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Body count: 10
Entertainment value: 4/5
Eek factor: 0/5
Ooh factor: 3/5
Ouch factor: 2/5
Film Elements
  • period
  • realistic martial arts
  • restaurant ravage
Opium caused big problems for China, in no small part thanks to Britain. It’s not unusual for a martial arts film to have drug-peddling villains, but it’s unusual for a film to address the issue quite the way Hong Quan Da Shi does. Judging by the plot and costuming, I’m placing the setting in about 1910—no earlier, and probably not much later.

Tie is one of the local martial arts masters, arguably the most popular. He also smokes opium on occasion. The tagline on the DVD box reads “He’s gotta kick the habit before he can kick ass”, but that’s not the case initially. Tie is able to kick plenty of ass, and enters the movie by catching Guo Si, one of his top students, out of the air with one arm. After he soundly trounces two thieves, everyone applauds Tie’s skills.
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Tie is honoured by the city for his part in catching the thieves. He takes the attention gracefully, despite the bad attitude of a rival school. As anyone who’s watched enough of these films knows, there’s only one way to fix a school rivalry—a lion dance competition! (Well, it is New Year’s, too. And yes, martial arts schools do have a long-standing tradition of having lion dance teams.) Guo Si is confident he can lead his companions to victory.

After the lion dance, both schools go to the same restaurant to celebrate. Tie warns his students to behave themselves, but they just can’t resist from taunting Tian and his students, who are looking to cause trouble anyway. Despite Guo Si’s attempts at peacekeeping, a hilarious fight breaks out. Nobody is killed, but the restaurant is trashed and one of Tie’s students hurts his wrist, resulting in my favourite scene from this film. Tie combines medicine with discipline. He straightens out his student’s arm by giving him a good whack with a wooden plank and scolding him for fighting.
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On with the New Year’s festivities. While Tie visits his own master, Guo Si attempts some unsuccessful flirting at the temple. And here, the plot gears really start turning.

Some of Tie’s associates start noting that he doesn’t seem as strong as he used to be, hasn’t improved much over the past year. Tie shrugs it off. Sure, he smokes opium sometimes to be polite to his buddy Lu, but he’s not addicted or anything. He can quit anytime he wants. Yeah, that's what they all say.
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Then, Rong’s opium house has its grand opening. Rong has come to town with the dastardly plot of getting everyone addicted to opium so that he and his buddies can get rich. Even Tie’s students start getting addicted to the opium. Some are hardly able to work at the rice house; one stops working completely to smoke all day. Guo Si asks Tie to stop them, but Tie knows that he can’t scold them—after all, he smokes opium himself. He leaves the matter in Guo Si’s hands, and Guo Si decides that he must burn down the opium house, a noble venture that ends in disaster.

When people start dying, Tie finally faces the truth. He is addicted to opium, and unless he can rid himself of his dependency and restore his old strength, he’ll never be able to run Rong and his cronies out of town.
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The way that Hong Quan Da Shi addresses opium is rather unique. Normally, the bad guys would just be beaten up and booted out—the hero would not be dependent on something they are known for. We actually get to see Tie going through the process of breaking his addiction, from struggling through training to rolling around on the floor shouting for help. Rarely does the hero degrade himself like this; it ups the ante of the film.
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I watched this with my sister, who thought the acting was lousy. I disagree; it’s a little overdone in the second half of the film, but I think it’s quite good. I suppose you’ll like it if you like these sorts of movies, and dislike it if you’re new to the genre. I found Guo Si’s innocence endearing; I expected that Tie would be the only one who was fully fleshed out, but Guo Si is great in his own way. He displays the same virtues as Tie—a sense of justice, a sense of duty—but he’s not always successful at applying them. Tie, in turn, really is a well-rounded character. He’s virtuous, humble, kind—everything that a master should be. The opium addiction makes quite a contrast to his personality; it’s almost like he’s his own foil.
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I was afraid that Xiao Cui would be an accessory for the entire film, but she does get to do something besides stand around, look pretty, and harass Guo Si. She shows backbone. When she declares that she will no longer have anything to do with her opium-peddling brother, he kicks her out of the house. Unfazed, she replies that she is capable of working and will take care of herself.
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The choreography is great. There’s quite a bit of slapstick at the beginning that slowly dies off as the story gets more serious. I suspect that there’s a tiny bit of wirework in a few scenes, but for the most part no one goes floating. If you’re annoyed with the super-fanciful choreography that seems to be the current trend, (I'm not, but I know some are) you’ll find Hong Quan Da Shi satisfying.
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I suspect that those who are not already fans of the martial arts film genre will find Hong Quan Da Shi cheesy or overdone. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed it. I’ll definitely be watching it again.