The Secret Rivals (1976)
Director: Ng See Yuen
Writers: Tung Lu
Starring: John Liu, Hwang Jang Lee and Don Wong Tao

The Plot: In Korea, a powerful lord, who is of Chinese descent, has established a massive martial arts tournament. The plan is to get the world’s greatest fighters together and see just who is the most dominant. When they declare a winner, they promise to use this fighter as a bodyguard for the rich lord. Unfortunately, the winner will then have the crosshairs turned right back on him. It seems that the evil Silver Fox (Hwang Jang Lee) has paired with this Chinese lord, and they are hoping to get away with murder once the winner is announced. This tournament inevitably draws in a slew of strangers, and it seems that no one is able to keep up with the influx of new faces. Amongst this crowd is Shao Yi-Fei (John Liu), a stranger with kicking abilities far outside of the normal, and Shang Ying Wai (Don Wong), who is a deceptively strong fighter that seems to be able to absorb nearly any strike. When Shang Ying Wai enters the tournament, he does so only to prove a point to the brash European champion who has entered. After this lesson is taught he intends to dismiss the bodyguard position, but the Chinese lord is quite persuasive. When he finally agrees, it turns out that he must meet the Silver Fox. It seems that both Shang Ying Wai and Shao Yi-Fei both have issues with this Silver Fox as well, but will they ever manage to work together in order to defeat him?

The Review
I talked at great length in my The Bloody Fists review about what Ng See Yuen did for martial arts cinema, but this is a man who really did change the face of kung fu cinema in many drastic manners. Although he was a workman-like director, his contributions to the genre have been noted several times over. The Secret Rivals was the first film he made after leaving Golden Harvest, and its success gave new life to Hong Kong independent film during the mid-seventies. This in turn gave way to numerous action film stars in the future who would make it without the help of the bigger studios. He was also very wise in judging talent, and with this film alone he found John Liu, Hwang Jang Lee and Don Wong Tao. A gold mine of athletic talent if ever the world had seen, this was a movie that brought so many great artists to the forefront. While we look back on this film as having a huge cast, at the time of its creation it had to be a slightly risky production, because not one of these actors was even a b-lister at the time. While the Shaw Brothers studio dominated the marketplace for the most part, this newly rising independent film hit the scene, with completely unknown talent, and it dominated the box office.

I have seen it mentioned before that Secret Rivals has a bit of a slow introduction, and I am inclined to agree with that assessment. Although some of the story-arcs are relatively interesting, they progress at a very slow pace. The love triangle that develops between Don Wong, John Liu and the daughter of the rich lord who has put on the contest, is something that feels tired as well as lacking in any sort of functional speed. However, when the action does manage to pick up, it is quick and brutal. Much has been said about the originality of Secret Rivals and the unique characteristics that it brought to the table. In comparison to what other Hong Kong filmmakers were doing at this point, it was like a breath of fresh air. However, even without the context of what the genre had done up until this point, Secret Rivals is ridiculously strong in terms of choreography and performances. John Liu and Hwang Jang Lee are already legends, as far as I am concerned, but it was Don Wong who really stepped up to the plate and impressed me in this film. It is difficult to stand out when you’re next to two of the greatest kickers in the world (Hwang Jang Lee and John Liu), but he manages to do just that.

The movie features the right balance between intrigue and gimmicky nonsense. The story, for the most part, is actually very interesting. Although it can seem a bit episodic, what with the whole tournament concept used during our introduction before being quickly dismissed, the story by itself is full of interesting developments. We have this political background, with the lord planning on using Don Wong’s character as a assassin and the intentions of double crossing him, while also throwing in the vengeance motif for John Liu’s character as well. There are two or three stories flowing throughout the script that manage to work entirely on their own, but when compiled with the outrageousness of Hwang Jang lee’s “Fox” clan, it becomes a very strange mix that probably should not work but still manages to do so. The love triangle that is focused on early into the movie would be one of the few weak links in the chain, but aside from these mild confusions the story is dramatically simple but deceptively complex.

Part of what gives The Secret Rivals the flash that it does, is the backdrop chosen for the film. Although many martial art films were shot in Korea at this point, few actually set Korea as the background for the fictional story. So often films would substitute Korea for Ancient China, but there is no beating around the bush in our title today. Secret Rivals establishes the foreign setting early on, but it is what the movie does in choosing its secondary locations that sets it apart from the crowd. In a stroke of brilliance, Ng See Yuen manages to set the majority of his fight sequences in broad open spaces so that the camera can create a rather epic scope despite very little money being spent. The performers, too, are then given a great deal of leeway in their movements and nothing seems constricted. When you watch a fight taking place in a massive field with no distinguishing landmarks, it can be un constricted, but it lacks any sense of true “character.” In the same way a fight set within the middle of a massive intersection might feel different from one taking place in the forest, the landmarks chosen by Ng See Yuen are quite impressive. During the climactic brawn between our three main fighters, we are given a gigantic monastery-like setting that is littered with statues on all sides, but right in the middle we have a open field for our heroes (and villain) to battle. It is one of multiple pieces of brilliant coordination by the filmmakers.

The Conclusion
Honestly, I could watch a demo reel of John Liu and Hwang Jang Lee fighting all day long. A very strong story with Don Wong putting in a blazing performance as well is just the icing on top of the cake. A coming-out party for many involved, this one stands out because of the hunger that these young artists had. It honestly comes close to the top echelon of the genre, but for its slow pace during the first third of the movie I am going to give it a very high four out of five. This is one that I would certainly recommend all Hong Kong film buffs search out if they don’t already own it.