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Dog beating stick fighter
A region 2 DVD review of KING OF BEGGARS / MIU CHONG YUEN SO HAT NGAI by Slarek
 

The name of Stephen Chow has become synonymous with kung-fu comedy through the widespread success of Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, films that reached an international audience after being bought up for distribution by Miramax and Columbia Tristar respectively. Both were wild, inventive, fast-paced, and very, very funny. But fans of martial arts cinema will doubtless have been following Chow's career for some time, charting the development from his first starring role in Jeffrey Lau and Corey Yuen's Du sheng (All for the Winner 1990) – an enjoyable spoof of Jing Wong's God of Gamblers (1989) – to his position today as one of the biggest stars on the Hong Kong movie scene, as well as one of its most successful directors. If you've come to Chow's work through his more widely seen later films and you're looking to explore the path that led to Shaolin Soccer, then Hong Kong Legends are here to help with one of the key stepping stones in the shape of the 1992 Miu chong yuen so hat ngai, or King of Beggars.

Chow plays So Chan, the spoilt, lazy and dishevelled son of a wealthy Peking General, who on visiting a local brothel on a 25th birthday spending spree meets and falls for beautiful prostitute Yu Shang, whom he announces he intends to marry. She reluctantly agrees, but only if he proves himself to her by winning the local Kung-Fu Scholar tournament, something he aims to do through a combination of genuine fighting skills and examiner bribery. Complicating matters is the fact that Yu is not actually a real prostitute at all, but a member of the organisation known as The Association of Beggars, and is in the brothel to lure Chu – the Emperor's most dangerous bodyguard who uses magic to supplement his fighting skills – to his death as revenge for his murder of her father, once the Association's leader. The plan is foiled when conflict develops between Chu and the unknowing Chan – a full scale fight is prevented, but when Chu exposes Chan's cheating at the Tournament, Chan and his father are stripped of their possessions and wealth and commanded to live forever as beggars, leaving the way clear for Chu to overthrow the kingdom.

Much of this is traditional generic material, of course, with the hero cast down by an all-powerful bad guy specifically so that he can find his inner strength and nobility and rise up to defeat this enemy, whose threat to the love of his life will allow him to effect the necessary rescue. This is not only the familiar stuff of martial arts cinema (and most Hollywood actioners, as it happens), it's the path the audience expects them to follow, but with this in mind writer Kin Chung Chan and directors Gordon Chan and David Lam (and, I would wager, Chow himself) have considerable fun playing with these expectations. Chan himself (the lead character, not the writer or the co-director – this could get confusing) is hardly the noble hero of straight-up genre pieces, as while his scruffy arrogance is always engaging, the prospect of him being dished a dose of reality doesn't seem that bad a thing. When it happens, however, the humiliation and pain is REALLY piled on. He is repeatedly tricked of victory in the Tournament, exposed as an illiterate cheat when he wins by default (his opponent's attempt to kill him with a poisoned dart backfires), stripped of his home and his wealth and cast into the street, publicly forbidden by Chu from demonstrating his skills for money, and then horribly injured by him so that he is unable to walk, let alone fight.

After a surprisingly touching and comedy-free midsection that highlights the sorry plight of Chan and his father, the relentless optimism of the pre-poverty Chan re-emerges and occasionally turns expectations on their heads. Forced by soldiers who are threatening to arrest his father to eat dog food, for example, Chan is surprised how delicious it is and he and his father tuck hungrily in, turning humiliation into a sort of oddball victory. His inevitable recovery is similarly laced with offbeat touches, his dream-induced reconstitution at the hands of a beggar he was once kind to (an amusing cameo from top fight choreographer and director Yuen Woo-ping) gives him the opportunity to enter a meeting of the Association of Beggars in the manner of a reborn hero, only to step forward and fall flat on his face.

