Kung Fu Theater: Odd Couple

Why does Sammo look like he wants to kill me, while Lau looks like he's about to break into "The Circle of Life"? Photoshop is weird sometimes...

It looks like a poster for “The Lion King” Except with…you know, weapons…and Chinese people.

  • Bo Ming Chan Dao Duo Ming Qiang (Sweet Jesus) AKA “Odd Couple” AKA “Shaolin Saber vs. Wutang Spear”
  • Year: 1979
  • Availability: Available in several compilations, and a few individual releases if you’re willing to look. Generally subbed, although a terrible dub exists.

In the 70’s and 80’s, you couldn’t throw a javelin without hitting some Kung Fu “superteam”. Be it the “Little Fortunes” of the 80’s, featuring Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao and friends. Or how about any number of the teams assembled by Chang Cheh in his time (seriously, pick one)? Regardless, it seems like almost every actor or director worth a damn had a stable of recurring people they worked with, for maximum synergy for the production and maximum enjoyment for the fans.

This is not a practice I am condemning. No, far from it. The more comfortable performers got with eachother, the smoother and more intense their fights. The more aware of the actors’ strengths and weaknesses a director became, the more effectively he could cast them. It was nothing but good. The reason for this lead in is that one of the most consistently good, and sadly shortest lived, of these teams was the duo of Sammo Hung and Lau Kar-wing.

Ah yes, Sammo Hung. That rotund wonder of a man, who’s startling agility and technique onscreen and creative choreography off has given birth to a metric ton of incredible fights, wrapped up in enjoyable (although sometimes questionable) flicks. And Lau Kar-wing, one of the most skilled journeymen the industry has ever known. Be it stunts, villains, heroes, supports or even one-scene asskickery, Wing could do it all, a trait shared with his brother, legendary director/actor/choreographer Lau Kar-leung. Seriously, I can recall very few sibling-pairs as amazing at what they do as these two were in their prime.

Anyway, back to the point. In those golden times, the aforementioned demigods put out a stream of generally well-liked films, some of which have even elevated themselves to classics in certain circles (Knockabout comes to mind). The subject today is what is, in my mind, the absolute apex of their partnership (and the apex of certain other things too), the 1979 weapons spectacular, Odd Couple.

Those Wacky Warriors!

It is the year who-gives-a-fuck in the land of “so many huts and rolling plains” that our story begins…well, continues. See, for a great many years, two supremely skilled masters of weapons fighting have been involved in a semi-antagonistic rivalry with each other. They are the King of Sabres, a jolly but condescending old slab of rotunda always out for a good brawl (played by a red-nosed Sammo Hung) and the King of Spears, a wily yet intense old coot whose crotchety demeanor hides a crotchety heart (played by Lau Kar-wing, rocking the most amazing pair of eyebrows this side of EVER).

Seriously. Holy fuck, he could tie little razors to them and make a fighting style...

Those two pieces with the ribbons tied on? Eyebrows. Holy fuck, he could attach little razors to them and make a fighting style…

Every year, since time immemorial, the two masters have met yearly for a duel, to see who is the better fighter. However, despite each one’s supreme level of skill with their respective weapons, neither can ever seem to get a leg up on the other, and the fight always ends in a draw. After the most recent conflict, the two realize that, as they have been matched for so long and are both getting up in age, that their rivalry will never be settled with their current method.

And so, an idea is hatched: each master will go out and find a student. They will then teach this student to the best of their ability, and in 10 years they will meet, students in tow, and let THEM decide the masters’ rivalry. So decided, the two set out, and find their respective students. But in the midst of all the training, brawling and kung fu shenanigans, an old enemy from the Kings’ pasts has returned. And he wants payback for his past shaming…

Talking ’bout dem Generations…

Perhaps the most unique aspect of the movie, production-wise, is its casting. Sammo and Lau end up playing all four of the main character roles. Let me explain; each actor plays both a master and an apprentice. So Mr. Sabre goes out and finds an impetuous youth, Stubborn Wing, who is played by Lau. While Mr. Spear goes out and finds a clever, strong-armed ferryman named Ah Yo, who is played by Sammo.

So at any given time, both actors are playing someone, either the master or the apprentice onscreen. It’s a good system, and it allows both of the principle players to utilize their skills in both the spear and the dao (Chinese broadsword) in alternating capacities. At movie’s start, we see Lau using the spear and Sammo using the dao. By movie’s end, when the apprentices are fighting, the weapons are reversed, and I dare say the respective combinations at the end suit their performers way better, especially Sammo’s spearwork, which is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

Incidentally, the same face King of Sabers made when looking for his apprentice...it was a long process.

“Haaaaaay, wanna sword fight? ❤ “

But before we get into the combat, let’s look at our setup in more detail. The story itself is a common one, but it’s told ably  with enough movement between the characters and their conflict to keep things interesting. The one issue is that the villain of the piece, Old Yellow Dog, feels somewhat less intimidating than he should, and coupled with the fact that he basically appears out of nowhere, with a short flashback to establish his motivation, he feels like he’s more simply getting in the way of the primary conflict of the film instead of causing it. Of course, he quickly shows himself to be dangerous, but it definitely shows that the movie tends toward a less…severe tone, which makes even the idea of a villain seem slightly out of place.

