Film – Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow
Year of release – 1978
Country – Hong Kong
Stars – Jackie Chan, Yuen Siu Tien, Hwang Jang Lee
Dir – Yuen Woo Ping
Perhaps not as well know or beloved as it its loosely related follow up, Drunken Master, Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow is still worthy of it’s place amongst the greatest Martial Arts movies of all time. As much as any Hong Kong movie from the 70’s, it represents the vanguard of the genre. It skilfully blends together excitement, humour and thrills in spite of its relatively small budget (in modern terms), and announced the talents of Jackie Chan and Yuen Woo Ping to the world. These two would go on to have huge influence over the Martial Arts Movie genre and cement their status as cinema legends.
Jackie Chan plays Chien Fu, an orphaned ‘man-child’, eaking out a meagre existence as the put upon janitor of a martial arts school. He is bullied by his master, Teacher Li ( the always entertaining Dean Shek) and literally used as a punching bag by the students. Thanks to the kindness of a friendly old man( Yuen Siu Tien) who he attempts to rescue, Chien is able to gain some confidence and a few nifty skills for dodging the bullies. As a relationship develops between them, it is revealed that the old man is none other than Pai Cheng Tien, the last surviving member of his clan that practice Snake style Kung Fu. Pai is in hiding from the villainous Lord Sheng Kuan ( Hwang Jang Lee), leader of a rival clan that practice Eagle style Kung Fu. If you have any familiarity with the the genre, you’ll know that there’s simply no room for competing styles within a movie, one must go! After a sneak attack from two Eagle style clan members leaves Pai wounded, he begins to teach Chien the Snake fist style. Unfortunately, a scrap with the regional kung fu champion means Chein inadvertently leads the Pai’s enemies directly to him and what follows is one brilliantly choreographed fight scene after another, as Chien and Pai smash their way through various Eagle clan cronies until they face a final, dramatic showdown with Sheng Kuan.
This movie really is outstanding, both from a presentation and production point of view. The Martial Arts choreography is fantastic, every punch and kick is delivered with a flair and style that had rarely been seen at that time. Yuen Woo Ping made his directorial debut with this film, and from the very start his eye for dramatic visuals and story-telling through actions are evident. By the way, the name should sound vaguely familiar to you, even if you aren’t a Martial Arts movie fan, Woo Ping was the martial arts choreographer for The Matrix, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Kill Bill and many others. When you realise the scope of the career Woo Ping has gone on to have, it makes you appreciate the many barriers and conventions he broke down or tropes he reinvented with this film. The intricacy of the fights highlight the skills that the actors bring to the table and the ability he displayed to spot what works on screen and would have audiences enthralled.
He and rising star Jackie Chan bring a wonderful sense of fun and freshness to the film, with Chan in particular going on to firmly establish himself as the king of ‘Kung Fu comedy’. The character interactions between Chan and Dean Shek in particular are ‘laugh out loud’ funny, and Chan’s gift for physical comedy never ceases to amaze and entertain. Siu Tien is delightful as the mischievous old Pai, a role he excels in. He plays the part so well in fact, he virtually plays exactly the same character in Drunken Master and inspire a flood of imitators. The script work is fine, nothing too taxing, but it would be wrong to expect anything otherwise from a late 70’s Hong Kong Kung Fu movie, and the actors certainly bring their lines to life with simple facial expressions or sight gags, and as I mentioned before, it’s the martial arts on display that tells the really story.
All in all, Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow is a great first movie to start you all off with on this journey into Martial Arts Movie Madness, it’s an innovator that has no shame in playing up it’s fun and frivolous side, whilst delivering kick ass thrills and spills that only the truly cynical couldn’t enjoy! If you have never seen it before, you can find a DVD copy from most good retailers, many of which have been re-mastered to improve upon some of the colouring and editing. You can also watch it on Youtube here but I would advise seeing it in the highest quality possible to truly appreciate it’s genius.
Right, that’s it for today, be back soon with another classic!