Dirty Ho

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/08/06 02:42:51

"It's a common Chinese name; get your mind out of the gutter!"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2006 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: Since this film was originally released in 1979, the title probably didn't have quite the same idiomatic meaning it does now. Said title was actually meant to cash in on the popularity of "Dirty Harry". And it's not as if the original title, "Rotten-Headed Ho", would be much better.

The Ho of the title is Ho Chen (Yue Wong), a small-time crook who has a brief competition with a travelling merchant, Mr. Wang (Gordon Liu), for the attentions of a pair of girls at a brothel (it's one of those kung fu movie brothels where people don't seem to come for sex). Ho loses his gold, attempts to get it back, and finds his kung fu doesn't compare to that of Wang, who is secretly a martial arts master. Ho sustains a nasty head wound that must be treated every three days with medicine only Wang has, and Wang insists Ho act as his disciple. Ho doesn't immediately see that Wang is being dogged by assassins, and is hiding more than just a mastery of the martial arts.

If you've seen a 1970s Shaw Brothers movie, you've got some idea of what you're in for - intrigues involving rogue generals and princes, groups of fighters united by a common theme and unorthodox fighting styles, fights with the sound effects cranked up and a tendency to fight one at a time. And, of course, training scenes. You've got to have the eccentric master putting his impatient disciple through some kind of improvised workout using unconventional equipment - Mr. Miyagi learned everything he knew from these guys. It's tradition, darn it, and fun until it reaches the level of self-parody.

Part of the reason that this movie isn't laughable is the genuine chemistry between Gordon Liu and Yue Wong as Wang and Ho. There's nothing particularly subtle going on - Wang is trying to get Ho to be a better man (and says as much), and rather envies Ho's lack of obligations. Ho, of course, responds to the genuine respect versus goodwill he purchases at the brothel. Their complimentary personalities, Ho crass and pretty much illiterate, Wang intellectual and absorbed by his beloved antiques and wine tastings. Both have strong screen presences, doing a much better job of selling us these characters as having individual personalities rather than a defining quirk or characteristic better than most Shaw Brothers characters. This is, I think, in part because Dirty Ho is a buddy film, rather than one which focuses on a large number of martial artists in identical haircuts - Liu and Wong actually have room to act, as well as fight.

Besides, without Dirty Ho, we might never see a martial-arts wine tasting. That sequence, and the similarly staged visit to the antique shop that follows it are two of the film's most delightful surprises, subtle martial arts tangos that go on beneath tables or just out of Ho's sight as Gordon Liu quickly counters his opponents' attacks with small movements of the hand or foot, all the while continuing to exchange pleasantries with his attackers who respond in kind because they just want Wang dead, not noticed. Many films from this period use big, screen-filling moves that are announced by name; these zippy little scenes almost succeed in convincing the audience that there's something else going on.

Of course, the bigger fights are fun too. Some are kind of silly - like the one featuring a guy known as "the biter" - but most are fast and athletic. Director Chia-Liang Liu also handled the martial arts instruction, and though this is relatively early in his career, he's the same guy that would later choreograph Drunken Master II and keep him working today, as the fight choreographer for Tsui Hark's recent Seven Swords. Yue Wong has much of the heavy lifting in those scenes, but he's more than capable. Wong and Liu also work great as a unit, so that the later scenes where Ho and Wang fight of assassins as if having one mind between them are smooth as can be.

The movie ends rather abruptly (another characteristic of the genre at the time), but what more does it need? They fight, we laugh, and that's how it should be.

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