29 May 2015 | BrianDanaCamp
Unusual kung fu comedy with some pleasant surprises
I have this film on a Hong Kong import DVD under the title, THE SMART CAVALIER (1978), presented letter-boxed and in Mandarin with English subtitles. (The on-screen title is THE CAVALIER.) Its main plot is a comic one and involves a grandfather (Yi Yuen) trying to marry off his granddaughter, Ping Erh (Doris Chen, aka Lung Chung-Erh), to the first man who can beat her in kung fu. This leads to a number of humorous bouts in which Ping handily defeats various over-eager suitors. When a fugitive Ming rebel, Kan Feng Chi (Sze Ma-Lung) inadvertently bests her as she's taking on his brother, the grandfather insists that he marry Ping. Kan refuses because he's on a mission of revenge against the Ching Dynasty generals who'd killed his father, so the grandfather and Ping pursue Kan and his brother and never let up for the entire film. This comic plot is balanced out by the more serious subplot of Kan's battles with Ching generals and their soldiers, culminating in a meeting of Ming rebels that's surrounded by Ching forces, leading to a pitched battle and a fight finale pitting four of the heroes (including Kan, Grandpa and Ping) against the Chings' most lethal warrior, Kung Tai Pu, played by kung fu great Lo Lieh.
I found the comic plot much funnier because it was juxtaposed with a more serious mission, which was played straight. As Kan and his brother take on a series of Ching opponents in a stream of well-staged fight scenes, Grandpa and Ping turn up in the most unlikely places despite Kan's best attempts to elude them. Given that Grandpa and Ping are fighters also, they often take part in the mayhem as well. One funny scene takes place in an inn where a wastrel with a harem spots Ping and decides to flirt with her himself by singing a song of courtship, a quaint and amusing piece of Mandarin culture woven into the scene, before the inevitable fight as Ping makes short work of the wastrel and his men. (Interestingly, the wastrel's Mandarin songs are left intact in the film's English dub.) A more extensive bit of business takes place in a brothel where the brothers had hoped to hide. Ping is initially turned away so she comes back, accompanied by Grandpa, dressed as a man. The brothel manager (Hong Liu) ingratiates himself with both sets of customers (the Ming rebel brothers and Grandpa and Ping) by telling outlandish stories with a practiced delivery that made me think I was witnessing some sort of Mandarin comic tradition that might have been popular among village crowds decades (or even centuries) ago. The actor who delivered these lines is someone I've seen in a couple dozen of these films, but he rarely got a part this substantial. He usually played angry villagers or dyspeptic shop owners in a single scene in his films. I wonder if he'd had some other previous career in comedy, theater or Chinese opera.
Some frequent villains in kung fu films turn up in virtual cameos playing Ching generals who fight and get defeated by Kan and his brother. These include Tsai Hung, Lung Fei, and Li Min-Lang. The final confrontation with Lo Lieh and his army boasts a large number of costumed extras, which indicates this film was higher-budgeted than usual. I'm not familiar with the actor playing Kan, Sze Ma-Lang, and have seen few of his other films, but he's quite good here. Doris Chen, as Ping, is a delight from start to finish and she has some excellent fight scenes here. I've seen her in over a dozen films and because she was so cute, round-faced and soft-looking, she didn't always get the fighting parts that went to more intense actresses like Angela Mao, Chia Ling, and Polly Shang Kwan, but was instead too often relegated to damsel-in-distress roles. She not only fights a lot here, but she gets to be funny, too, as she frequently takes on a petulant tone after seemingly being rejected by Kan. Nancy Yen (7 GRANDMASTERS), another fighting femme who didn't always get to fight in these films, turns up as another Ming rebel and joins the three main characters in their fight with Lo Lieh at the end. The director, Joseph Kuo, also made 18 BRONZEMEN, BORN INVINCIBLE, THE 7 GRANDMASTERS and THE MYSTERY OF CHESS BOXING, among many others.
After all the build-up entailed by the intertwining of the two plots, the ending may prove disappointing to viewers since it relies on a couple of egregious contrivances to conclude the big fight and leaves certain plot threads curiously unresolved. But the journey to get there is a lot of fun.