This is not the wild mugging and slapstick of Knockabout and its ilk, nor is the action-comedy as densely developed as in Chow's more recent works. But the balance the film strikes is for the most part a great deal of fun and there are enough inventive touches to clearly point the way to things to come: the small blast of magic force let loose by Chu that blows Chan's hat off and imbeds it in a pillar; Chan's instinctive elbow hit to the face when caught by surprise that leaves the brothel's female owner with a bloody nose and a headache; the score cards held up at the weightlifting event ("Failure" for the montage of those crushed by the weights, "Brazen" for Chan's refusal to try); the mass peeing that results from the news that urine is a poison gas antidote ("Don't worry, I peed a lot, we can share"); Chan's Sleeping Lohan Kung Fu and the very concept of something called Dog Beating Stick Kung Fu; and so on.

Technically, King of Beggars is a very proficient and executed on what at times is almost a grand scale, and as ever Chow makes for a very engaging hero. The film's principal weakness is that neither the comedy nor the action are developed enough to really carry the film alone and combined make for an enjoyable rather than exceptional whole. But it IS enjoyable and consistently so, and when the comedy does click it can prove laugh-out-loud stuff. The action is always efficiently handled, although the climactic final confrontation between Chan and Chu is, in fight terms, a bit of a let down. It should nevertheless prove essential viewing for genre fans and anyone looking to widen their appreciation of Stephen Chow, who is on fine form throughout and whose sense of comic timing remains one of the comedy-action genre's most valuable assets.

sound and vision

As expected with a Hong Kong Legends release, the transfer is largely first rate, with colour and contrast bang on and not a dust spot to be seen. The level of detail is very impressive, although some of this has been achieved via visible edge enhancement, resulting in some halos and the occasional instance of detail shimmering. Otherwise this is well up to HKL's usual high standards. The framing is 1.85:1 and the picture is anamorphically enhanced.

The 5.1 Cantonese remix is also very nice, displaying impressive range and separation on music and some sound and atmos effects, with the surrounds also well used in this regard. Lower frequencies are not widely used, but kick in nicely in some of the music and the occasional sound effect. The original mono soundtrack is also included for purists, as is expected English dub, which is conducted in the usual exaggerated American accents and frequently differs from the subtitles in its 'creative' interpretation of the dialogue.

extra features

No Bey Logan commentary! Boo! Oh well, we do have an Rags to Riches: An Interview with Director Gordon Chan (20:09), in which co-director Chan talks about Stephen Chow's success, the original story (King of Beggars is as old and famous Chinese fable) and his decision to change it to suit the expectations of a modern cinema audience, and the making of the film itself, which is always interesting. My favourite anecdote reveals that the snow for the winter scenes was actually ammonia-based fertiliser, which Chan assures us "looked beautiful but smelt awful." The interview is conducted in English with one (relevant) use of the word "fuck" bleeped out, despite the disc's 15 certificate.

Beggar's banquet: Interactive Stephen Chow Biography is a brief summary of the star's career, with links to three relevant trailers.

Promotional Gallery includes the UK Promotional Trailer (1:06) and the Original Theatrical Trailer (2:39). The UK trailer, for reasons best known to the distributor, mistranslates the held-up score cards, giving them three different scores when even non-Chinese readers can see they are all the same.

You'll also find trailers for eight other HKL DVD releases.

summary

Nothing too surprising in plot or character or even action, but damned enjoyable and worthwhile for Stephen Chow's performance, the handsome production values and some very well executed comic moments.

For a self-styled Platinum Edition this is a bit thin on extras – only the interview raises the disc much above bare bones – and the picture would have done fine without the edge enhancement, but otherwise the film is well presented and a must for fans of Chow's unique blend of action and comedy – just don't go expecting something of Kung Fu Hustle's intensity of ideas and incident and you'll be fine.

King of Beggars
Miu chong yuen so hat ngai

Hong Kong 1992
93 mins
directors
Gordon Chan
David Lam
starring
Stephen Chow
Ng Man Tat
Man Cheung
Norman Chu
Wai Lam
Peter Lai

DVD details
region 2
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 5.1 surround
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
Cantonese
English
subtitles .
English
Dutch
extras
Interview with Gordon Chan
Stephen Chow biography
Trailers
distributor
Hong Kong Legends
release date
24 April 2006
review posted
22 April 2006

See all of Slarek's reviews