Saturday, August 13, 2011

Mantis Fist Fighter (aka The Thundering Mantis)

                                                 Director: Wing Cho Yip
                                        Starring: Liang Chia Jen, Eddie Ko,

One of the most memorable of the late 70s kung fu films. It provided genre fave Liang Chia Jen with arguably his quintessential role and contained what is certainly one of the most shocking climaxes in the history of old school martial arts cinema.

In Mantis Fist Fighter, Liang portrays Ah Chi, a well meaning, but somewhat simple minded student of a kung fu school. He openly opposes the local thugs, making fools out of them in the process. This incurrs the anger of the gang's leader, a feared Eagle Claw master (played to ferocious perfection by Eddie Ko). Concerned about Chi's actions, the headmaster dismisses the rambunctious student. Chi then befriends a boy martial arts prodigy who also has been giving the gang all kinds of trouble. It turns out the kid's grandfather is a noted Praying Mantis practitioner. Chi begs the old master to teach him, but is turned down. Only through the Grandson's help does Chi manage to trick the old master into taking him in as his student and the three of them form a strong bond.

Up until this point, the film plays like a typical post Jackie Chan kung fu comedy. A good one, but nothing really exceptional. It isn't until the final thirty or so minutes that the film's true heart of darkness is revealed (and we are talking pitch black, here). Because of Chi's and the boy's continual trouble making ways, the Eagle Claw master seeks out the grandfather and after a lengthy battle, kills him. Upon return from town, our heroic, but mischievous pair come upon the dead master. What we expect is for the two of them to briefly grieve and then swear revenge (as is typical in these films). What we get is something decidedly different. The pair's shock and grief is profound and over the top. So much so that the boy becomes ill and passes out. Chi brings him to a friend, a fish vender to help him get well. However the gang has followed the pair. They murder Chi's friend (who blames Chi as he's dying) and capture Chi and the boy. They are both tortured and the boy dies. This is where Chi's mind snaps. In a fit of guilt and sheer rage, he goes completely mad. He transforms into a twitching, frothing, growling animal and lays waste to the entire gang. He also becomes cannibalistic and after killing the Eagle Claw leader, begins to dine on him.

There was reportedly much audience shock when it first hit Hong Kong theaters in 1980 as well as when it was released to stateside theaters two years later. This ending was as savage and disturbing as anything yet shown in kung fu movies of this vintage. To see Liang's slow witted hero get put through the ringer like that and watch him come out the other end as nothing less than a sub human beastie, literally tearing the villain to shreds with the final act of cannibalism was and is a breathtaking viewing experience. It's a downer, but one that will send your jaw smacking to the floor.

Directed by Wing Cho Yip and and with fight choreography by madman Robert Tai (who helped develop and choreograph the early Venom Mob films), Mantis Fist Fighter is a film with an ending that can still pack a whallop, even after multiple viewings. Essential for old school kung fu buffs.

                                                              *** / ****

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