Although Jackie Chan and Yuen Woo-ping are usually credited as the men who kick started the Comedy Kung Fu boom of the late 70’s with the smash hits Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, the person with the best claim as progenitor of the boom was Lau Kar-leung, whose 1975 directorial debut The Spiritual Boxer featured all the hallmarks of the Chan/Wo-ping collaborations. The Spiritual Boxer was the most successful Kung Fu film of that year, but for the next three years Lau decided to stick with more dramatic stories that only occasionally dabbled in comedic subplots until 1979, when he unleashed not one but three bonafide Kung Fu Comedies. The first was a belated sequel to The Spiritual Boxer which is justifiably regarded as a rather mediocre blip in the director’s late 70’s output. The other two titles Mad Monkey Kung Fu & Dirty Ho are still considered classics of the genre, so it was with great anticipation that I sat down to view the latter of these classics, Dirty Ho to see if it lives up to its high reputation.
While the English title of Dirty Ho promises a different kind of action to what Lau Kar-leung specialised in, the original title Lan Tou Ho translates more literally as “Rotten-Head Ho”, which is a reference to the unfortunate affliction of the film’s leading character portrayed by Wang Yu. Ho is a club-headed young street thief and frequent visitor to the local night time establishments where he garners inordinate attention from the hostesses by lavishing them with the spoils from his crimes. He meets his match one evening when an extremely wealthy stranger named Wang (Gordon Lau Kar-fei) arrives at in town and starts flashing about the kind of cash Ho can only dream about. Unable to compete for the hostesses’ attention, Ho decides to sort matters out with his fists, but all attempts to land a blow on Wang end calamitously. Bearing a grudge for this incident, Ho follows Wang’s movements around town and repeatedly tries to exact some form of revenge on the wealthy playboy, but just like before his efforts always blow up in his face. Even more annoyingly for Ho is the fact that Wang seems completely oblivious to any aggressive intentions and treats the young punk like an old friend, constantly asking him to reform his ways.
Frustrations begin to escalate for Ho until one night he draws a dagger on Wang and somehow ends up receiving a blow to the head from a poisoned sword. Unable to heal the wound, he has no choice but to accept Wang as his master in order to receive the proper antidote to the poisons, which can only be administered weekly by a patch on the wound. With Ho reluctantly in Wang’s back pocket the two quickly form an antagonistic master-servant relationship as Wang flits between local wineries and antique dealers indulging in his favourite hobbies, but unbeknownst to Ho is the fact that Wang is secretly the 11th Prince of China and one of the favourites to succeed the Emperor when he steps down in a month’s time. Because of this, Wang’s evil brother the 4th Prince has sent a band of assassins to deal with his biggest rival for the crown. So while Ho might think that accepting Wang as his master was a wise choice at the time, he’s about to find out that this has put his health at a much greater risk than it was before….
Dirty Ho is Lau Kar-leung’s ode to the sneak attack. The entire story is set up around the premise of a prince desperately trying to conceal his identity as he mingles with the local commoners and reforms an arrogant young petty thief, all while defending himself against a band of equally secretive assassins sent after his life. It’s a set up that demands spools of imagination in order to deliver exciting action, because most of the fight sequences have to play out in a way which the audience can believe the people around Wang and the assassins are completely oblivious to what’s going on around them. Naturally at the same time Lau Kar-leung attempts to mine the comedy potential of mixing the calm, sophisticated prince with an irascible, oafish street urchin, who doesn’t have a clue that his rival is not only royalty but also highly skilled in Kung Fu. In fact, throughout the first half of Dirty Ho it is the comedy that dominates, but Lau Kar-leung wasn’t nearly as consistent when dealing with comedy as he was with action and the vast majority of the gags in Dirty Ho fall flat, leading to a very difficult first half. Stick with it though and you’re rewarded big time when the assassins arrive in town and Lau Kar-leung weaves fight sequences into and around the lame comedy set-pieces that are nothing short of inspirational.
One such sequence sees Wang take up an invitation to some wine tasting with a couple of would be assassins who are masquerading as a local wine brewer and his polite, unassuming assistant which features perhaps the most complicated choreography in the film. What follows is roughly seven minutes of intricately choreographed exchanges where the assassins desperately try to land a killer blow through crafty side blows, large ornamental chalices, and bulky wine kettles, all as Johnny Wang’s bumbling assistant looks on bemused at the tasters’ strict adherence to formalities. To watch this sequence really is to watch a master of the craft at work, not just behind but in front of camera as well, with three of the most talented members of Lau kar-leung’s crew: Johnny Wang, Hsiao Ho and Gordon Lau moving meticulously to the rhythm of the direction. As the fight goes on the parries get more complex and cover a wider area with each attack, and the shots get longer and longer until so many complicated movements are exchanged in each shot that you wonder how many takes it took for them to get everything down and into place. It really is a mind-boggling sequence, one that seems so effortless thanks in most part to the seamless timing of Lau Kar-leung’s editing - in fact it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that this sequence features some of the best fight-editing of his career.
