The Tournament (1974)

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“Face off.”

There’s a lot of chit-chat about face, honour and respect here. It begins when the master of a kung-fu school, Lau, has his daughter kidnapped by local hoodlums, after he won’t cough up protection money. Perhaps surprisingly, rather than using his skills to kick their arses, he sends two students to Thailand, including his son, Hong (Wong) in an effort to win the necessary funds. Hong loses, the other student is killed, and Lau is drummed out of the local Kung-Fu Association for having disgraced the name of Chinese martial arts by losing to foreigners. He’s so devastated, he hangs himself, leaving it up to his daughter, Siu Fung (Mao) to restore the family name, learn how to mesh Chinese kung-fu with Thai boxing, and rescue her sister. Quite the “to-do” list, I’d say.

There are 10 extremely good minutes in the middle of this, beginning when Siu Fung has to fend off a predatory takeover bid from a Japanese karate school, and their top fighter, played by Korean kicker Whang In Sik. This is immediately followed by a visit from the Kung-Fu Association, who are intent on testing her skills. Repeatedly. And against a range of opponents, including a particularly impressive battle against a young, fairly long-haired Sammo Hung. It’s glorious, and probably just about justifies the rest of the film. Because the remainder is likely only of interest if you are really into Thai boxing bouts, and since the great majority of these do not involve Mao, I was severely unimpressed.

The story is particularly poorly-written, to the extent I still couldn’t tell you with any degree of confidence what the competition proclaimed in the title actually was. Similarly, the kidnapping with which the film opens, is entirely forgotten about, for what seems like forever. Even by the low standards of plotting for the time, this is particularly weak sauce. Not least, because it’s clear that Mao is a better fighter than Wong, both in storyline and cinematic martial-arts terms – and that’s even before heading off to learn Thai boxing. For example, the sequence described above starts when Siu Fung has to rescue her brother from the Japanese, after their master has beaten Hong up. So why is she stuck on the sidelines for so much of the film? It’s immensely frustrating.

Random trivia note: the home of the Kung-Fu Association is located at 41 Cumberland Road, which in reality, was the last house Bruce Lee bought. He purchased it in July 1972, and lived there until his death a year later. Barely 12 months further on, this movie came out in Hong Kong: seems a little tastelessly quick by Golden Harvest to turn Lee’s home into a location. This nugget is likely more interesting than a good 80% of the film – specifically, the 80% which does not feature Angela Mao kicking ass. But as my gift to you, the YouTube video below is paused to start at the beginning of the best bit. You’re welcome!

Dir: Wong Fung
Star: Angela Mao, Carter Wong, Wilson Tong, Sammo Hung

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