Terracotta have always been keen to bring us the best of contemporary Asian cinema, but with the “Classic Kung Fu Collection” they aim to shine a light on some of the much-loved movies of the martial arts golden age that have been absent from UK screens for entirely too long. This third entry in the series, King of Fists and Dollars, is a more niche release than the others in the series and has been long unavailable in its original Mandarin language version. Shot in Taiwan in 1979 but starring a host of Shaw Brothers favourites, King of Fists and Dollars is a fairly typical example of its genre but perhaps fails to offer anything more.
In feudal China, a tyrannical lord, Chien, rules over the local population with extreme cruelty and disdain. Following a mining accident in which several miners are killed or injured and Chien outright refuses to pay compensation to their families, the townspeople begin to look for a champion to fight Chien on their behalf. Luckily a famous kung-fu master lives in the town, but unluckily he’s retired and not that keen on helping. Nevertheless he finally agrees and a mini rebellion begins to take place - however, Chien is not someone to be lightly overthrown.
King of Fists and Dollars is pretty much your typical late ‘70s kung-fu film. The plot is fairly simple and set-piece heavy, with the consequence that we simply move from fight scene to fight scene with a few comedy moments thrown in. There is the standard trope of the young hopeful who is forced (or in this case tricked for comic intent) to complete a series of bizarre tasks - this time including catching a hundred frogs and hanging upside down all night in a tree, in order to prove worthy enough to be allowed to train with the great master. Indeed, training scenes make up a large percentage of the movie as the Iron Fist King trains up a force to beat Chien with the usual bucket-based workouts and tricky games of agility.
However, when the action scenes arrive they are fairly impressive. All of the different characters fight in different styles and poses, and the choreography leans more towards traditional, clearly defined moves than the more fluid technique prevalent later. There is a fair bit of obvious wire work and off-camera trickery at play but fans of old school action will find plenty to enjoy here, especially in the latter part of the film which sees the gang facing off against Chien’s seemingly unstoppable champion.
Fans of older kung-fu movies may be more likely to forgive the obvious problems with the film’s presentation which, to put it kindly, is “imperfect”. The film is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio rather than the original 2.35:1 (explaining why one character finishes her martial arts trick off screen) and has not been particularly well preserved. Crackly, worn and a little fuzzy the image quality is often disappointing, though to be fair this may be the best available at the present time. The disc comes with the English dub as the default soundtrack, with the original Mandarin plus French and Spanish dubs with English subtitles available from the menu screen. The Mandarin language soundtrack is similarly fuzzy with a few brief drop outs every now and then but the subtitles are generally fine. Given the film’s rarity (particularly in its Mandarin language version with English subtitles), many genre enthusiasts may find tolerating these defects an acceptable trade-off in return for seeing the film but casual fans may have a much harder time forgiving them.
King of Fists and Dollars is therefore something of a mixed bag. A fairly ordinary, pretty typical Taiwanese martial arts film from the late ‘70s, it offers everything you would expect but perhaps not much more. The cast of starry Shaw Brothers faces including David Chiang, Danny Lee, Pearl Cheung Ling and Chao Hsiung are all accomplished performers doing what they best, but nobody is really expected to stretch here. Genre fans will certainly jump at the chance to see this rare film but for the casual viewer its charms may be harder to discern.