Mad Monkey Kung Fu (1979)
Director: Liu Chia-Liang
Writers: Ni Kuang
Starring: Liu Chia Liang, Hou Hsiao and Kara Hui.

The Plot: Chen (Liu Chia-Liang) is a stage performer, specializing in monkey Kung Fu, who puts on shows along with his sister. Tuan (Lo Leah) is a rich man who takes a shining to Chen’s sister and desperately wants to bed her. When he invites the brother and sister duo to his home, he has a plan of trickery that will see him nab this woman up for his own. His plan involves getting Chen drunk to the point of passing out, and then placing him in a room with Tuan’s wife who pretends to have slept with the drunken man. Tuan then pretends to be enraged, threatening to have Chen killed for this crime, which prompts Chen’s sister to offer herself as a concubine/slave in retaliation for her brother’s transgression. Despite already winning the prize he so wanted, Chen’s sister, Tuan also adds to the stipulation a demand that Chen’s hands be crippled via a severed beating. After the crippling, Chen is forced into living as a street performer, taking up a life of poverty. While wandering the streets he meets a fellow urchin in the form of Monkey (Hou Hsiao) who looks and acts like a monkey. Monkey has a lot of promise, as he has all of the movements down, but he has much to learn. Chen soon takes him under his wing and begins teaching the young man what he knows about Kung Fu. Will Chen have his revenge through his new pupil?

The Review
If this particular Kung Fu Christmas has taught me anything, it is a strong appreciation for the work of Liu Chia-Liang. While I had always considered myself a fan of his work previously, going through these films that are new to me, it has shown me the real reason so many are in love with his work. Seeing the consistency in his work, it has really opened a new series of doors for me. He was an active director, but never the workman that Chan Cheh was, so his content tends to be a bit more on the reliable side. He has a rich martial arts filmography, that despite only being a quarter the size, is arguably as important if not more important than Chang Cheh’s. Chia-Liang was interesting in the fact that he did his own choreography, and as is the case with this film today, also sometimes starred in his own films. A consummate perfectionist, he is known to be hard on his actors and push them to their very limits. While he does co-star in this film himself, due to how spectacular the choreography is one gets the idea that he was no less hard on himself as he dazzles the audience with scenes of acrobatic nimbleness and intensely difficult choreography.
Mad Monkey Kung Fu is a title that has been on my list for a little while now, mainly due to my somewhat immature interest in monkey style Kung Fu. I tend to enjoy such films in the same way that a child would, as I snort and giggle whilst watching. I have been known to utter “huh huh, they move like monkeys!” every so often, I must confess. I had read beforehand that Mad Monkey Kung Fu may be one of the finest examples of this style within all of Kung Fu cinema, and after watching I suppose I would be hard pressed to disagree. Liu Chia-Liang finds that perfect balance of over-the-top monkey theatrics, with a legitimate looking style of choreography. Liu Chia-Liang was a renowned martial artist outside of the movie business, and he brings that to his choreography as he keeps the movements looking impossibly fluid, but at the same time you can absolutely believe in the martial arts. Sure, people are still fighting for several minutes without so much as landing one blow, but the movements are so fast and have the appearance of being real that it is easy enough to lose yourself within the context of the film.

The movie opens up strong, with a sequence that inevitably leads to a quick showdown between Liu Chia-Liang and Lo Lieh. Chia-Liang in this lead role is really fantastic in terms of the fight choreography. Although he always looks good when he is doing his own work, he looks especially good here as he really sells the monkey style. With this role, it is easy to see why so many have continually praised his portrayal of monkey-fist. He is so nimble and limber in his movements, especially during this first fight sequence where he gets to show his most in-depth work. His character punches, kicks and becomes so heavily involved in the conflict that he ties his opponents up like pretzels. The initial fight with Lo Lieh is interesting because we actually get to see Liu Chia-Liang drunk whilst fighting off all of these goons, so in essence he begins to use a drunken monkey style of Kung Fu which foreshadows his eventual feature film Drunken Monkey! Lo Lieh is great here as well, but comes across seemingly sluggish in comparison to Chia-Liang. It works for him though, similar to Jimmy Wang Yu or Sonny Chiba who never had a “pretty” style but always came across as effective.
This is a Shaw production, so that gives the film a lot of the excellent perks that the studio did provide for these martial arts epics. The sets are startling in their beauty, showcasing a really massive brothel area that doubles as Lo Lieh’s gang headquarters. The sets, which are finely decorated in red and gold, serve as a doorway in increasing our belief in these projects. I absolutely love the majesty that these films, which by today’s standards would be considered very cheap, can attain. I believe Mad Monkey Kung Fu is simply one film amongst many that showcase this ideal of making ‘more’ from considerably ‘less’. Liu Chia-Liang also deftly manages the camerawork as the action always remains apparent and easy to keep up with, as the choreography becomes more and more complicated. I also really liked a couple of musical cues throughout the movie as well. Although most Kung Fu movies from this time and era seemed to share the same soundtrack, there are a few unique touches throughout Mad Monkey Kung Fu that it becomes worth noting. There are touches of the regular stock music used, as well as some funky style rhythmic drumming that really sets the movie apart and crafts something original.

The movie isn’t without its problems however, as you can maybe guess. This is a monkey style Kung Fu film about vengeance, so just how original can it really be? The answer is that it’s not. As is the case with many of the better martial arts titles out there, you have to sort of accept the stock scripts and the reliance on film cliches. Such is the case with Mad Monkey Kung Fu as well. What makes the film exciting and fun however are the things that it does with spectacular originality, such as the fight sequences or the use of humor throughout. These are films about escapism and we generally judge that escapism depending on how entertaining something tends to be. Here we have the amazing choreography that I’ve already mentioned, as well as the excellent training sequence that takes up a good portion of the running time. Liu Chia-Liang, thanks in no small part to his work with The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, is ostensibly the father of training sequences in martial arts and he doesn’t let the audience down with this film either. His use of two simple ropes in the film, for Hou Hsiao to demonstrate his skills upon, is rather ingenious to say the least. Then we have the impossibly long, and questionable in their effectiveness, handstands that both Liu Chia-Liang and Hou Hsiao endure whilst training so that they can use such handstands later on during their fight sequences. Is it ridiculous? Sure, but the entertainment factor is through the roof!

The Conclusion
I should have probably mentioned this by now, but Hou Hsiao is the true “star” of this picture and not Liu Chia-Liang who plays a secondary character. The actor isn’t as well known as his director, but he does an excellent job in portraying the choreography and he has a true charisma about himself in this role. He provides much of the comedy and is generally very likable in the role. So, yeah, I liked him and I loved this movie! Sure, it may not be the most original or unique picture on the planet but it features genre-staples done to perfection and ways that you have never seen. I give the film a four out of five stars and I hope that others have the opportunity to track this one down!