The cinematic saga of Wong Fei-hung begins here with Kwan Tak-hing's iconic portrayal of the folk hero in The [True] Story of Wong Fei-hung. (Or more accurately, The True Story of Wong Fei-hung: Wong Fei-hung's Whip That Smacks the Candle.)
Born in Fushan, Wong was a physician, military coach, and renowned martial arts expert. His father, Wong Kei-ying, was one of the famed Ten Tigers of Guangdong, the most renowned and respected martial artists in southern China and the subject of numerous folk tales, legends, and films in their own right. (Wong Fei-hung himself was never one of the Ten Tigers, although numerous movies inaccurately depict him as such.) The elder Wong was also a physician, practicing medicine from his clinic, Po Chi Lam, in Guangzhou. Some say that Kei-ying refused to teach his son martial arts for unknown reasons, so the younger Wong learned from his father's teacher Luk Ah-choi, although other sources say he learned from both. As he grew up, he continued in his father's footsteps practicing medicine, and like his father, became known for his compassion and willingness to treat anyone. In addition to training Liu Yong-fu's Black Flag Army (no connection to my literary debut) and serving as their physician, Wong established his own martial arts school and coached the local militias. Some of his disciples, such as Lam Sai-wing, became folk heroes in their own right. After the Republic of China's establishment, Wong was hired to protect businesses from gangs, as were his students, and they presumably got all sorts of chances to put their martial arts skills to use.
Kwan left the opera to return to filmmaking in 1947, including starring in a couple of Wu Pang's films. Throw in Kwan's extensive martial arts background, and the rest, as they say, is history. Kwan's debut as Wong Fei-hung, appropriately titled The [True] Story of Wong Fei-hung, was actually serialized into four feature-length films, ending on cliffhangers to draw the audiences back to the theaters for the next installment. (This review is only based on the first part, the only one I've seen so far - but one that still tells a mostly complete story in its own right.) Even after this particular series of films concluded, Kwan periodically returned to his iconic role in other movies, including Magnificent Butcher (1978) and Dreadnaught (1981).
We open in Fushan, where Wong Fei-hung (Kwan Tak-hing) is performing a lion dance in front of a crowd of spectators. One of them, Leung Foon (Walter Tso) picks a fight with the other spectators, but Wong settles everything diplomatically. Foon insists on becoming Wong's disciple, and Wong accepts. During a lesson, Wong is petitioned to rescue Luo Suk-fong (Chan Lo-wah), the wife of a local businessman, from Tai Nan-hung (Tang Tak-wah), who has a great deal of influence in Fushan. Wong tries to settle things diplomatically, but naturally things end in a fight. Just to drive home this is meant to be a more realistic depiction of Wong, he's injured during the fight, despite his prowess, and forced to flee. He's taken in by Lu Ah-fun (Lee Lan) and her mother (Ma Siu-ying), who look after him as he recuperates - and naturally, Ah-fun is smitten. Sadly, Wong must go his separate way and return to his home city, where Foon makes a brewing rivalry with another teacher even worse. As Wong comes to rescue his student and confront his rival, the film ends abruptly, the action to be continued in the sequel.
Another famous face from this series is Yuen Siu-tin, patriarch of the famed Yuen clan, who worked as a stuntman on the Wong Fei-hung films, and often played the role of a henchman. Years later, he would co-star with Jackie Chan in Snake in the Eagle's Shadow and Drunken Master, both directed by his son Yuen Woo-ping. (You may recall from my Snake in the Eagle's Shadow review that this movie was Yuen Woo-ping's directorial debut.) Shek Kin regularly played villains in these films (and joked about how hard it became to find a new way for him to get beaten), and went on to face off with another kung fu legend, Bruce Lee, as the evil Mr. Han in Enter the Dragon (1973). Beyond the cast and crew, the folk song "On the General's Orders" has been associated with Wong Fei-hung for decades, and is one of the most iconic martial arts movie themes, comparable in significance to John Williams's Star Wars theme. (Even Around the World in 80 Days referenced it.) That's quite the legacy to leave behind.