7 Star Grand Mantis (1983)
Cast: Eagle Han, Benny Tsui
Synopsis: A village is oppressed by four villains led by Chow Chung until a beggar comes to town and teaches a young man and woman the 7 star grand mantis style of fighting.
It’s a kung-fu comedy, it was made in the early eighties, and it’s dubbed: how bad can it be?
7 Star Grand Mantis isn’t just bad, it’s strange as well. All 70s/80s Hong Kong video-boom kung-fu movies seem to contain a strong element of comedy, intentional or otherwise, within the framework of a straightforward action plot, but this is an example of a movie that goes all out for laughs, and falls so wide of the mark that you’re left wondering whether it ever knew where the mark was — or even that a mark existed. The kind of broad, knockabout farce that makes up at least 97 per-cent of this film’s running time — leaving no time for a plot — is strangely reminiscent of those awful cheap British sex comedies of the early 70s, only with worse acting — and without the sex; it’s a bizarre kind of childish slapstick humour that manages to make Carry On movies appear subtle and sophisticated.
The opening scene, in which the fearsome face of the bad guy glares at the viewer while a voice-over declares that what we are about to see is a tale of oppression, suggests that we are about to see a much darker film than that which follows. Apparently, it was actually snaffled from another movie, which would explain the difference in tone. Judging by the cheapness of everything in 7 Star Grand Mantis — sets, costumes, film stock, everything — it’s not difficult to believe. Anyway, any misconceptions are quickly erased when the opening scene shows our ‘hero’, a lugubrious buffoon with a comedy haircut, engaging in a pig-grabbing contest with one of the bad guys. Yep, pig-grabbing. And this is no ‘no harm came to the animals in the making of this motion picture’ deal here: this is 1980s Hong Kong poverty row movie-making, so the porkers are dragged by their tails and ears, and wrestled to the ground as if they were twenty-stone grapplers. While comedy-cut wins the competition with help from a whiskery old teacher-type, he is soon beaten up by his opponent and his mates. Hero can’t fight for toffee, you see. Has to learn the ancient martial arts so that he can start kicking bottom. Yawn…
The most striking thing about 7 Star Grand Mantis is the rather pervy subtext going on; I’ll describe a few scenes so that you can see what I mean… During a fight the big bad guy (no-one seems to have a name in this flick) jumps on top of the prone ‘hero’ and vigorously rubs himself up and down the captive ‘hero’s’ body in order to push him further down into the mud… While fighting a whole clutch of bad guys, ‘hero’ and his ‘teacher’ find themselves stripped of their clothes… Having lost their clothes, and been chased by a female water-carrier, our ‘hero’ and his ‘teacher’ steal clothes to wear from a clothesline. The clothes, of course, are women’s… Our ‘hero’ later dresses as a woman again (although, considering the girly haircut he sports, you’re left wondering why he bothered with a woman’s wig) for no particular reason and, having ventured into the village, finds himself the target of an amorous heavy… While watching the heavy and our ‘hero’ canoodling on the ground, one of the heavy’s mates, who is watching from behind a hillock, starts fondling and kissing his buddy’s head before pulling him down, out of sight, behind the hillock… During a number of fight sequences, our ‘hero’s’ favourite form of defence is to vigorously tickle his adversary…
Add to this the fact that the women in this movie are both strong characters who dominate (and frequently beat the crap out of) the men around them, and you start wondering whether this movie was made by some subversive band of male-hating feminists. Perhaps they roamed the Hong Kong countryside back in the eighties, forcing hapless peasants, under threat of death to their oxen, to appear in comedy action flicks specifically designed to emasculate the Asian action hero. This possibility is reinforced by the fact that, in one scene, the heroine awakens to discover our ‘hero’ leering at her body, and beats the crap out of him simply by trapping his head between her legs (it’s a lot less interesting than it sounds, believe me). Also, the only overtly masculine guy who isn’t ridiculed is the baddest of the bad guys who looks completely out of place in this movie because he looks like the average casting director’s idea of a samurai warrior.
As 7 Star Grand Mantis is a kung-fu movie, there are plenty of fights to keep fans entertained. The pace of the fights perhaps isn’t as frenetic here as it is today, but there’s something fascinating about each fighter’s movements; there’s almost a kind of beauty in the impeccable timing of the participants, and a choreography in their precise and intricate movements that is reminiscent of dance. Movies today rely too much on the quick-edit, and on pace and violence, and rob the viewer of the chance to appreciate the art that is inherent in the fight. This, and this alone, would be the only reason you might want to watch 7 Star Grand Mantis.
(Reviewed 2nd July 2008)