A simple tale of two martial arts masters who join forces to defeat a seemingly unstoppable kung fu killing machine.
It might sound clichéd but when your two heroes are Wong Tao & John Liu, and your villain is the irrepressible Hwang Jan-lee as “Silverfox”, it's anything but.
As Joe Bob Briggs might say for Kung Fu City, "It's time!"
The Man from Hong Kong, Big Mike Leeder takes a look back at the classic
“Nan Quan Bei Tui”
Every year a ‘duel to the death” martial arts tournament is held, with the winner being rewarded with not only wealth and praise, but a high ranking position in the Imperial guard. The event draws fighters from all across the country, and even from Europe hoping to prove their martial skills once and for all.
This year one fighter is Sheng Ying-wei (Wong Tao), a highly skilled Chinese kung fu stylist known as “Southern Fist”, while another is Shao Yi-fei (John Liu), a masterful kicker known as “Northern Leg”.
While Sheng spends his time away from the tournament romancing the Inn’s female owner Ms.Shing, Shao seems more intent to spend his time spying on their activities as it would appear he also has feelings for her. It’s soon revealed that the organizers have plans for something a little different with this year’s tournament; they intend to groom the winner as an assassin to wipe out their political rivals.
As the tournament continues, both men fight their way through the rankings with Sheng defeating a heavily favoured Russian fighter and being offered the newest position in the Imperial guard. He accepts but asks for a couple of days in which to take care of some personal matters, and uses the time to romance Ms.Shing and find out the truth about his rival for her affections and his position in the Imperial Guard.
But it’s soon revealed that both men must be forced to put away their rivalry if they are to defeat the super kicking killing machine that is the white haired devil known as “Silver Fox” (Hwang Jan-lee).
his is without a doubt one of the “original” classics of Kung Fu Cinema, it not only showcased the abilities of leading men Don Wong Tao & John Liu, but also gave Korean superkicker Wang Jan-lee a role that would become so identified with him that he would acquire the moniker “Silverfox” amongst so many fans, and play variations on the role in countless movies in the years that followed.
Its now over thirty years since Secret Rivals (Nan Quan Bei Tui) or Southern Fists, Northern Kicks as its known in Chinese hit the screen.
It ranked in the top thirty films at the Hong Kong box office in a year dominated by Cantonese comedies including that years box office champion The Private Eyes, which starred comedy team the Hui brothers, way ahead of Jackie Chan’s Shaolin Wooden Men & New Fist of Fury, and John Woo’s classic Countdown In Kung Fu/Hand Of Death starring another superkicker Tan Tao-liang, John Liu’s master and Chan himself in a supporting role as well as choreographic duties.
The film was directed by uber producer Ng See-yuen and Korean actor/director James Nam (Nam Suk-hoon in Korean, Nan Kung-hsun in Cantonese).
Ng See-Yuen had been a producer at Golden Harvest but had left in 1975 to form his own company Seasonal Films, with this Chinese/Korean co-production being one of the first films for the new company. Ng has always had a reputation for his ability to spot talent and had been one of the first to realize the potential of a certain Bruce Lee, and would go on to spot and develop the talent of Jackie Chan and a certain Jean Claude Van Damme giving both of them their first real big breaks with the films Snake In The Eagles Shadow and No Retreat, No Surrender.
For Secret Rivals, Ng chose Don Wong Tao who had previously battled Chuck Norris in the American lensed Slaughter in San Francisco and Taiwanese superkicker John Liu, while Korean TKD master Hwang Jan-lee who’d already begun to make a name for himself in various Korean productions was hired to play the eponymous “Silverfox”, and would go on to become Seasonal’s villain du jour over the following years on such projects as Lacky & The Lady Tiger, Death Ring, and Snake In The Eagles Shadow.
The films innovative fight choreography was handled by veteran choreographers Tommy Lee, Chang Chuen, and both Corey Yuen Kwai & Yuen Biao as assistant choreographers.
While Yuen Woo-Ping’s name is often connected to the film, he came in as choreographer for the sequel imaginatively entitled Secret Rivals 2, but you would imagine that certain elements of this film served as inspiration for Yuen when he helmed Snake In The Eagles Shadow for Seasonal in the next year or two, including of course Hwang Jan-lee’s white haired villain.
The film's plot may be simple, but Ng and Nam use its simplicity to their advantage and make full use of the resources available to them without explaining the heroes motivations, the back plot surrounding the villains motives or the fact that its such an unpopulated land the characters find themselves in, a Korea full of beautiful rolling hills and temples.
Even the tournament is something of a secondary plot point, although it does allow for a moment of comic relief when the big hairy European fighter comes to town, scaring children and boasting of his prowess only to be rapidly defeated by Wong Tao.
The film features multiple stand out action sequences that really serve as showcases to highlight the abilities of the villainous Hwang Jan-lee, who gives a somewhat subdued performance technique wise compared to his later work while both Wong & Liu get to show their stuff, against various opponents, hanging jugs of water in Liu’s case and each other before they realize their biggest common threat is Master Hwang, and the battle lines are drawn for a final showdown.
The film has had various releases over the years, the original Hong Kong VHS release by Universe showcased a crisp letterboxed print while subsequent VCD releases went for a battered full screen version, Crash Cinema gave the film a pretty widespread North American DVD release while the UK release from the late lamented Soul Blade label was perhaps the best version released so far. It offered a nicely remastered print, a rare trailer for the film, both original Mandarin language and English Dubs, as well as a photo showcase from the film and an exclusive interview and audio commentary featuring leading man Wong Tao.
With the help of the late great Linn Haynes, I did track down the superkicking Silverfox himself, Hwang Jan-Lee for an extensive on-camera interview for Hong Kong Legends some years ago, and it was meant to be included as part of a Platinum Edition Snake in the Eagles Shadow & Drunken Master DVD box set.
But for various reasons, that edition never emerged and the interview was consigned to the Hong Kong Legends vaults, and despite repeated requests I’ve never even been able to get a copy for myself or Master Hwang himself. Hwang recently began to renter the public eye giving seminars and there is a documentary in production about the man himself, entitled The Anonymous King.
As for John Liu, well his later career choices could be considered eccentric to say the least, the classic Zen Kwun Do In Paris also known as Kung Fu Leung Vs Emmanuel saw Liu playing John Liu the superkicking founder of Zen Kwun Do, battling his way through various GI wearing opponents while romancing various women. Highlights include one woman become a nun due to being unable to maintain her relationship with Liu, and a scene where Liu’s training regime serves as an aphrodisiac for a number of scantily clad women who shall we say get worked up by his skills!
Liu’s last appearance was in the pot boiler Trinity Goes East where be briefly let loose with some bootwork during the finale.