The Last Hero in China


The Last Hero in China, aka Claws of Steel, Deadly China Hero, Iron Rooster vs. The Centipede, and Wong Fei-Hung's Iron Rooster vs. Centipide, has a pre-credit sequence in which screaming women flee grappling hooks hurled at them by a giant floating red paper lantern. Regrettably, the rest of the film doesn't live up to the promise of the opening.

Jet Li plays Wong Fei-Hung, Chinese folk hero and subject of innumerable (and sometimes interminable) films. Wong Fei-Hung was a kung fu master and a doctor of Chinese medicine. In this film, his kung fu school has to move to a new location, but due to improper advance scouting, the new school is next door to a brothel. Endless unfunny sequences of kung fu students leering at prostitutes and making crude comments ensue, plus one spectacular kung fu scene in which Jet Li fights an entire battle without leaving his chair. That scene also involves a local official who has an annoyingly large role in the film, and is a strong contender for the Snidely Whiplash Melodramatic Cackle Award.

About halfway through the movie, a traveling kung fu woman and her father arrive, break into a temple, discover that the monks are evil, and go tell Wong Fei- Hung. He goes to the temple and fights the head monk, who is flying around in the red lantern and using a cloak of invisibility. The battle takes place on an underground bridge surrounded by gazillions of candles and candelabras, which hang in a sea of darkness with no visible means of support. Don't ask.

It gets more confusing from there on. An evil British guy is feeding local kids medicine which makes them go deaf. Wong Fei-Hung decides to test this by drinking the medicine. His encroaching deafness gets an enormous build-up which leads to a blink-and-you-missed-it pay-off.

Meanwhile (this movie has lots of meanwhiles) the pimp is trying to join the kung fu school, the wandering kung fu woman is looking for her sister whom she believes the monks kidnapped into white slavery, and the Boxers (the Boxers showed up early in the movie, started a brawl, then disappeared for the next hour) are plotting to kidnap the British guy while wearing a fire-breathing metal centipede disguise.

The movie appears to be a parody of other kung fu movies. There's a joke about the tendency of characters to gasp out a final message and then die, Wong Fei-Hung himself is a parody of the wise Wong Fei-Hung whom Jet Li played in the Once Upon A Time in China films, and there are a number of wink-wink nudge-nudge moments indicating that nothing's to be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, it's mostly not funny. Directors Wong Jing and Yuen Wo-Ping have both made genuinely comic films (respectively, New Legend of Shaolin and Wing Chun) but this one sacrifices characterization and wit for pratfalls and lechery.

But there's one bit which made the movie worth seeing -- once. In a take-off of the legendary beginnings of many styles of kung fu in which a master-to-be gets ideas from watching animals, Wong Fei-Hung sees a chicken eat a centipede, and is inspired to dress up in a chicken suit to fight the Boxers' fire-breathing centipede. One of the weirdest kung fu matches ever follows. If you've ever wanted to see Jet Li cluck like a chicken, watching this movie is probably the only way your desire can be satisfied.

The Last Hero in China is available here.


[Rachel Brown]