Speaking of less severe tone, the comedy of the movie is surprisingly frequent in its hits. Sure, you have your bad prosthesis (see the above pics) and your broad slapstick, but other gags, like the consistently humorous interactions between the students and their rather eccentric teachers, manage to keep a smile on one’s face. One notable sequence comes mid-movie, when Ah Yo encounters wannabe fighter and sleazy would-be casanova “Master Rocking”, whose gimmick involves him walking in rhythm to a steady drum beat, supplied in-soundtrack, that plays whenever he moves. It works because actor Dean Shek is a master at playing skeeze-balls, and the whole concept is more amusing than it should be.

Weaponry Sublimity 

This is all fine and good, but what about the fighting?

As a frequent viewer of Kung Fu flicks, I have seen some absolutely spectacular fighting. I’ve seen multi-style meldowns. I’ve seen kick-centric clashes and hand-to-hand brawls. I’ve seen creative and traditional weaponry, and obscene, inhuman tools and techniques. So to-wit, I’ve learned to avoid hyperbole when describing the “quality” of any given movie’s choreography because I know that some new amazingness is just around the corner. It’s one of the things I love about the genre.

That said, I can say, with no hesitation, that Odd Couple has the most sublimely perfect weapons combat of any Martial Arts film I have yet to see.

Seriously. Look at that. The speed and ferocity displayed by both parties is nothing short of jaw-dropping, and is matched only by the physical agility and technical prowess of the two combatants. I cannot stress enough that EVERY fight in the movie is that good. Hell, that brawl? It’s only the FOURTH BEST IN THE FILM. A fight like that would usually be the crowning jewel of whatever flick it was in, but the standards of amazing are so high in this movie that it is constantly matched and surpassed by the other action set pieces.

Everyone is at the top of their game. Both Sammo and Lau are absolutely stunning with both the spear and the blade. Lau’s personal flexibility and agility are wondrous to behold, and Sammo’s effortless wielding of whatever happens to be in his hand shows why, when you’re that good, size means precisely DICK. Equally impressive as the Johnny-come-lately villain is ol’ Beardy himself, the legendary Leung Kar-yan. His broad frame and amazing intensity are always welcome in any good production, and he manages to make his semi-flimsily written role as a man who might have once been good, but whose virtue is long behind him, feel thick and intimidating.

I'll give you three guesses why his nickname is "Beardy". The first two don't count.

I’ll give you three guesses why his nickname is “Beardy”. The first two don’t count.

In addition to the main cast, able support is given by a strong group of known faces. Look for appearances by era-standbys like Lee Hoi-san, Lam Ching-ying, Yuen Miu and Billy Chan, all putting in their work and all performing at full-strength for this wonderfest. Hell, even King of Spears semi-deformed lackey Potato, played by Hong Kong every-man and frequent Golden Harvest collaborator Mars, gets some shining moments. Every last actor is directed wonderfully, and not a single moment feels lazy or wasted for it.

The Old Slash n’ Stab

So at the end of the day, you’re left with what is quite simply one of the best Kung Fu flicks of its generation. The late 70’s/early 80’s were an interesting time for Kung Fu flicks. The Golden age was still pumping well, although the bumps that would later crack the thing in two were starting to show. The rise of Golden Harvest was complete, as the focus moved away from the relatively cheesy pageantry of the old flicks, and into the more spectacular and action-focused moods of the new guard, and a new generation, or in some cases the old generation stepping up to the plate, arrived to usher in the new day.

Birthed from this atmosphere, this movie features some of the industry’s best, at the height of their powers, doing the thing they do best, with the people they do it best with. And all that glorious fighting is wrapped in a pleasant, unobtrusive plotline that serves to structure all that beauty into something really, truly memorable. You may not have heard of it, but if you have even an iota of fondness for weapons fighting, or for great screen fighting in general, then you must see this as soon as possible. You won’t regret it.


The Rundown

The Movie: An entertaining commentary on the nature of feuds, told through a generational tale with almost all the seriousness drained out. A sudden dip into darker territory upon the villain’s arrival jars a bit, but overall it is consistently entertaining and does its job handily. Creative casting tricks and interesting characterizations give life to the proceedings. 38/50

The Action: Among the greatest weapons combat ever put to film, main actors Sammo Hung and Lau Kar-wing show every way one can possibly use a spear or blade, and the result is some of the most technically gorgeous and intense weapons play in the history of the art form. Strong action performances from everyone else, from main villain Leung Kar-yan all the way down to the one-scene thugs, make the rest of the movie just as powerful. It’s beautiful stuff, and worth the price of admission ten times over. 50/50

The Weight: Making the sword and the Spear equally appealing: 7 points

Rounded Score: Perfection in Oddness, 10/10

Gold Award

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