Soul Brothers of Kung Fu - (1977)
For lovers of the genre, one of the all-time favorites. Along with Yuen Woo-Ping’s “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow,” Cheung Sum’s “Snake in the Monkey’s Shadow” and “Soul Brothers” director Hwa Yi Hung’s Billy Chong vehicle “Jade Claw”, this is one of the best HK releases of the late seventies/early eighties to get theatrical exposure in this country. As well as stars Bruce Li’s finest hour and a half. It’s a classic tale of friendship, betrayal, and revenge that always manages to be more engaging and involving than it has any right to be. The story starts with our three heroes, two guys and a girl, adrift out to sea on a raft, refugees from some unnamed freedomless country.
The guys are Wong Li Yung (Bruce Li, here billed in the opening titles under his real name Ho Chung Tao) and “Deadly Venoms” Team Member (“The Toad”) Lo Meng (here billed as Kuan Lun) as So San. Their mutual gal pal Chi Yung is played by Cuyang Pei Shan. While Lo Meng’s San has given up hope and intends to toss himself into the sea, a blistered-lip Wong (Bruce Li) convinces San to hang on a little longer. Good thing too. No sooner do we witness this scene, then we cut to all three smiling, eating rice and drinking tea, rescued by a boat heading to Hong Kong. And by the time Bill Conti’s theme from “Rocky” finishes over the opening credits, all three are living the illegal immigrant life in the big city.
The boys hustle day worker jobs as best they can, Wong driving a forklift, San welding, and every chance they get…. fighting bullies. One of the victims they save from a beating is black American teenager Tony (Carl Scott), the “Soul Brothers” (sic) of the title, who becomes Wong’s student, friend, and all-around towel boy.
A charmingly played Hawksian rivalry over the affections of Chi develops between Wong and San but is cut short when Chi makes it clear she prefers Li’s Wong. San, while disappointed, is still their friend, and bows out graciously (Watch for a sweet scene between Wong and San and a ring they bought for Chi). However, this is just the start of the more morally relaxed San’s troubles. Soon after, the nightlife loving San has run afoul of the local casino owning gangster Chin See Po, favorite genre heavy Ku (“The Avenging Eagle”) Feng. Chin sends goon after goon to ambush Wong and San, all to no avail. In fact Wong gets so good at beating up Chin’s men, he gets the bright idea that if he turned pro he could make some real money. Well no sooner than you can cut to stock footage of Madison Square Garden, Wong has become a professional boxer. Not only does he win all of his fights, he (apparently) becomes both rich and world famous in the process. But just when it seems Wong and Chi have achieved the HK dream, Chin’s men show up committing a surprising mid film tragedy. Wong vows vengeance against Chin, and so begins one of the best modern day training / recovery montages in the genre. It seems Wong has a trick up his sleeve. Not only can he fight like Bruce Lee, he has a secret fighting technique, called “The Steel Finger”, which allows possessors to stick their fingers through opponents as if they were butter (his electrical Kung Fu dummy, with two red testicles that pop out when goosed, is an audience pleasing hoot).
Meanwhile poor San has gone from bad to worse. Gambling losses put him more and more in the crafty Chin’s debt. With Chin closing in for the kill by sending his mistress Dora (played by Dana Lei, that little scene stealer from Bruce Li’s “The Image of Bruce Lee,” here billed under the pretty name of Shao Yin Yin), to sink her claws into poor San. The audience knows it’s only a matter of time before the good man turns bad, inevitably leading to San being forced by the gangsters to go up against his old friend Wong.
The story in the first half, the training/recovery sequence in the middle, and the revenge-a-matic slaughter at the end, are giddily satisfying. But for true fans of the genre “Soul Brothers of Kung Fu” is better than a sum of its parts. The whole damn film achieves an effortless purity of purpose. If you love the genre, it’s because of movies like this that you love it. When the machine works, this is what it looks like.
Hwa Yi Hung, here billed as Hwa I Hung, who directed Li in his superior vehicle “Dynamo”, as well as most of Billy Chong’s early starring vehicles, does a super job in both the action and composition department (there’s a beautifully composed shot early on of Lo Meng working at a logging camp, which consists of him eating a sack lunch as forty giant trees float behind him in the sea). The film’s only negative is the useless presence of Rodney Allen Rippy lookalike Carl Scott, who’s only purpose was to justify American distributor Cinema Shares Int’s ebony audience pandering title “Soul Brothers of Kung Fu” (How it escaped being called “Soul Brothers of Bruce Lee” is anybody’s guess).
By 1977 the Kung Fu film craze, like the spaghetti western before it, had come and gone in America as far as mainstream popularity was concerned. But while the spaghetti western truly died once it’s pop bubble burst, the Kung Fu flick manage to cling to survival, due to its still popular presence in the black community. By that time in America, Kung Fu flicks played almost exclusively in black theaters in black neighborhoods, downtown all-night grindhouses, and the third title of a drive in’s triple feature. And as the seventies came to a close, before the emergence of Jackie Chan, Bruce Li was the only Kung Fu performer who meant anything box office wise in the states. Over half the martial arts films released during this period, that received legitimate theatrical engagements accompanied by newspaper advertisement support, stared Bruce Li (by the time I saw this at the Carson Twin Cinema the week it came out, I had already seen many flicks starring Bruce Li). Along with Japan’s Sonny Chiba, Bruce Li was my favorite Kung Fu actor growing up. I liked him even more then Bruce Lee. One, because I saw way more movies with him, so I really got familiar with him. Two, he was a better actor then Lee (Lee was a pretty good actor, and absolutely dynamic. But Li was better). And considering how many cheap movies he did, his track record was pretty good. “Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger,” “The Image of Bruce Lee,” “The Three Avengers,” “Dynamo,” “Bruce Lee: The Man – The Myth”, “Fist Of Fury 2” and “Fist Of Fury 3”. But it’s “Soul Brothers of Kung Fu” that’s the best of an impressive bunch.
The whole film rests not on the brutal Kung Fu fights but how we feel about Wong (Bruce Li) and San (Lo Meng). The two men prove to be a terrific team and they bring out a depth of feeling from their characters that accumulates power as the film goes on. Lo (“The Kid with the Golden Arm”) Meng’s sad moral decline as San might be more painful to watch then you’re ready for. As is the two former friends’ inevitable conclusion combat. Like the final fight to the death between Lace and Maggie in Jack Hill’s “Switchblade Sisters,” you may be caught off guard by the poignancy of their sad dilemma.