Director: Ng See Yuen
Writer: Ng See Yuen, Tung Liu
Producer: Chor Yuen
Cast: John Liu Chung Liang, Hwang Jang Lee, Tino Wong Cheung, Lee Hoi San, Philip Ko Fei, Corey Yuen Kwai, Yuen Shun Yee, Yuen Biao, Hsu Hsia, Wong Chi Sang
Running Time: 101 min.
By Matthew Le-feuvre
The collaborative effort in reuniting two of the world’s most celebrated kicking technicians was no light work for independent producer, Ng See Yuen. His previous trendsetter The Secret Rivals (1976) and its well received sequel set the tone for a new type of action spectacle: the breathtaking craft of aerial impact kicking. Naturally this resounding success would become something of a leading concept that fellow producers’ zealously tried too exploit, but ultimately failed to sustain because of changing trends, and the approaching 1980’s. However by the time he’d established ‘The Seasonal Film Corporation’ in 1975, Yuen was already a former Shaw Brothers executive before turning his creative attentions to freelance direction.
Although in essence a calm, influential and clearly a resourceful entrepreneur, Yuen’s five year contract at the Clearwater Bay studio was not a happy one. In earnest, he tried very hard too secure film negotiations with future Legend, Bruce Lee, for a traditional feature entitled The Bloody Fists (1972), yet was unable to convince backers – including Sir Run Run Shaw – of Lee’s dynamic potential.
Nevertheless Yuen endeavoured to carve out a niche for himself, seeking and promoting fresh talent such as Taiwanese marvel, John Liu and south Korean stalwart, Hwang Jang Lee. Both of course have matured into formidable icons on the South-Eastern circuits, while in the West they’ve been oppositely regulated to a lesser category due to poor distribution and a flaccid, if not incongruous, marketing ploy. Another factor is they (each) retired from the film industry early on in their respective careers to pursue not just business investments, but also martial ascension; this meant an inordinate amount of time power kicking trees for Hwang and expressing the stillness of the mind for Liu, who inventively fused ‘Zen’ principles to his art.
For some time speculations often arose as too Liu’s whereabouts, unlike Hwang - who opened a chain of Hotels in Seoul, and a factory which to this day manufactures golfing accessories. Liu on the other hand, allegedly, fell victim to Triad backed creditors, and a scheme where outrageous percentage grosses had too be forfeited on insueing film projects. Liu opposed these terms and promptly disappeared.
As a result, gossip columns systematically erupted furnishing all sorts of countless rumours and baseless claims. Few sources dispassionately went as far as officially announcing Liu’s premature death (or homicide). Undoubtedly libel, Liu in actuality had relocated to Paris accompanied by his wife and young daughter. Since then, Liu has emerged from self exile to appear in numerous international productions heralding his all too familiar split kick, a technique developed from the regimental teachings of another cult 70’s super booter, Tan Tao Liang.
Before he, too, made the transition from a practising martial artist to an actor of some distinction, Liang was a hardcore Taekwondo competitor who invariably earned high points by implementing an uniquely challenging hop kick to disorientate (his) opponents. Enamoured with this tactical advantage, Liu – a teenager at the time – bartered menial tasks as payment for tutelage from Liang. Tough and innovative, “Flash Legs” as he came to be known transformed Liu from a shy, introspective youth with limited flexibility into a phenomenal exponent of Taekwondo.
Contrarily, Hwang’s martial arts origins were notably less prosaic, but more of the dramatic as he found himself aged 15 moving to South Korea from his native Japan where he obsessively began studying (both) a branch of Taekwondo called ‘Taekyon’ and traditional boxing. Seven years on, he had graduated to the rank of 7th Dan, and was concurrently instructing ‘Republican’ troops in an ongoing feat to thwart communist incursions.
If nothing else these biographical juxtapositions deserve respect. It was something Ng See Yuen took into consideration during casting sessions. Indeed, the loyalty and professionalism of these two outstanding stars was a financial catalyst that Yuen was able too repeatedly capitalize on, even though critics’ mauled and carped about the integrity of his work.
Surprisingly up to this point in the HK/Taiwanese film industry meditations on Wu Xia theatre was waning in favour of empty fist revenge dramas and The Invincible Armour was one of those atypical examples that fell into a particular grade of uncompromising splendor – a diversion into the simplistic (and) image laden realms where subtle, strong visuals rules the eye before mindful contemplation: a deliberate tactic or an unassuming disadvantage? Either way, following a lengthy prologue explaining both the origins and implementation of ‘Iron Vest Kung Fu’ (aka Invincible Armour), Hwang Jang Lee energetically demonstrates his awesome ‘Eagles Claw’ as well as kicking pliability in a sequence of pre-arranged maneuvers on various sized ceramic pots, wooden stumps, bamboo shafts, spears and chain-suspended spiked globes.
Instantaneously we’re made aware of Hwang’s villainous ambitions as he soaks his entire body (a la Fu Sheng) in a frothing, vapor-filled cauldron. Years later we learn Hwang – character referenced as ‘Chen’ – is a corrupt ‘Minister of State’ whose politics lean towards the dissolution of the Ming Dynasty. To cause fractures within the administration, Chen hires a greedy opportunist named Hu Loong (Li Hoi San) to assassinate his respected peer, Governor Liu, while simultaneously incriminating loyalist, General Chow Lu Fong (John Liu).
Detained without due process, Fong eludes the death sentence in a blistering whirlwind assault of cresent, hook and snap kicks on his biased captors. It is here he pledges to exonerate his name, and bring the real perpetrator to justice: Fong’s only link is Hu Loong, who he adamantly pursues across country, between dodging additional contract killers (as played by Yuen Biao, Corey Yuen and Yuen Shum Yi), clan sympathizers and Loong’s impartial Sifu (Philip Ko Fei).
Vexed by Fong’s investigative capabilities and fighting tenacity, Chen engages renowned bounty hunter, Sheng Yu (Tino Wong), to deliver Fong for capital punishment. However with each encounter, Sheng begins to suspect that Fong and himself are expendable pawns in a greater conspiracy, which now includes Chen’s duplicitous aid and, incidentally, two siblings who may hold the key to disabling the Minister’s Chi Kung flow, via five vulnerable pressure points.
To the uninitiated The Invincible Armour may appear as a pageant to superficiality (and perhaps even absent of depth), yet this veneer does have its merits – escapism for one. Nonetheless Ng See Yuen’s work has neither been about anti-political rantings or social commentary. Essentially it’s the dynamic combination of two diverse kicking methods, a selling point that imbues every sequence with a kind of requisite fortitude; for instance Hwang’s signature jumping triple kicks or Liu’s jaw dropping tornado-like moves compensates for the lack of character development. And despite erratic plot twists, Invincible Armour is otherwise intensely stunning, downbeat and fiercely hypnotic.
Matthew Le-feuvre’s Rating: 9/10