It’s eye-for-an-eye in this surprisingly dark take on the drunken master story
“I warned Wong Fei-hung that if any of his students caused trouble I would tear down his sign. You murdered my goddaughter and you must pay for it.”
In 1978 Jackie Chan had a major success with his solo film Drunken Master, about folk hero and real-life guy Wong Fei-hung in his younger days being trained by the drunk Beggar So, one of the Ten Tigers of Canton – a legendary group of martial artists from the 19th century. This prompted his longtime partner and opera school friend Sammo Hung to try his hand at something similar, to recreate the success of Drunken Master.
Magnificent Butcher stars Sammo Hung as “Butcher” Lam Sai-wing”, a student of an elderly Wong Fei-hung (played by legend of the screen Kwan Tak-hing). Wong’s school is at constant ends with the rival school, the Five Dragons. This school is led by Master Ko (Lee Hoi-sang), an ill-tempered man who is quick to challenge others and prove his strength. One day, Wing’s long-lost brother Lam Sai-kwong (Chiang Kam) and his wife Yuet-mei (Tong Ching) come to town to try to find him. However, Ko’s son Tai-hoi (Fung Hak-on) kidnaps Yuet-mei to have for himself.
Lam runs into his brother, but neither recognise one another, and when Lam finds and begins to beat up Tai-hoi, Wing comes to the man’s rescue. Through a series of misunderstandings, Tai-hoi manages to recruit Wing as a bodyguard – as he believes Lam is trying to steal Yuet-mei from Tai-hoi – while Lam manages to find help from Beggar So (Fan Mei-sheng) in order to get his wife back. As predicted, shenanigans ensue and a lot of people get kicked.
I don’t know much about the stories and real lives of these characters, so it’s tough for me to judge the film’s plot in that context. Hell, I didn’t even know Beggar So and Wong were anything other than one-off characters or simple archetypes before I researched this film (I’d seen Drunken Master but didn’t make any connection. I haven’t seen Once Upon a Time in China). But as it stands by itself, Magnificent Butcher tells a pretty standard but entertaining revenge story. You can tell what’s going to happen before any of it does, but it does manage to stand out by being surprisingly dark in places. There’s kidnapping, attempted suicide, attempted rape, three pretty grim murders and it’s all taken seriously. In a film loaded with Sammo Hung’s dumbass expressions and a guy who attacks by pretending to be a cat, these moments come as a surprise. The story also manages to work in a pretty solid misunderstanding subplot. I’m usually not the biggest fan of this sort of development, but it’s handled quite nicely and serves to set-up the first half of the film, without feeling too forced.
Regarding Sammo’s Butcher Wing, this is all very familiar Hung territory, especially during The first few minutes of the film. Anyone who’s familiar with the work he did before he got old and suddenly became incredibly frightening is familiar with his loveable doofus characters. His affable expressions and baby face make him instantly recognisable and likeable. It would be unfair to consider this a typecast when it seems normal in the Hong Kong film industry to stick with what works (look at the roles Jackie Chan had for the first half of his career). Hell, Kwan Tak-hing who plays Wing’s master Wong (the character Jackie played in his own Drunken Master), has played the character 77 times over his career. If that’s not typecasting, I don’t know what is.
But for all my comments about it, the cast pull of their roles nicely. Fung Hak-on stands out as the villain of the piece, and forgoes much goofiness for some genuinely despicable actions. He is ruthless, cowardly, violent and shows no remorse for his actions. He doesn’t need a gimmick to be a memorable villain, he just is. Lee Hoi-sang’s Master Ko is a bit more forgettable, at least in terms of character, but he gets some of the best fights. Lastly, big props to Fan Mei-sheng for his part as Beggar So, the titular drunken master of that other film who even taught Wong his stuff. It can be tricky to balance the good-natured drunkenness of his character. Too much in one direction or another and he can easily be too crude, or lazy, or just not likeable enough. There’s something about Fan’s constantly cheerful face that is difficult to dislike.
But let’s get into why we’re here in the first place: the action. The fights in Magnificent Butcher are pretty great. As you’d expect from the era, it’s loaded with those fake-sounding whip-crack sound effects that repeat themselves just a bit too much, but they do nothing to take away from the fights. On top of a tonne of the usual sequences, there’s some creativity at work here. Early on is a fight scene where the two masters essentially battle with calligraphy brushes, and Wong trying to finish writing while deflecting attacks from Ko. Later on, Beggar So uses one of Ko’s students like a puppet to beat up Tai-hoi, and it could not be timed better . Fellow opera school friend Yuen Biao only has a minor role in the film, but he too gets a chance to show off, in one of the movie’s better sequences.
One of my favourite aspects of the comedy martial arts films (if this can even be considered so), is that in their quest to bring us funny, fresh fight scenes the filmmakers end up breathing all sorts of new life into the genre. Jackie Chan is famous for doing this with all types of props, but Sammo Hung utilises a rhythm not often seen outside of Merry Melodies to give us scenes that certainly look choreographed – there’s none of that The Raid realness here – but are also almost musical in their execution. Like I mentioned earlier, the story of Magnificent Butcher is paper-thin but it’s these fight scenes that make it entertaining, and definitely worth a watch.
Verdict: It’s similar to a lot of films of its time, but Magnificent Butcher is definitely one of the better ones.
The Asian Cinema Critic’s Patented Ratings System
Overall entertainment: 7/10
Sex: An attempted rape/10
Inner monologues: Countless
Unlicensed uses of the Popeye theme: 1
Weird cat dudes: 1
Snack of choice: Pickled trotters. Pig’s trotters, not Sammo trotters.
Magnificent Butcher (1979)
Also known as: 林世榮 (Lam Sai-wing)
Director: Yuen Woo-ping
Writer: Edward Tang
Sammo Hung – Butcher Lam Sai-wing
Kwan Tak-hing – Wong Fei-hung
Fan Mei-sheng – Beggar So
Lee Hoi-sang – Master Ko
Fung Hak-on – Ko Tai-hoi
Chiang Kam – Lam Sai-kwong
JoJo Chan – Ko Lan-hsing
Tong Ching – Cheung Yuet-mei
Yuen Biao – Leung Foon
Wei Pai – Chat
Chung Fat – Wildcat
Lam Ching-ying – Killer with Fan
Yuen Miu – Pole Man
Tsang Choh-lam – Night watchman
Fung Ging Man – Chess player
Sai Gwa-pau – So
Ho Pak-kwong – Blind man
Ka Lee – Waiter
Lau Kwok-shing – Butcher Chang