The Big Fight (1972)
On the surface, 1972's The Big Fight is just a normal knee-breaking, face-punching kung fu movie with some inordinately long talky scenes and a few pretty girls. But if you dig a little deeper into the subtext you see that it's really an examination of the tragic Chinese resistance to the Japanese invasion and occupation in the 1930s (long before WWII started). This was a hard time for China, with half its population enslaved and the nation in a constant state of conflict for an entire decade. We Americans (and, as always, I assume that you must be American if you have electricity to run your computer...) can't understand what it's like to be occupied by a foreign invader (yeah, yeah, a few months in 1812, whatever).
Production values are general high with this one, much higher than in the typical four-day shooting schedule kung fu quickies that the Orient is known for. The guys who can fight can also act and the girls who look cute can also kick your tail, real money was spent on sets and backgrounds, the camera-work and scene set-ups are excellent, and if it weren't for the predictably shoddy English dub, The Big Fight would be my new favorite kung fu movie of all time (sorry, Jet Li's Hero).
Here we go...
Our setting is the mid to late 1930s in a small mountain town in Northern China (Manchuria, or more properly Manchukuo, as the Japanese renamed it). This village is home to a Japanese occupation army garrison, and as such is a hotbed of sedition and rebellious sentiments. The story of China's brave, but ultimately doomed, resistance movement is virtually unknown in the West, though it's a story of honor and death and courage rivaling that of the (vastly overblown) French Resistance against the Nazis on the other side of the globe. White people write history books, simple fact.
Japanese troops on patrol.
We open as a 30something Chinese man is out walking along a road, pushing one of those funny-looking one-wheeled barrows that you only see in Chinese movies. He's our hero and he's played by...well, I don't have a clue because the credits are useless and the internet is no help. Whoever he is, he's typical of 1970's kung fu movie heroes, charming and honorable on average, but brutally violent when a wrong needs to be righted.
We see the hero ambush a Japanese patrol on the way back to his village from afar, killing all ten of them with his bare hands after the officer slaps him for not saluting him. The kung fu in this movie is pretty good and the fights show some thought and ingenuity. Any '90s style trampoline jumps are kept to a minimum and it never seems like anyone has any supernatural powers (catching knives in their teeth or staying airborne for minutes, that sort of thing). The Japanese use guns (though they can't hit anything), but the Chinese only use their hands and feet. The hero knows enough kung fu that his new name will now be KungFuGuy.
Love the bayonet.
KungFuGuy then goes to a tea house and meets a woman who is singing a screechy song for the patrons. A collaborationist comes to "check the books" and takes an interest in the girl, singing a raunchy little ditty about her breasts to chase her off the stage (for a second I thought it was going to be a musical karate movie!). KungFuGuy has to put the guy in his place (which would be on the ground, bleeding profusely). Throughout this movie, Chinese who collaborate with the Japanese are treated as even worse than the foreign invaders, though that's not surprising.
The woman is annoyed.
The girl turns out to be an undercover leader of the rebels, up in this area recruiting and organizing an uprising. She goes with KungFuGuy back to his village, where sympathies for the resistance are high. The girl is fairly pretty, and she follows the long Asian martial arts tradition of the killer cute chick with a sweet smile and stabbing fingers of steel.
She's got those odd slicked-down sideburns that you see in Chinese period movies, not attractive.
Along the way, near a saddleback pass, they come across a Japanese roadblock where travelers are shaken down for "tolls". They're not there ten seconds before they start slashing and punching everyone. We also get proof here that the perky singing girl is really a highly-trained kung fu ass-kicker (of course...). She will henceforth be known as KickAssGirl.
A Japanese soldier is amused with KickAssGirl, who then kicks his ass.
The on-screen technology level in this movie confuses me to no end. Buildings, furniture, and clothes look 17th century at best, and even in the villages there is nothing even remotely modern, no cars, no electricity, no running water, nothing that would be out of place in the Ming Dynasty 400 years ago. Only the evil Japanese soldiers have modern 1930's-era cartridge rifles and automatic pistols, as well as (gasp!) pants with belts and (gasp!) boots with soles. Was 1930s China really that backwards? I suspect this was a deliberate attempt on the filmmaker's part to clearly separate the peaceful, nature-loving Chinese apart from the vile, corrupt Japanese with their Devil Guns and their Satanic Telephones (cough cough Avatar cough). [Editor Pam: I've heard that away from the big cities, most of China really was pretty primitive in the 1930s. I'd expect to see at least the occasional car, though, and some modern clothing, so you're probably right.]
