, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Odd Couple

Original title: Bo ming chan dao duo ming qiang

aka Eternal Conflict

D: Chia Lung Yiu / 91m

Cast: Sammo Hung, Ka-Yan Leung, Chia Yung Liu, Dean Shek, Hoi Sang Lee, Huang Ha, Peter Chan, Karl Maka, Lam Ching-Ying, Mars, San Tai

The King of Sabres (Hung) and the King of Spears (Liu) are fierce rivals whose fighting skills are tested in each year in a duel. But the contests are always a draw, and after fifteen years they hit upon the idea of each training an apprentice who will represent them in another duel and hopefully, decide the issue. With the idea agreed, the King of Sabres discovers his apprentice at a local market, where the young man, Stubborn Wing (Liu) is defending himself against a gangster (Lee) and two of his henchmen. With the King of Sabres’ aid, the trio are defeated, but Stubborn Wing resists the King of Sabres’ entreaties to become his apprentice. It’s only when his home is burned down and the King of Sabres offers to train Stubborn Wing with a view to letting him try to kill him when he’s ready, that the young man agrees to go with him.

In turn, the King of Spears finds his apprentice in the form of a boatman called Ah Yo (Hung). In contrast to Stubborn Wing, Ah Yo is more than eager to join the King of Spears, and joins him willingly. Over time they both learn from their respective masters, until the day comes for them to travel to the Wulin Sacred Place, where their respective masters have their duels. On the way, Ah Yo encounters a lord called Master Rocking (Shek) and his retinue at an inn. A fight ensues and Master Rocking and his men are defeated by Ah So; but when Stubborn Wing arrives at the same inn, Master Rocking returns with two mercenaries to challenge Ah Yo. Instead, the two apprentices take them on individually, beating them and teaching Master Rocking one final lesson.

At Wulin Sacred Place the pair begin their duel but are interrupted by the arrival of Laughing Bandit (Leung). Laughing Bandit, who bears a scar on his face and the back of one hand from duels he fought with both Kings years before, captures Stubborn Wing and Ah Yo. Knowing that their masters will try to rescue them, Laughing Bandit waits for them to arrive at his hideout, and to take revenge for the loss of face they’ve both caused him.

Odd Couple - scene

With dozens upon dozens upon dozens more martial arts movies made in Hong Kong during the Seventies, sorting the wheat from the chaff could be seen as either nigh on impossible, or the kind of project you’d need years to devote to. But what can be said about Odd Couple, is that it’s one of the best, a mix of silly comedy, stunning martial arts choreography, and a story that makes a virtue of its own simplicity.

It’s a movie that is almost incredibly silly at times, and yet it works, from the ridiculous mannerisms of Shek as Master Rocking, to the knowing facial expressions of its two Kings, to the scared remarks of two challengers to the King of Sabres’ title – “I’ll go and get my brother.” “I’ll go and tell my granny.” This is a movie that is easy to laugh along with and doesn’t descend fully into the kind of inexplicable playground humour that a lot of Hong Kong movies include (it may be funny to the people of Hong Kong but sometimes local humour doesn’t travel that well). There’s humour too in the relationships, where grudging respect is hidden beneath a barrage of insults and putdowns. There’s even a joke at the villain’s expense: when he and the two Kings come face to face it’s revealed that he used to be called Old Yellow Dog.

The story, despite some problems with its own timeline, keeps things moving from one glorious set-piece to another, and even lets some of the supporting characters share in the spotlight. A highlight is Mars’ performance as Potato, the King of Spears’ assistant. With a queue that features several short tufts of hair dotted above the forehead, and the kind of protruding upper middle teeth that Bugs Bunny would be proud of, Potato is a walking, talking “joke” all on his own. But it’s Hung and Liu who dominate, playing dual roles and yet creating four distinct and believable characters (and it’s a pleasant surprise that the movie doesn’t attempt to place them all in the same frame – or that it matters). Hung looks so youthful in this movie it serves as a reminder that he’s been making movies for such a long time (and to such a high standard). He has such a screen presence that he commands the screen in either role, and brings his usual high spirits to the material. But Liu matches him, playing his two roles with a more serious flair and frowning a lot, but clearly enjoying himself, both as an actor and as the director.

In the end, though, it’s action directors Yuen Biao, Lam Ching-Ying and Billy Chan who make the movie as entertaining and as breathtaking as it is. The martial arts choreography in Odd Couple is nothing short of astounding, with all concerned raising the bar with each action sequence. It’s incredible to see Hung and Liu – and Leung as well at the end – move with such speed and agility (though there is a moment where the action is speeded up deliberately, a nod perhaps to the sheer brio employed), and all without apparent benefit of wires or too much trickery in the editing suite. Every clash of sabre and spear or body blow is captured with loud, ringing clarity by the sound effects department, adding to the overall effect and making the action even more thrilling in its execution. Ming Ho’s cinematography supports it all with tremendous élan, perfectly framing each scene and showing a judicious use of close ups when required.

Rating: 8/10 – there’s a franchise that includes the words “fast” and “furious” in its title, but Odd Couple really is both those things, and very funny as well; with all the talent involved, it’s a movie that had every right to turn out as well as it did, and the overwhelming proof is there on the screen.