9 September 2001 | BrianDanaCamp
A modern-day kung fu film set in San Francisco's Chinatown
Chang Cheh's CHINATOWN KID (1977) is that rare Hong Kong kung fu film that takes place largely in America. A rise-and-fall gangster story (reminiscent of the same director's earlier BOXER FROM SHANTUNG), it serves as an excellent showcase for the talents of kung fu star Fu Sheng and offers a stellar supporting cast that includes all five of the actors who would later be known collectively as the Five Venoms. Although its recreation of San Francisco's Chinatown streets in a Hong Kong studio may not fool many American viewers, the film's sharp storytelling and frequent street fights make this a must-see for kung fu fans.
Fu Sheng plays a Chinese refugee in Hong Kong who runs afoul of a triad boss after freeing a girl who'd been abducted by a prostitution ring. With the help of the girl's family, he stows away on a ship to San Francisco and settles in Chinatown, working long hours at a restaurant alongside a student (future Venom Sun Chien) from Taiwan. Before too long, his kung fu skills get him into trouble again and he loses his job but is hired by one of the local criminal gangs. He fights hard for the gang and rises up in the ranks before his conscience gets the better of him after his student friend gets hooked on heroin. In the film's final battle, Fu Sheng takes on the entire White Dragon gang.
The chief villain in the Hong Kong segments is Wang Lung Wei as the triad boss who is angered when Fu Sheng frees the girl (played by Kara Hui Ying Hung, a future fighting star in her own right). Wang winds up following Fu Sheng to San Francisco where he allies with the Ching Wu group, headed by Lo Meng (the most muscular of the Five Venoms). Fu Sheng sides with Kuo Chui (aka Philip Kwok, the acrobatic Venom) of the rival White Dragons in their fight with Ching Wu. This sets the stage for a flurry of short, but spectacular brawls, set in the streets, clubs and gyms of San Francisco, featuring some of the top kung fu actor-fighters in the Hong Kong film industry of the late 1970s. Additional notables in the cast include Tsai Hung as an S.F. crime boss, while the two remaining future Venoms, Chiang Sheng and Lu Feng, play gang henchmen. Some attractive actresses are on hand as well, including Shirley Yu, Shaw Yin-Yin, and Jenny Tseng (Fu Sheng's wife).
While the studio-built streets are not terribly convincing, the costume and interior design vividly capture the tackier elements of 1970s American fashion and décor and give the film a fresh visual look distinguishing it from all other Hong Kong kung fu films of the era. (Location shots of San Francisco are inserted at regular intervals, including two or three actual location shots with Fu Sheng himself.) CHINATOWN KID recalls several earlier Chang Cheh kung fu films, although the Hollywood gangster film it most closely resembles is Brian De Palma's SCARFACE (1983), which was made six years later!
ADDENDUM (5/11/14): When the "restored" Mandarin-language Celestial DVD of this film was issued in 2004, it offered a much shorter version of the film, listed as 86 minutes as opposed to the English-dubbed VHS version I reviewed above, which is 114 minutes and came out from South Gate Entertainment in 1990. That's a difference of 28 minutes. Well, I finally watched both versions back-to-back and was startled to learn that the DVD offers quite a different version of the film, with several scenes not in the English dub and a greater emphasis on the student played by Sun Chien. We see more scenes of him in Taiwan well before his trip to the U.S. and his fateful friendship with Fu Sheng. One entire character, the mob boss played by Tsai Hung, is eliminated from the shorter version and different scenes serving the same purpose are added with Kuo Chui's character providing the exposition. Which is troubling, since some of Tsai Hung's scenes are among the best parts of the longer version and serve to keep the emphasis on the gangster intrigue that provides many of the plot's strong points. Also, the biggest fight scenes tend to be much shorter in the DVD. And the ending is very different with its big finale interrupted by a sudden intervention that would be completely out of place in the longer version, all presumably, I imagine, to end the film on a more positive, pro-education, message-oriented note. I think I can speak for other kung fu fans when I suggest that maybe this audience would prefer fewer messages and more fight choreography. Which is what the long version, now only available on an out-of-print VHS edition, gave us.