Not to mention all their soldiers look like Chad Kroeger from Nickelback.
Anyway, they eventually they reach the village and unpack at his family's house. There they meet his extended family of cousins and uncles, all of whom are secret members of the resistance and accomplished karate fighters (yawn). KungFuGuy has little time for politics, though, as he's finally back with his hot fiance and is probably looking for some nookie. It was a different era, however, and the most they do is some chaste gazing and walking together (after getting her mother's permission to be seen in public with her, of course).
Love the Jackie Kennedy haircut.
It turns out that KungFuGuy runs (or is affiliated with) a karate school here (gee, what a surprise...) where local guys train in martial arts and edged weapons (I can't believe the Japanese don't shut this place down). We meet a lot of the students and teachers, and watch them interact with KungFuGuy and his relatives. There's some real good, rich character development at work here, but people come and go so quickly in every scene, that they're gone before I can remember or recognize them.
Also in town is TraitorGuy, son of the village mayor, who is willingly collaborating with the Japanese (boo!). We know TraitorGuy is evil because he has a reverse-Hitler mustache and greased-down haircut and smokes his cigarettes from a holder (in fact, he's the only one who smokes all movie). TraitorGuy does everything you'd expect out of a dastardly collaborationist bastard, he slaps kids, he rapes women, he shakes down merchants, and he has the whole village scared of him (which is what he really craves). When we first meet him, he's out doing a census, because the Japanese want to know if any new people are moving into the area and why. He's "blood brothers" with KungFuGuy because when they were kids they both studied at the same karate school. This prior relationship will be a constant source of tension between them, as logic says they should kill each other, but they are honor-bound to respect and defend each other.
There are some filler scenes here in the second act, all surely designed to get to know the main characters (and the not-so main characters) better. The problem is that I can't keep all these Asian faces straight. Mostly this middle 25 minutes is just a blur of bad teeth, greasy hair and Chinese pajamas talking and running and conversing and glaring. I do remember seeing KickAssGirl and TraitorGuy get into a misunderstanding about her perceived lack of interest in his penis, and she fights off his minions with a rip-away skirt lined with sewed-on razor-sharp metal discs (that's pure awesome, right there).
Skirt of death!
TraitorGuy is pissed at this affront to his manliness and he conspires against KungFuGuy, who came to KickAssGirl's rescue earlier. TraitorGuy searches KungFuGuy's house and finds a bag of "unregistered salt", which while perfectly useful for making yummy french fries, can also be used for making gunpowder for the guerillas (Captain Kirk showed us the way against the Gorn). KungFuGuy is hauled to jail, where he's tortured by TraitorGuy a bit (without affect).
Who knew salt could get you in such trouble?
The OldKarateTeacher arrives and bails KungFuGuy out (his social credit in this village is high, as is typical in these movies). KungFuGuy is an honorable man, and even though he's been through a lot lately, he's still not convinced that violence is the answer to the problem (if he proposes a better solution, I missed it). The rebels, however, aren't too happy that he won't fight with them, which leads to some tense conversations.
Now, the bad guys are worried that the guerillas are recruiting in the village, and anyone who knows/is learning martial arts is suspect (rightfully so). Instead of just shutting down the karate school and arresting everyone with calloused hands, they devise a convoluted plan to weed out the potential rebels via a staged kung fu tournament. The Japanese will bring in a few top-shelf fighters to compete against the locals, which will serve the purpose of either killing or maiming any of the really dangerous fighters in the village, making any guerilla cell that much weaker. They are counting on the ego of the local fighters to get them to join the tourney, helped by frequent inflammatory comments about how Japanese men are better in the sack and how much better Toyotas are than Cherys.
The bad guys talk it out.
I know that the "true" kung fu fans out there (assuming they can read or have woken up from their 'roid rage hangover yet) will be drooling over the whole idea of a mixed martial arts tournament, with its blend of different ethnic fighting styles and traditional weapons, and that's ok. But I found myself quite disappointed by what I saw as an unwanted distraction from what was shaping up to be a rip-roaring spy-vs.-spy thriller. Sure, the tourney fights are pretty cool I guess (meh, seen one guy karate-chopping another guy, you've seen them all) but it seems like it was tacked on without much concern for the plot (which it drags down considerably).