Another major highlight of the film comes when another of Lau Kar-leung’s favourite stuntmen, Wilson Tong, puts in a cameo as an antiques collector/assassin whose lethal specialty is concealed blades in the soles of his shoes. As Wang peruses his vast gallery of antiques, Tong’s assassin whips kicks up, down and everywhere trying to catch the skilled prince off his guard. With less people involved and slightly less variation in the types of attacks, the choreography of this sequence is just slightly less impressive technically than the “wine tasting” sequence, but that still doesn’t stop Lau from opening his box of director’s tricks and employing some impressive use of slow motion, jump cuts and moody lighting to mix up proceedings. Wilson Tong also puts in a dazzingly display of footwork that demonstrates exactly why another legendary Kung Fu director, Sammo Hung, would later give him the nickname of “Foot Doctor”.
Unfortunately, while these sequences are genuinely impressive, the moment they’re over Dirty Ho reverts back to dull comedic interplay as Wang Yu’s character is thrust back into the spotlight. One such sequence sees a gang of cartoonish local heavies interrupt Ho and Wang from their Kung Fu training for the final confrontation that is just plain embarrassing, and drags on far too long before getting back to the conclusion of Ho’s training. When the final act does commence, it’s something of a mixed bag. Just before the concluding confrontation with Lo Lieh’s ruthless general, Ho and Wang have a brief battle with a gang of archers that features some truly memorable art direction and a short but impressive group fight, but then we get into the big finale and suddenly you realise that it’s going to be Wang Yu that’s doing all the shit-kicking here. Now, Wang Yu certainly had an impish charm about him that lent itself well to comedy, but he was never the most fluid of screen fighters working in the industry. Don’t get me wrong he puts in a commendable action performance in the final scenes of the film, but coming off the back of two awesome fight sequences involving the most talented guys in Lau Kar-leung’s stunt group, it all seems a little less fluid and more forced, which is a real shame.
The most enjoyable films in the director’s oeuvré had imaginative sitcom-esque set ups that made fun out of a strong clash of cultures, be it the East vs. West and Traditional vs. Contemporary clashes in My Young Auntie, or the rivalry between Japan and China and husband and wife in Heroes of the East. Dirty Ho shares some of the themes from these classics but its script has none of the creativity and it ends up suffering from the usual bipolar disorder that plagued the older Kung Fu comedies. So alas, Dirty Ho will forever remain an excellent action film marred by dull comedy interludes and an over-reliance on an actor whose proficiency in martial arts wasn’t nearly as high as those of his co-star. This makes the film difficult to recommend to someone who is looking for an introduction to Lau Kar-leung’s work, but those who are used to meandering Kung Fu comedies should find much enjoyment from the imaginative fight sequences.
PresentationPresented anamorphically at 2.34:1, Dirty Ho’s print has been restored to the usual high standards of the Celestial Shaw releases. What a shame then that IVL see fit to transfer them to DVD via tape, resulting in horrible interlacing problems on progressive screens. This major annoyance aside, Dirty Ho is looking pretty good; colours are generally bold and well defined, while flesh tones look rather natural. Contrast and brightness levels are fine but black levels are a little high, reducing shadow detail. The compression could be better -there’s noticeable noise during various scenes - and the image is overly soft, although half the time because the cameras used were out of focus.
The audio options are Cantonese DD5.1 or Mandarin DD5.1. Normally I approach IVL’s 5.1 tracks with dread - especially when it comes to Lau Kar-leung’s films as they’ve given some of his films horrendous 5.1 audio remixes. Thankfully that isn’t the case here, both audio tracks are essentially monaural, with almost all the sound emanating from the centre speaker and the stereo speaker being assigned to faint background sounds. For the purposes of this review I sat through the film twice so I could listen to both tracks in their entirety and I can report that both feature audible dialogue and reasonably good dynamics. The Mandarin audio has had a little work done on it, smooth out some of the harsher sounds but at the same time resulting in slightly more muffled bass. The Cantonese DD5.1 is noticeably more shrill, but it’s bass is tighter so there isn’t an out-and-out winner here in terms of quality. I can only recommend that you listen to the Cantonese track as this should’ve been the language the film was initially released in.
Optional Chinese and English subtitles are included, with no spelling or grammatical errors that I can recall.