YouTube to the rescue again! Being a big fan of Hong Kong movies of the 80s and 90s, I have wanted to see the above film since I first read about it. It's not exactly easy to get hold of nor widely reviewed. There was a late night showing on German television a while ago which I managed to mis-set, so I was delighted to find a wide-screen copy complete with subtitles for the Cantonese dialogue on the Net.
The movie is loosely-based on Jackie Chan's memoirs of his early training at the Peking Opera School back in the 1960s, along with other future stars like Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. Children were indentured for up to seven years' non-stop training from dawn to dusk in the traditional Opera skills, with little or no emphasis on book-learning. The film's focus, however, is not on the youngsters, but on the charismatic yet strict head teacher, Master Yu, embodied here in the solid form of Sammo Hung himself. In fact it is a little surreal to see Yu sternly training the kids under his command, including one named Sammo -- the actor himself as a child.
The movie is more a docudrama than any kind of kung-fu actioner, with a series of unrelated scenes over the years. It tends to view the apparently harsh daily realities and daily punishments through somewhat rose-tinted glasses. Master Yu's mantra is one of tough love; as the students practice their tumbling, fighting, voice projection, and yes face-painting skills, the reality that all might be disciplined for one student's failings is played down. In fact the kids seem remarkably cheerful, despite being subjected to a heavy-handed routine and forced to earn their keep by being lent out for evening performances. When the Chan character, affectionately called 'Big Nose' here, is first taken to the school when his parents left to work in Australia (autobiographically correct), he is keen to stay there for maybe ten years, if his days will be filled with little more than doing acrobatics and playing at sword-fights. The realities were much more severe.
But as mentioned, the movie really centres on Master Yu: his students are being trained in a disappearing art and he is the ruler of a dying empire. His best friend, a former opera player turned stuntman is Uncle Wah (a wonderful performance by Lam Ching Ying); the pair go out drinking together and reminisce about the good old days. However Wah is getting older and tired and disillusioned, and there is a wonderful last scene where he is trying to perform one difficult stunt too many. Yu himself and the school are symbolised by the pet turtle holding up one corner of his wonky bed; he feeds the creature over the years and watches it grow, all the time keeping it under tight control. When word comes that the school will soon be closed, he frees the turtle and watches wistfully as it struggles to walk free. Soon, his pupils too will need to find their legs in the cut-throat world of Hong Kong cinema and we now know that some of them did -- spectacularly. Incidentally, Wu himself left for Los Angeles where he continued to teach youngsters (rather more benevolently one assumes) until his death in 1997.
Jackie, Sammo, and Yuen all survived those early and often difficult years, and when one watches their films, there is a certain child-like and endearing quality to their acting. They still take delight in the skills that were drilled into them back in the days when they had no real childhood to call their own.