29 November 2002 | BrianDanaCamp
MAR'S VILLA: John Liu shines in above-average kung fu film
MAR'S VILLA (1978) is one of a handful of kung fu films in which the hero is driven mad. Kung fu actors rarely get the chance to play such juicy parts and when they do they pull out all the stops (see Alexander Fu Sheng in his tragic final role in 8-DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER and Chiang Sheng in CRIPPLED AVENGERS). John Liu is no exception and the high kicking martial artist, always one of the great unsung stars of kung fu films (DEATH DUEL OF KUNG FU, SECRET RIVALS, INVINCIBLE ARMOUR), does a superb job here as Mar Tien Liang, a prosperous businessman and instructor of the "the Magic Kick" technique who is undone by his enemies and then has to come back from the depths of mental and physical breakdown to vanquish his foes and restore his family and place in society. The scenes of Mar's cruel torture by the Fang Clan are quite grueling and feature him imprisoned in a suspended metal cage in the hot sun while henchmen bang the metal bars with poles.
While the reasons for the Fang Clan's initial attack on Mar's property are never exactly made clear, the good news is that we're treated to an astounding array of fights, all of them extremely well staged. John Liu was, along with Hwang Jang Lee (HITMAN IN THE HAND OF BUDDHA) and Tan Tao Liang (THE HOT, THE COOL AND THE VICIOUS), one of a trio of long-legged, high-kicking stars of kung fu films. Here Liu's chief opponent is perennial villain Kao Fei (aka Phillip Ko), who plays a dual role as Fang Kan, the clan leader, and his own brother. The fights between Liu and Kao are packed with exhaustive hard-hitting-and-kicking action. Most of the film's fights are staged amidst the natural settings of Taiwan as well as picturesque temples including one area festooned with magnificent Golden Buddhas. One large-scale stick fight involving multiple combatants is staged in the sprawling courtyard of a historic complex.
Mar's wife (played by Tong Bo Wan) plays an important part in the action as well. She is coveted by Fan, the clan leader's son (Tung Wei), who abducts her and then forces her to go see Mar at the height of his maddened state after which she is told that he'll be freed from the cage only if she agrees to marry young Fan. (Divorce laws were apparently quite lax in Old China.) When Liu has fully recovered, much later on, he turns on his wife, believing she betrayed him, without knowing the whole story.
In addition to Liu and Kao Fei, the other solid performers include Tung Wei (aka Stephen Tung Wai), a darkly handsome actor playing an ever-smiling rogue who manages to possess the body of Liu's wife but not her soul. He has a memorable drunk scene revealing his twisted frustration. Chan Chia Kai plays Liu's fighting servant/sidekick who sticks with Liu through thick and thin and joins him in several fights, including the extended final battle with Kao Fei. Tung Wei and Chan Chia Kai shared the duties of fight direction on this film, while Ting Chung directed.
The chief distraction marring the film is the soundtrack laden with inappropriate and overly familiar cues lifted from American soundtracks, most notably the frequent use of Dominic Frontiere's score for HANG 'EM HIGH.