Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978)
Director: Woo-Ping Yuen
Cast: Jackie Chan, Siu Tin Yuen, Jang Lee Hwang
Synopsis: Jackie Chan is a boy who is used as a janitor at his kung-fu school who can’t fight and is always getting bullied by the teachers and pupils.
It seems like the Hong Kong film industry spent the entire decade of the 1970s making the same movie over and over again. You know the one: wise old master teaches callow youth the tricks of the trade so that he can wreak revenge on the bad guys. Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow slavishly follows this well-worn template, but is set apart from other movies of its type by the fact that it stars a boyish Jackie Chan in his first successful starring role and is directed by a chap called Woo-ping Yuen, who would go on to work as the Kung Fu Co-ordinator on such Hollywood blockbusters as The Matrix and Kill Bill movies. I wonder if Yuen and Chan sometimes reminisce over the fights they used to film together on anonymous Hong Kong hillsides all those years ago as they sip Pina Coladas in some swanky Hollywood hotel bar. Probably not.
Anyway, the callow youth in Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow is, of course, the 24-year-old Jackie Chan (or Lung Cheng as he’s credited here). He’s Chien Fu, an orphan who lives and works at a Martial Arts school which, during the absence of their master, is managed by a cruel despot who regularly relieves Chien of his duties as a janitor to use him as a punch bag for the students. Chien Fu doesn’t know how to fight, you see, which places him at the mercy of bullies; but he’s a kind-hearted soul, and when he sees an old beggar (Siu Tin Yuen, the director’s father) being picked on by some of the school’s students he intervenes, not realising that the old man — his name is Pai Cheng-Tien — is actually a Grandmaster of the Snakes Fist style of fighting. The reason he’s dressed as a tramp is that he’s the last of his clan, which has been wiped out by the evil Lord Sheng Kuan (Jang Lee Hwang), a master of the Evil Claw style of fighting who has vowed to wipe out all practitioners of the Snake’s Fist. Quite why he’s so hell bent on eliminating them all isn’t clear, particularly as his Eagle’s Claw gig is far superior to the Snake’s Fist, but that’s not important — at least as far as Cheng-Tien is concerned. All he cares about is blending into the background as well as he can so that Sheng Kuan doesn’t get the chance to kill him.
A friendship develops between the old man and the boy, and when Cheng-Tien sees how badly Chien is treated by the pupils and teachers at the school, he offers to teach him how to fight in the Snake’s Fist style. When Chien accepts, there begins a rigorous training regime that, amongst other things, sees him balancing on poles while performing stomach crunches with Cheng-Tien sitting on his midriff, and balancing on his fingertips above burning incense sticks. The only condition the old man imposes is that Chien must never use the techniques in public (which sort of makes you wonder what the point is of going through all that backbreaking training), a promise which Chien breaks almost immediately when he comes to the rescue of his returning Master, who’s receiving a good thrashing from one of Lord Sheng Kuan’s disciples. Chien saves his Master from any further harm, but also inadvertently alerts Sheng Kuan to the presence of disciples of the Snake’s Fist style of fighting.
Other than Chan’s dexterity and the unusually close relationship between Chien and the old man, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow is nearly indistinguishable from the countless other chop-socky movies the Hong Kong movie industry churned out in the 1970s. The production values might be slightly higher than normal, but that doesn’t stop the movie from displaying the sheer cheesiness that was so typical of the genre. The Chinese understood that for some reason Kung Fu worked better when bedded within a comic tale — something America never really figured out — perhaps because of the stylised nature of the violence. Fights, many of which incorporate touches of humour, are staged with a precision that can only partly be accounted for by camera angles and editing, and even the cheapest entry in the genre rose above its modest origins when concentrating on the fights.
The humour that’s endemic in the Chinese Kung Fu genre is another matter, though. Comedy doesn’t travel well between countries, partly because of the language barrier (subtitles will kill a joke stone dead), but also because divergent cultures inevitably give rise to equally divergent sources of humour. The face-pulling antics of Chan and others are possibly part of the reason for these films’ popularity in Asia, but they quickly become tiresome to most Western audiences. Director Woo-ping Yuen also employs most of the other more annoying tactics of this genre — the sudden zoom-in on a character’s eyes, usually accompanied by a grating burst of ‘suspenseful’ music (played every two minutes here, it seems) which is just one aspect of a consistently intrusive score; the juvenile sound effects accompanying fights; the exaggerated delivery of every actor (Chan included) — they’re all here in abundance.
Countering all this nonsense is the sublime nature of the fights and training sequences. Kung Fu really is a remarkable phenomenon, one which uniquely employs the lithe, balletic gracefulness of its practitioners to deliver explosive bursts of precisely targeted violence. Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow caters to both parts of the technique, presenting in the first half of the movie playful sequences, such as when Cheng-Tien challenges Chien to take a rice bowl from him, or effortlessly plucks a number of mosquitoes as they fly past his head (a feat repeated in The Karate Kid, which bears more than a few similarities to this film), before moving onto a final forty-five minutes which is virtually wall-to-wall fighting.
A word of warning to those sensitive to on-screen cruelty to animals, however: Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow features a sequence in which we see a cat squaring up to a cobra which is genuine rather than staged. Look closely and you can clearly see that one of the cat’s legs is tethered so that it can’t flee from the cobra, which is posed to strike. It’s a brief scene, but one which some might find upsetting.
(Reviewed 22nd January 2014)