Movies On Fire: Yuen Clan Attack!

Introducing Movies On Fire, a new series that looks at the wildest, weirdest and wackiest movies to ever come out of Hong Kong. In this first installment an examination of the Yuen Clan; you know Yuen Wo-Ping from movies like THE MATRIX and CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, but you probably didn’t know about the whole family, and their crazy movies like SHAOLIN DRUNKARD.


By now, everyone knows Yuen Wo-ping. For those who were sleeping during class, he’s the whip-thin director and action choreographer who discovered Donnie Yen (Drunken Tai Chi), made Jackie Chan famous (Snake in Eagle’s Shadow, Drunken Master) and who is by law required to choreograph any martial arts movie made in Hollywood (The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Kill Bill vol. 1 & 2). But what you may not know is that Yuen Wo-ping comes from a whole family of Yuens, and while they’re all respected action choreographers, directors, writers, producers, stuntmen and actors in their own right, when they get together they form a mighty, Voltron-sized Mecha-Lunatic.

They are:

Yuen Wo-ping - the most famous Yuen.

Yuen Cheung-yan - the rat-faced Yuen who usually winds up playing women.

Sunny Yuen - the badass Yuen, who plays the bad guys.

Yuen Yat-chor - the baby-faced Yuen, who plays “cherry boys.”

Brandy Yuen - behind-the-scenes Yuen, he always does the choreography and serves as a stunt double.

The Yuens were launched from the loins of their dad, Simon Yuen, a longtime action maestro who shot to stardom at age 66 when he played the original drunken master, Beggar So, in Jackie Chan’s first two hit movies, Snake in Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master. Simon Yuen was one of Hong Kong’s first action directors, a job he held while homeschooling his kids as martial artists and stuntmen in order to make them more awesome. Raised in poverty and paid a pittance for their bone-breaking stuntwork, upon gaining a foothold in the industry they popped open their skulls and unleashed four demonic displays of hair-raising high weirdness: Dreadnaught(1981), The Miracle Fighters (1982), Shaolin Drunkard (1983), and Taoism Drunkard (1984).

Swinging on wires like a kung fu Tarzan looped on LSD, these pungent pulp creations are stuffed with dime-store wonders that overwhelm the viewer who, as if brained with a rubber chicken, eventually stumbles out of the theatre, eyes whirling wildly in their skulls. With their synthesizers set on maximum waka, they featured robots, fighting jar monsters, musically-controlled frogmen, bomb cars, fire-breathing marionettes, Yuen Cheung-yan doing double roles (as a bong-smoking granny, and a rat-faced drunk) all of it greased with smuttiness and toilet humor and the occasional giant penis costume. But keep in mind that the people delivering this cannabis-scented cloud of insanity are some of the greatest martial artists cinema has ever seen.

Dreadnaught strikes the perfect balance between skull-busting wirework, gothic plotlines, and a nightmare assortment of characters cast from the monsters who live under your bed. Sunny Yuen would go on to play a lot of bad guys, but none would be more psychotic than his White Tiger, a quick-kicking serial killer who doesn’t just kill his opponents, he rips them into tiny shreds with his bare hands. Wanted by the cops, he hides out in a Peking Opera troupe currently stationed in Foshan, home of that paragon of Chinese virtue, Wong Fei-hung (this would be the final film for the man who invented the part, Kwan Tak-hing, here 76 years old). One of Wong’s students is buddies with a cowardly laundry boy played by the uber-acrobat, Yuen Biao (Jackie Chan’s “little brother” from Chinese Opera School) and for some reason White Tiger gets a hard-on to kill Yuen Biao, who practises the only kung fu he knows: running away. Before the flick is over, the Demon Tailor will make an appearance, as will those giggling black and white bodyguards of Hell, Hak Mo Seung & Bak Mo Seung. There will be flying blade hats, laudry-fu and more grim gothic craziness than you can stab with a razor-sharp tongue.

The balance tipped away from “coherence” and more in favor of “brain exploding” with their next film, Miracle Fighters. The story of a kidnapped prince and the evil wizard who blah blah blah, it suddenly rocketed into another dimension of lysergic wonder in the finale when a bunch of wizards hold a giant smackdown in what looks like one of the less desireable suburbs of Hell. Harry Potter and the Hogwarts gang would faint in terror if they beheld the wizardry in this flick: passive aggressive talking fish dying in vats of boiling oil, Cousin It’s Chinese counterpart biting through his chains, a truly “We Really Don’t Care If They Die, We Have a 50% Off Stuntmen Coupon Anyways” punch-up in a pit of cobras and one dude who has the bright idea of hacking off his own legs so they can fight independently of his floating body.

The madness of Miracle Fighter’s finale was spread more liberally over the entire running time of their next film, Shaolin Drunkard (the hardest-to-find of this Quasimodo Quadrilogy). Sunny Yuen plays an evil dude again, this time on the lookout for 10 virgin boys. He needs his cherry boys because their blood will give him the power he needs to…whatever. All you gotta know is that everything catches on fire in this movie. It’s as if the Yuen Clan finally learned the secret of setting their stuntmen ablaze without actually killing them. Giant marionettes breath fire (and fart), martial arts masters lock arms and throw shapes while their hands are on fire, tiny wooden cars explode, the walls explode, blood explodes, everything explodes. Making less sense but featuring more explodey than your average Yuen Clan picture, this merely set the stage for what might be their weirdest excursion into outer space yet: Taoism Drunkard.

If Dreadnaught is, objectively, the best of the Yuen Clan’s Missions to Melt Your Brain, (featuring as it does, great actors giving precision comic performances, genuine scenes of sheer terror, crackerjack martial arts that resemble something actually found on this planet, and an engaging story that delivers the goods), then Taoism Drunkard is in another dimension altogether. It starts with a Little Mouse Car running over monks and it ends with a statue coming to life and stabbing a dude to death, and in between the plot centers around the quest to get a Cherry Boy to use his “fluids” to cleanse a temple of sin. Boiling up your brain like a western omelet, it shows you Lord Ruthless with no palms throwing his multiplying cluster bomb in your face; the weird, spherical Watermelon Monster chasing you on its stumpy legs and trying to wrap its electronic tentacles around your breasts; old Granny smoking her bong and spinning on her throw cushion; flying sleeves, antenna hair, the Mannequin Man, catapulting bombs, traps, rats, drunkards…freak out!

Weird, wiggy, wild explosions of talent and surreal brio,the Yuen Clan movies are absurdist ambushes that spring at the audience, claws at their skulls, and pulls out their brains. Then it takes their brains out on the town and gets them soused at a cheap gin mill while watching three-armed strippers do a fan dance with seals. Then it buys the brains tickets to a Mexican monkey wrestling match, maybe feeds them a lot of sauerkraut, drives them out to Three Mile Island to get fully loaded on hardcore radiation, and finally, ninety minutes later, returns them - groggy, dyspeptic, mutated and burping - to their owners.

They are ten cent celluloid marvels the likes of which the world will never see again.