At the tourney.
There are a few notable players here that bear mentioning just for their sheer novelty. One is a Japanese sumo wrestler dude, fighting for the bad guys, obviously. Standing a foot taller than anyone else, and weighing twice as much, the sumo is totally comfortable standing up there in a diaper. He eventually gets it handed to him by KickAssGirl, much to the crowd's glee.
Sumo dude (oh, that's too much skin).
Another is a Japanese samurai swordsman who looks like Sonny Chiba (perhaps purposely) and kills with little concern for consequences. He's so good with his katana blade that he can cut a bra strap from ten feet away!
Hey, just like Zorro!
The Samurai even kills KungFuGuy's son or nephew or cousin or something when the little kid jumps up on the stage to try his luck. Not too many movies (even the notoriously violent kung fu genre) will show you a grown man killing a young boy with a savage punch to the face, but then again, he is Japanese. I've said this before, but the Chinese and the Japanese hate each other to levels that we Americans just can't understand, especially so back in 1972 when this movie was made, back when a large percentage of the population of China had actually lived through the brutal occupation years. Even today, 80 years after the war, the two nations still don't get along.
Poor kid dies.
Anyway, KickAssGirl and her crew are busy planning an uprising, but the Japanese and their collaborationist allies strike the karate school first, slaughtering a bunch of fighters before they themselves are routed. While it's a cool battle, there's just so much punching and kicking and knife-swinging here that I can't really tell who is killing who anymore. KickAssGirl is in there somewhere, stabbing and flailing away, she's too cute to mistake for anyone else.
Battle for the school.
And now we have the big confrontation at the end (the titualar "big fight", I presume) as the rebels storm the town and duke it out with the Japanese garrison. Everyone is involved, from KungFuGuy and KickAssGirl, to all those other nameless extras and background fillers we've seen throughout the movie. In the midst of the general melee, KungFuGuy stabs the Samurai that killed that little boy in a one-on-one fight that seems to last forever. TraitorGuy is also killed after he's captured and insulted a bit, and the rebellion is in full swing.
No prisoners taken, no quarter given.
The ending is abrupt and jagged and the scissor-line even flashes at the bottom of the frame for a millisecond. A lot of these Hong Kong kung-fu films were three hours long or more in their original Cantonese versions, but were chopped up into more-marketable pieces by American distributors. One wonders if an extant version of this movie exists somewhere.
Still, 90 minutes of this is probably enough.
What we didn't get to see is the Japanese Army's reaction to the uprising. The Japanese didn't mess around with "bandits" operating in their rear areas, and they were not at all bound by the same rules of civil warfare that the Western nations still held up, and they would have brutally crushed the rebellion. The Japanese used the "Roman method" extensively, burning villages to the bedrock and executing all their inhabitants to make an example to others, and it actually proved to be pretty effective in Northern China for a time. And even if these rebels had somehow managed to hold off the Japanese long enough for WWII to end, their troubles were only starting. Mao's communists considered them enemies as well, and wiped out the wartime resistance movements that hadn't converted to their theology with almost as much fury as the Japanese had. The communists even employed Japanese Army troops against the rebels, as there were still a number of Japanese divisions in China long after the war who were now taking orders from the "new" Chinese government, fighting alongside their former enemies, as well as working with Soviet advisors, before they were evacuated back to Japan on, would you believe, US Navy ships (just amazing, if you think about it, Chinese post-war history is full of these mysteries). Anyway, go back to your American Idol now, the history lesson is over. [Editor Pam: I agree with you, Nate. I'm surprised the Japanese didn't put a stop to the tourney when it became clear they were losing, but even if they were overwhelmed by the awesomeness of the Chinese martial artists before they could do it, there's no way they could fail to try to put down a full-scale rebellion. And even the best martial artist is no match for a machine gun. However, it's only fair to point out that all nations were quite brutal to rebellions in what they considered their colonies, and this includes Western powers. Consider what the English did after the Indian Mutiny. Rules of warfare did not apply to those considered inferior, i.e. non-white.]
Written in February 2010 by Nathan Decker and edited by Pam Burda.
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