e-mail:Smokey X. Digger
Snake and Crane: Arts of Shaolin
1978, Dir. Chen Chi Hwa
Yes, that's Jackie Chan. And what a different Jackie Chan it is. No goofy underdog Chris Tucker stuff going on here, this is vintage Chan circa 1978 kickin' ass and taking names in a confident and badass manner. With more in common with Five Deadly Venoms than Rumble In the Bronx, this will be a refreshing change for those who are only familiar with the more current Jackie. The action in this flick is about as close to nonstop as you can get, with people fighting at the drop of a hat and using more styles and techniques than you thought possible. And crossdressing, but we'll get into that later. I mean the topic of crossdressing, not ... you know what I mean.
The opening credits are noteworthy not only for the nifty weapons display going on, but for the music which also makes appearances in Five Deadly Venoms and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. For exposition, we learn that at the annual meeting of the eight Shaolin masters (which consists primarily of them knocking each other around a little bit) they recorded the details of a new style in a book - The style of snake and crane. Then, along with a mystical spear and the book, they disappeared, bringing chaos to the Eastern World. A warrior named Hsu Yin Fong (Chan) is rumored to have the book, so naturally everybody wants to kick his ass. We come upon our hero fishing in a very zen-like manner in icy, snowy waters. The three Ting brothers find him and threaten him, so he kicks their asses (NOTE: This is a pattern throughout). Hsu then goes to a market, where we meet the Plucky Filthy Wanderer Sidekick, a common trope in these kinds of movies. PFWS steals some food from a vendor ("My buns!!!" Gotta love this dubbing.) and is saved from a beating by Hsu who pays for them. They go to a restaurant where the Book of Snake and Crane falls out of Hsu's kimono and much ass kicking ensues, complete with the requisite shots of the restauranteur grimacing in dismay as his place gets wrecked.
After the restaurant brouhaha, Hsu is asked by a man who only speaks in two syllable phrases (perhaps he's a disguised pro basketball player) to accompany him to the temple, where we meet the lovely Tang Pin Er. She seeks the book in order to find information about her dead father. Hsu won't give it to her, she attacks him with her flute, they fight and he leaves. Back to his room at the local inn, Hsu finds PFWS dressed as a girl. Apparently the whole plucky filthy thing is a ruse. She leaves, and out pops the leader of the Beggar Clan who (you guessed it) seeks the book. They scuffle, Hsu wins, Beggar leaves. Now we meet our bad guy, who is a talking tiger pelt. Whoops, he was standing behind the chair, it's Lord Chien of the Black Dragon Clan. And he wants the (wait for it ...) book. Then we meet Lady Su-en who wants the book. And the flying tiger clan wants the book, and the Ting brothers show up again with a guy in a Santa Claus suit and they want the book, and these guys with big wicker nipples on their heads will accept payment to get the book ... you get the picture. Everybody wants the book and they're willing to do whatever they have to do to get it. This will lead to clans fighting clans and a climactic battle between Hsu and the lead bad guy. As formulaic as this seems, there is a fair amount of backstabbing and shifting alliances going on that make the plot interesting, especially when you find out who's been orchestrating the biggest plot of all. Those who went into this looking for an empty excercise in ass kicking will be knocked for a loop and those who have been following the plot will be pleasantly surprised. The fighting throughout is acrobatic, energetic, and quite simply amazing. Fans of actresses such as Michelle Yeoh and those who were taken by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon will be happy to note that the ladies get their kung-fu groove on as well. Also, unlike Crouching Tiger, people get hit in this movie; even Jackie himself takes a few lumps. (Did anybody else notice that about Crouching Tiger? That every fight seemed to be five minutes of blocks until someone either got nailed by a dart or just ran away?)
IN CLOSING: Digressing, wasn't I? Cinematography is not a strong suit throughout Snake and Crane. People wander out of shots, the camera tracks too far leaving people out of shots, some scenes are blurry (they use this technique once on purpose) but these are forgivable because the fight scenes are shot very well, and are varied enough to keep one interested. There are many styles apparent and several creative weapons; such as Tang's flute and a pipe used by a very entertaining character who can only be referred to as The Curser. The dubbing does give the film a strange sexual content, moreso when combined with the presence of the crossdressing PFWS. Minor plot points are lost with the winds, such as the spear that disappeared along with the book, and Tang Pin Er forgets about her father pretty quickly. But these things aside, Snake and Crane is a damn entertaining movie, and a definite must-see for anyone interested in the martial arts genre or fans of Jackie Chan. It's fast paced, there's fights a-plenty, and even a plot. Besides mindless legions of undead, what more could you ask for?