New HK Film Archive exhibition highlights the cinematic legend of Wong Fei-hung

Hong Kong (HKSAR) - In films, dressed in his best attire and wearing a stern face, Wong Fei-hung is often seen lecturing his apprentices at his famous Po Chi Lam clinic. He talks about the essence of kung fu, which he believes strengthens the body but without agitating rivals. Master Wong's cinematic character is more about displaying the Confucian virtues of wisdom and benevolence.

Wong Fei-hung cinema certainly had its own characteristics. Over 100 films capturing the spirit of his time have been produced in the past five decades. Kwan Tak-hing, Gordon Liu and Jet Li have each played Master Wong to reflect the changes in society and social values across different eras.

The Hong Kong Film Archive's (HKFA) exhibition "Benevolence and Loftiness: The Cinematic Legend of Wong Fei-hung" opens today (March 31) at the Exhibition Hall and will run until July 22.

Based on the setting of Xiguan houses, the exhibition reconstructs Master Wong's Po Chi Lam clinic as seen in the movies. With oral history interviews, precious film stills and videos displayed in the settings of the main hall, side hall, bedroom, study room and courtyard, the exhibition reveals the legendary spirit and virtue characterised in the Wong film genre.

The exhibition also introduces the different martial arts shown in Master Wong's film saga. Godson of Wong's wife Mok Kwai-lan and master of the "Hung" fist, Mr Li Chan-wo, performed a lion dance with his apprentices today at the exhibition.

Mr Lau Ka-yung, a fifth generation student of Master Wong and Mr Pang Chi-ming, a fourth generation student, also attended the activity at the exhibition.

Wong Fei-hung is not a fictional character. He was born in the late Qing period and from a young age performed martial arts with his father.

He won fame at an early age and set up his own martial arts school and clinic before reaching 20. He is remembered as a hero who defeated his rivals with his bare hands. He led a difficult life but two decades after his death became a legendary hero in fiction, radio plays and film.

The study of martial arts became popular after the Second World War. In 1949, the director Wu Pang adapted the story of Wong Fei-hung into a movie. The film was thought to celebrate the virtue of protecting the weak and to revive the Cantonese tradition.

It also brought emotional relief to those who missed their Mainland home. In "The Story of Wong Fei-hung, Part One: Wong Fei-hung's Whip that Smacks the Candle" (1949), Wong first appears on the silver screen with a westernised haircut. Confronted by other masters, he returns to his clinic and complains to his disciples.

Unlike the monolithic hero known to his later audience, he is wild and vents his anger during a fierce fight. In "Wong Fei-hung at a Boxing Match" (1956), Wong is transformed from a reckless fighter to a benevolent and thoughtful Confucian.

Hong Kong was shaping into a metropolis by the end of the 1960s, but on the silver screen Master Wong remains pedantic and even helpless at times. Director Wong Fung and screenwriter Szeto On turned a new leaf in the Wong series and produced nine quality Wong Fei-hung movies in two years from 1968 to 1969, including "Wong Fei-hung: The Incredible Success in Canton" (1968), "Wong Fei-hung: The Eight Bandits" (1968) and "Wong Fei-hung's Combat with the Five Wolves" (1969).

In the 1970s, prequels about Wong's early life and stories about Wong's apprentices appeared, and director Lau Kar-leung introduced the Southern Fist into his films.

He boldly casts Wong as a youth in "Challenge of the Masters" (1976) and "Martial Club" (1981), with Gordon Liu performing the authentic Hung Fist, with an emphasis on the importance of the martial arts spirit. With dynamic action choreography, director Yuen Woo-ping offers a combination of vaudeville and fighting in "Drunken Master" (1979) and "Dreadnaught" (1981), creating a kung fu comedy featuring Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao.

The Wong Fei-hung film series enjoyed a successful comeback in the 1990s. Director Tsui Hark juxtaposes Wong's story with the historical and political developments of the time.

The allegory of a master disturbed by political and cultural turmoil reflects the director's concern about his city and its motherland during this transitional period. Jet Li and Chiu Man-cheuk are featured as the young Master Wong in Tsui's works. The influence of Tsui's "Once Upon a Time in China" (1991) is far-reaching and its legacy can be seen in the recent film hit "Ip Man" (2008).

Using a different approach, director Li Lik-chee's "Once Upon a Time a Hero in China" (1992) is an anti-hero and postmodern spin-off of the iconic Wong legend.

Outstanding performances by the actors and those behind the scenes contributed much to the success of the Wong Fei-hung saga. Master Wong's compassionate, humble, honest and well respected image on silver screen is a manifestation of Kwan Tak-hing's personae. A sturdy, strong-armed and avid martial arts practitioner, Kwan created a resilient, honourable and solemn image of Master Wong.

Using a different approach, Gordon Liu embodied the quality of resoluteness in the young Master Wong. He showcased not only the "Hung" fist but also that being respectful was the ultimate principal of martial arts. Jet Li had started training in Beijing for martial arts in childhood and this helped him renew the image of Wong Fei-hung as gentle but authoritative as well as young and successful.

Not to be missed are some of the other notable characters in Master Wong films, such as the "Villain Kin" played by Sek Kin, who participated in more than 70 Wong Fei-hung movies. Wong's disciple Leung Foon, played by Tso Tat-wah is also worth a mention, as is the role of Beggar So and others.

The HKFA's retrospective on Wong Fei-hung is a contributory programme of the 36th Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF), and includes various events. From now until May 26, "Once Upon a Hero: The Wong Fei-hung Saga" will screen 26 representative films and television works from the 1940s to the 1990s.

The HKFA's new publication "Mastering Virtue: The Cinematic Legend of a Martial Artist", with an English edition on CD-ROM, examines the cinema of Wong Fei-hung from a historical background and considers its various artistic characteristics and film genres. In addition, a seminar entitled "The Kung Fu Saga of Wong Fei-hung" will be held at 4.30pm on May 12. Master Wong's students from different generations, Mr Pang Chi-ming, Mr Lau Ka-yung and Mr Li Chan-wo, will speak at the seminars.

Admission for the exhibition and seminars is free.

Programme information and details of various discounts can be obtained in the "ProFolio 62" or in the 36th HKIFF booking folder distributed at all performing venues of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. For programme enquiries, please call 2739 2139 or 2734 2900 or browse the website:

Published on: 2012-03-31

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