Fighting Life (1981)
Director: Kei Law
Starring: Frankie Shum, Jackie Conn, Sam Chung, and Thomas Hong

The Plot: San Jee Yung (Frankie Shum) is a man who was born with only one arm that happens to be little more than a flipper. His brother, Ah Chan (Jackie Conn), was born with legs that are unusable. While this has not made their lives very easy, the two do not allow their disabilities to get in the way of their work ethic. When the two decide that it is time for them to improve their lives, they decide to move to Tai Pei where their good friend Tiger lives. Unfortunately, Tai Pei isn’t everything that they had heard it was. The city may be huge, but the people are rude and it proves impossible for the two men to find work. Back in their hometown, no one gave the two brothers a hard time about their disabilities, but in Tai Pei, they can’t catch a break. Their lack of work regularly gets them in trouble with the landlord who happens to be an obnoxious woman who never seems to stop yelling. Ah Chan eventually finds work as a carpenter’s apprentice, but what he really wants to do is learn Taekwondo. Unfortunately, his older brother is deadset against this. Will the two men find work, and will they set aside their differences in order to find happiness?

The Review
How did I go through my adult life up until this point without knowing that there were two “sequels” to Crippled Masters? The bizarre obscurity that haunted cable channels late at night during the nineties, Crippled Masters was always that “go to” film for me when I wanted to blow minds. Featuring two real life crippled men, one man with deformed arms and the other with deformed legs, this bizarre martial arts title has become a cult favorite throughout the years. However, the accompanying sequels have hardly been as well known. Perhaps there was only room enough for one such film to exist, but Fighting Life definitely seems to continue in the same vein as its more well known brother. Focusing on these two characters as they must overcome their own disabilities, there is still the same heart and soul that makes Crippled Masters rather likable, despite its appearance as mere exploitation. While neither film will ever be accused of being top-of-the-food-chain martial arts cinema, there’s still something oddly alluring about these movies, and its more than just their bizarre nature.

Fighting Life is the third pairing between Jackie Conn (the gentleman without legs) and Frankie Shum (the gent without arms), two guys who one would assume were never expected to be leading men. Yet, despite having such heavy odds against them, both men are capable of putting on one heck of a show and keeping up with tremendous fight choreography. Their disabilities are in the limelight with these films, but the matter of it being pure exploitation is a bit on the debatable side. In the case of Fighting Life, this is a film that actually seems to have an even more progressive spin than the original Crippled Masters. While that original film certainly showed that these men were insanely talented and that they needed no one else in order to stand up to those who do wrong, Fighting Life goes for a more political stance. Focusing on two disabled characters who travel to Tai Pei during a financial downturn, these characters find themselves unable to get jobs – not because of their lack of ability, but because of pure prejudice. No one will hire a man who only has a flipper for an arm, and good luck finding a Taekwondo instructor who will take on a student with no legs. The film isn’t afraid to be rather blatant in its finger pointing. In one of the most potent moments in the film, we watch as a crowd gathers in the town square for an event meant to honor the disabled. Those responsible even erect a “sympathy gong” to strike for this event, but it doesn’t help Frankie Shum, who sulks around in the audience after having been turned down for yet another job.

The movie is far less a piece of exploitation as Crippled Masters was. There is no gory scene that depicts acid being poured on Jackie Conn’s legs, but instead this is a movie that is much more grounded in reality. Conn and Shum are brothers this time out who have apparently been deformed since birth. The two come to Tai Pei and discover a new world of adversity, and although they develop a core group who support them, the majority of society seems to be against them. The film focuses far less on martial arts for the most part and instead it becomes a slice-of-life tale that delves deep into the lives of the disabled. Although these two are known for their martial abilities, this is a movie that is more concerned with the relationship between the two sibling characters. In many ways, this also tends to hurt the film as well. Without using action as a central element, the script often moves away from Conn and Shum in order to flesh the movie out with humor and less-political elements. The moments where we see our two leads train and become better at their various crafts turns out to be the meat of the film, but mixed in with all of this is a treasure hunting subplot that takes up a considerable amount of screen time. This treasure hunt focuses on two bumbling fools who live in the same neighborhood as the protagonists, and their shtick is very tiring.

Most of the secondary characters throughout Fighting Life are a bit on the annoying side. Dubbed in by grating voice actors, the movie was not taken care of. While I normally appreciate cheesy dubbing, Fighting Life deals with content that is so serious that it seems like it would be better suited for a more sincere release. There are also several scenes that take place at night during the movie and they are nearly blacked out in most releases of this movie. Still, considering the taboo nature of this film’s content, it is hard to imagine it ever receiving a properly cleaned up release. Still, if you’re an interested reader, the releases that are available are certainly worth watching, even if they do hinder the movie a bit. Ultimately, this is a movie that gives the viewer what they want, while also delivering a fairly touching portrayal of disabled men who are able to overcome odds in a world that appears to fight them at every angle. So, if you’ve come into this movie to see Shum/Conn show off their physical abilities for the camera, then you will not be let down. Frankie Shum, in particular, manages to stand out as he puts on several “shows” for both the camera and the audience. As he tries to make it as a street performer, Shum takes the movie into some relatively meta territories. He performs for those in the scene, but also performs for the audience at home watching on home video. Pulling off several very impressive acts, such as picking up tons of change using his toes and then throwing it into his shirt pocket, this is where the movie fulfills most of its expected thrills. It takes us into circus act territory. However, the viewer is always standing behind Shum and always supporting him. The movie never has to say it, but it displays this as a valid way for the man to make money. Not because he is unable to do anything else, but because society won’t allow him to use his physical abilities to do anything other than to impress and entertain them.

The Conclusion
Fighting Life is far from being a great film. It certainly has issues. The mix of styles ultimately gives the movie an atmosphere of confusion, but the film is worth searching out just for the mature themes and the always impressive performances of Shum and Conn. It isn’t great, but if you’re a fan of Crippled Masters, I would recommend giving this film a shot sometime as well.

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