard.
Up to this point you might think that Sammo’s Fatty is the main character in the film, but that’s just some subterfuge. You see, Leung Chun-Tau has a secret which keeps him running away from the bands of thugs that randomly show up at his house – and Chan-Wing finds himself confused, until the wife reveals all. Leung Chun-Yau was an orphan who was taken in by a wealthy kung-fu master, but was continually despised by his brother Jo-Wing (played by Chang Yi) who grew up to be a eye-patch wearing gang leader AND the biggest dick in the universe. How big, you might ask? Well, on Leung’s wedding day Jo-Wing decides, since he’s the big brother, to just go ahead and sexually assault his brother’s wife – who had spurned his advances years earlier. When he’s caught, he shows absolutely no remorse and even gets the wife’s brother (one of his cronies) to defend his attempted rape. All class.
So, a conflicted Leung (and wife) run away, and remain on the run until the adopted father gets sick, bringing Leung out of hiding. Of course, on such a distressing day I’m sure J0-Wing would be too classy to cause some sort of confrontation, right? Wrong! In fact, as soon as he leave’s the death bed, he’s immediately attacked by Jo-Wing’s men, who – of course – all get absolutely demolished. Leung Kar Yan thrives in these big fight scenes, believably taking on throngs of foes while assisted by Fatty Chan-Wing, and it makes for a great precursor for the series of (amazing) one-on-one fights that are to come.
But Leung’s wife is tired of all the bloodshed, and promises to give herself over to Jo-Wing if it means that the men will stop their pursuit of her husband. Just kidding! She immediately kills herself (!) which makes Jo-Wing SUPER pissed, while turning Leung into a revenge-fueled maniac. Now things get really good. Throughout the film there are brief interruptions where a figure shrouded in darkness has been hired to murder Leung Chun Yau, and the first time that I saw the film, this reveal totally blew me away. But I’m rather naive, so it’s likely that you’ve already figured it out.
This brings us to the final fifteen minutes and it’s a BARN BURNER. First we get Leung vs Wilson Tong, who shows off some amazing footwork and Hung Ga technique, before getting dispatched brutally. Seriously, the guys gets kicked in the balls AND his neck broken. Then it’s on to the climactic battled between Leung and Jo Wing and it definitely doesn’t disappoint. The two are equally matched, and the breathless action encompasses everything this is great about old-school kung fu. Absolutely mindblowing, and both guys bleed internally which is always nice to see.
You’ll noticed that I haven’t mentioned Fatty a lot in that paragraph. Well, to write more about that would be a pretty heavy spoiler, even for me, but needless to say Sammo gets taken out of commission before the big fight, leaving the focus entirely on the titanic battles which are to come. While his subplot does adequately come to a head, our emotional connection is with Leung, as it should be. There is a rather playful epilogue dealing with Leung Chun Yau burying his wife, and features Sammo speaking English, but it’s probably just an excuse to end the film on an appropriately goofy note after the violence that preceded it.
As is fairly commonly known, star Leung Kar Yan – often called “beardy” because he has a.. beard – has no formal martial arts training, which is ASTOUNDING when you watch him in action. His fighting here is absolutely amazing, often doing 10-15 moves without an edit and showing surprising force with his movements. Some of his more acrobatic moves are obviously doubled – most likely by Yuen Baio, who also contributed to the choreography – but considering that the final ten minutes are just constant fighting, Leung carries things wonderfully. He’s also a charismatic performer who brings a seething intensity to his role as a kung-fu master being pushed to the edge, giving some weight to what is ostensibly a kung-fu comedy.
THE VICTIM has massive flaws that I sort of glossed over in the plot summary. There’s a scene taking place in a graveyard with Sammo dressed as a Western style vampire which is both nonsensical and hurts the momentum, and the build up to his friendship with Leung (which climaxes in the film’s other AMAZING fight scene, where Sammo shows off some astounding tumbling as the two fight their way through a house) takes a bit too long to get rolling. Still, that final half hour has enough action to satisfy even the most jaded action movie fan, and despite the silliness it all ends up being surprisingly emotionally satisfying.
I love it. I can’t help it. It’s still an undiscovered gem by many, so track down a copy – there’s a fullscreen, dubbed DVD with a Ric Meyers/Bobby Samuels commentary available in the US, and a UK disc which features a widescreen and subtitled print of similar quality. If you can track it down, the latter is definitely the way you want to go. Alternatively, the whole thing is available to be watched on Youtube if you want to put in some minimal effort. Definitely worth your time. If you had a similar experience with a specific kung-fu movie that blew your mind and made you a life-long fan, please include it in the comments. Love to hear what turns your (figurative) cranks.
NEXT WEEK: THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967)