The most filmed character in local (and perhaps world) cinema, apothecary and martial arts master Wong Fei-hung's fame was so pervasive that even secondary personages were occasionally allowed to take centre stage. Such was the case with Wong disciple Lam Sai-wing, whose nickname was afforded titular position in this period action comedy, which was a top 10 box office hit in 1979.
Wong's cinematic heyday had crested in the 1960s, Kwan Tak-hing having portrayed the legendary Guangdong native in about 80 films starting in 1949 and reaching a peak of two dozen in 1956 alone. By the late '70s, Wong's outdated image was in serious need of the makeover provided by Drunken Master (1978), featuring the then 24-year-old Jackie Chan as a youthful Wong. It was the second directorial achievement of action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, who the following year continued in the same vein with The Magnificent Butcher, but with two changes: the return of Kwan as Wong, and the elder's relegation to a cameo in support of his meat-vending pupil, Lam Sai-wing.
It was a part for which Sammo Hung Kam-bo (pictured above, far left, with Kwan, seated, and Yuen Biao, far right) was seemingly born; the contradiction between his bulky physique and graceful dexterity was potently exhibited in many kung-fu sequences for which he shared action director credit alongside Yuen. Not that he hogged the entire 104 minutes, for the production allows several up-and-comers to partake in the glory. In the guise of Wong devotee Foon, Yuen Biao is given a brilliant showcase opposite the villainous member of a rival school played by future star Lam Ching-ying, the two skirmishing with fan and knife with acrobatic derring-do.
Other Wong staples are on hand, from Beggar So (Fan Mei-sheng) to apostle Chat (Wai Pak), the latter's battle with the monkey-like Yuen Miu among the highlights. Septuagenarian Kwan shows Wong's faculties have not diminished with age - his opening clash with dojo Master Ko (Lee Hoi-sang) illustrates the pen's powers when wielded by an adroit hand.
But it is butcher Lam's show, and Hung rises above the shenanigans concocted by scriptwriting novices Edward Tang Kin-sang and Wong Jing. The mix of sometimes hilarious high jinks, cartoon-like evil and appalling morbidity never gels into more than a rickety framework for the proceedings, handicapped by the motivational status given to Ko's wicked son (Fung Hak-on), an unconvincing wolf in sheep's clothing who rapes, murders and bullies with unpersuasive menace.
It would be more than a decade until a more sophisticated vision of Wong was shown in Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China (1991), with Yuen Biao reprising Foon and Yuen Woo-ping joining as action director of Once Upon a Time in China II (1992) and director of prequel Iron Monkey (1993).
Wong Jing, too, kept the legend alive in films such as Last Hero in China (1993), with Yuen supplying the action choreography. As a transition between the two Wong trends of the '50s and '90s, The Magnificent Butcher is thus pivotal not only in terms of its role in the reinterpretation and resurrection of the series but also in the boost it gave to stars who would prove crucial in Hong Kong's golden age of cinema.
The Magnificent Butcher , April 27, 7pm, HK Film Archive. Part of The Cinematic Matrix of Golden Harvest programme