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HALF A LOAF OF KUNG FU

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jackie Chan
Director:  Chi-Hwa Chen
Audio:  Dolby Mono
Video:  Pan & Scan 1.33:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  Bonus Trailers
Length:  97 Minutes
Release Date:  December 17, 2002

ďIf Iím lying, Iím a son of a bitch!Ē

Film ***

American fans of Jackie Chan have been waiting a long time for the chance to own his earliest effort at kung fu comedy in its original scope widescreen format.  Unfortunately, we have to keep waiting.  Despite the sticker on the front of the package of the new Columbia Tri Star release of Half a Loaf of Kung Fu assuring that the widescreen version is included, it isnít.  Somebody goofed.

The opening credits, as has been the case with previous video releases, IS in widescreen, and the credit sequence alone is worth giving this 1978 pre-mega star Jackie Chan title a look.  Throughout the 70s, it was common for Hong Kong martial arts films to have opening credits showcasing their starís abilities with kung fu and weapons while having nothing to do with the story. 

In Half a Loaf of Kung Fu, the tradition is turned hilariously on its ear.  Amongst the scenarios are Chan battling a wooden dummy only about a foot high, a swordfight in which he easily dispatches a team of bad guys before turning to the camera and saying, ďNo way!Ē, a bit of him playing an old master whose students suddenly turn on him, and a hysterical musical cue (only present in the Chinese language track, for some reason).

Itís clear from the start that Chanís purpose was to make a kung fu spoof, and having been given creative control for the first time in his career by legendary Hong Kong producer Lo Wei, he set out to do just that.  A genre that was considered sacred by many gave Chan his first opportunity to showcase the sense of humor that would very soon after help him become an international star.

Chan plays a wanderer who gets into one troublesome situation after another.  He knows very little kung fu, so he ends up getting his behind kicked in one fight scene after anotherÖeven the women beat him up pretty good!  But he dreams of being a fighting starÖliterally, in one memorable sequence, when he dreams heís fighting a gang of rogues.  He finds some spinach, and while the Popeye theme plays, he turns into a master and dispatches of the goons!

Eventually, he finds himself learning more and more kung fu, thanks to an unlikely old master and his flatulence-prone top student, and even serving as a bodyguard to a clan (and its masterís beautiful daughter) as they try to transport a sacred treasure through hostile territory.

The slow learning process gives this movie the best of both worlds.  Early on, Chanís attempts at action are comic and inept, and generally very funny.  By the end, though, he fights like the Jackie Chan we know, in a couple of spectacularly acrobatic scenes.  Chan even gets to experiment with a technique he would later become famous for:  using anything and everything around him to fight with.  He even throws the beautiful daughter around with dexterity as a weapon!

Because of Chanís humor and willingness to take chances with such an established, rigid movie form, Half a Loaf of Kung Fu remains arguably the most entertaining of his films prior to his achieving super stardom.  Unfortunately, producer Lo Wei didnít agree at the time.  Enraged by Chanís blasphemous spoof, he shelved the picture for several years.  It didnít see the light of day until Jackie Chan broke big in the early 80s!

In fact, this is one of Chanís only early Lo Wei films that still earns his recommendation.  In his autobiography I Am Jackie Chan, he promises fans that itís at least worth a rental.  Though Jackie would continue incorporating humor into his pictures throughout his career, he never did so again with such an obvious eye for parody, so I have to agree with himÖthis is one worth checking out.

Video **

This is probably the best home video version Iíve yet seen for this filmÖsad, though, because the lack of widescreen keeps it substandard.  Film preservation was never prominent in Asia, so many of these old kung fu films look quite bad, but Half a Loaf of Kung Fu actually benefits from less softness, better and more truer colors, and a generally clean print with only a few minor flaws here and there.  The panning and scanning mutilates some of the fight scenes, though, especially in group fights.  You canít see everyone on the screen at the same time, and sometimes punches and kicks come from outside the viewing area!

I can only believe that the studioís intent WAS to release this movie with a widescreen version, and since something obviously went wrong, I hope they intend to revisit this title soon and make it right.

Audio **

You can choose original Cantonese or English dubbed mono soundtracks.  Since none of these early Hong Kong films recorded live sound, either one is acceptable.  To be honest, part of the enjoyment of watching old kung fu films for me has been the atrocious English language tracks, though make sure you at least listen to the Chinese track during the opening credits so you donít miss the amusing musical cue I mentioned!

Features *

The disc contains only two bonus trailers, for Jet Liís The One and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Summary:

Half a Loaf of Kung Fu proved Jackie Chanís combined talents for action, comedy, and being ahead of his time.  Though it missed a chance to garner an audience initially, it now stands as a testament to the kind of career that was only a few years away for him.  I only hope that someday we fans in America will finally get the long elusive chance to watch this spoof in its original widescreen form.