Here's a fun way to kick off a children's comedy... with a montage of Hong Kong film stars that succumbed to suicide, drug overdose or accidental death. Fun, right? After sobering images of the likes of Linda Lin Dai, Bruce Lee, comedian Hui Bat-Liu and Alexander Fu Sheng, our somber narrator abruptly changes tone: "Stars pass on. But don't get too depressed! 1986 sees the birth of three great new stars!" Cut to the cheeky opening credits presenting our three fresh-faced young leads who try their utmost to leap, kick, punch, flip and mug their way into the hearts of martial arts film fans everywhere. Somehow it worked. For despite that wildly inappropriate intro and frankly shoddy quality of what follows, Young Dragons: Kung Fu Kids was a huge hit that spawned five sequels.
Meet Ah Kuo (Aan Jing-Kwok), Hsiao Yu (Cho Hau-Foo) and Fatty (Chan Shung-Wing), who if you hadn't guessed is a little on the porky side. Three country bumpkin kids living in a remote rural area with their cantankerous Grandpa (Chan Wai-Lau). Between forcing his grandchildren to do back-breaking farm work, the old git also teaches them kung fu. His lessons take the form of Pink Panther-style sneak attacks wherein he punches Ah Kuo in the face, jumps on Hsiao Yu's back and beats Fatty with a stick then repeatedly farts on each of them. The hardship doesn't stop there. At dinner time Grandpa makes the boys fight him for a bowl of rice, which he always snatches away prior to punishing them with another humiliating fart in the face. Beyond beat-downs and face farts, Grandpa also administers pearls of Confucian wisdom about the importance of defending the weak, standing up for what is right, and that all women are devils: "Don't watch 'em. Don't touch 'em. Don't trust 'em!"
Alas, as all children grow to realize, these wacky fun times of slave labour, relentless physical abuse, caustic flatulence and 'hilarious' misogyny don't last forever. One day Ah Kuo, Hsiao Yu and Fatty discover Grandpa's beloved pet bird (whom they all hate with a passion. Presumably because it gets all the kindness and love he withholds from them) has flown away because they forgot to shut its cage. Theorizing no doubt that the old man might be mad enough to move beyond his daily fart tactics and actually take a full-on disciplinary dump on them, the boys escape to the city. Totally clueless about big city life, but handy with their fists, the boys bumble from one mess into another, trashing a restaurant, causing chaos in a shopping mall before mistakenly serving as drug couriers (?!) for a triad gang run by a cartoonish mob boss and his sidekick Jacko whose flamboyant outfit looks like a black checkered Super Mario costume. In other words: badass.
Anyway, 'hilarious' misunderstandings ensue before the boys realize they made a mistake, beat up the triads and escape. Whereupon a far-fetched twist unexpectedly reunites them with their long-lost Grandma (Tan Ai-Chen) and little sister Ching-Ching. They live in a luxurious mansion having ditched stubborn city-hating old Grandpa years ago. Oddly at no point in the movie does anyone mention the children's parents. They probably had their fill of the old man's flatulent discipline a while back and happily abandoned their charmless family to start afresh elsewhere. Can't say I blame them. Anyway, Ching-Ching proves something of a pampered princess. Grandma probably didn't fart on her enough. But she soon warms to her brothers especially after she is kidnapped by Jacko and the other triads, forcing our young dragons to spring into action.
Fans of Chen Kaige's near-universally acclaimed art-house drama Farewell, My Concubine (1993) owe no small debt to Young Dragons: Kung Fu Kids. It was the lucrative success of this steadfastly lowbrow children's film series that enabled actress-turned-producer Hsu Feng, one-time star of King Hu's seminal martial arts masterpiece A Touch of Zen (1969), to bankroll that lavish Oscar-nominated epic. There had been child stars in martial arts cinema going as far back as Fung Bo-Bo, the so-called Shirley Temple of Hong Kong in the 1960s. Occasional oddball fantasies like Silver Maid (1970) and The Dwarf Sorcerer (1974) showcased the remarkable skills of child acrobats that were also a staple of Chinese stage-shows. But the genre really took off after Young Dragons: Kung Fu Kids paved the way for a host of sequels and imitators. Both in Hollywood (e.g. 3 Ninjas (1992) and Surf Ninjas (1993)) and Hong Kong including Lucky Seven (1986) and the popular Shaolin Popeye franchise. Interestingly while mere mention of the latter two is enough to arouse the ire of the average martial arts film fan, opinions on Young Dragons have traditionally leaned towards the favourable. Much of this is down to the undeniable athleticism of the three leads which is nothing short of remarkable. Their acrobatic prowess and skill with that most parentally-despised martial arts weapon: the nunchakus no doubt made them envy of playgrounds across Asia and beyond.
But aside from the physical gifts of the child stars and a jaw-dropping finale wherein they basically parody every Bruce Lee-inspired kung fu film trope from the Seventies, Young Dragons: Kung Fu Kids is charmless pap. While the attempts at slapstick humour prove merely irksome, its muddled moralizing is often downright offensive. Certainly veteran Taiwanese schlockmeister Chu Yen Ping brings a degree of filmmaking skill to a sub-genre more often lacking in finesse. His fluid camera-work and dynamic editing keep things fast and furious even when gags are misfiring at an alarming rate. The film certainly reflects cultural differences between East and West not just when it comes to humour but regarding childcare and deference towards elders. One imagines many western viewers would find Grandpa's absurdly harsh treatment of the boys not far from child abuse. Yet the fact is many stuntmen active in the Hong Kong or Taiwanese film industry were raised much the same way. Most likely not on the receiving end of farts as punishment. Still harsh discipline played a key role in shaping their martial arts skills. To some degree the film does capture that strange mix of resentment and respect common in relationships between young people and the elderly in many Asian households. Even if it does not make it palatable to foreign tastes. If Grandpa's efforts to impart some highly dubious views on women strike a sour note early on, happily the boys rapidly discover he is wrong. Pretty much every city woman they encounter is kind, patient, helpful and polite. Er, save perhaps the one woman they slap in the face upon mistaking her mole for a fly, but that's understandable.
To Chu Yen Ping's credit, the film does take the time to craft something almost akin to a Voltaire-like social satire wherein almost every one of Grandpa's windy life lessons proves no use in the 'real world.' By adhering to a half-baked martial arts code, the boys routinely misjudge ordinary decent people and end up embroiled with a bunch of tough-talking triads. Still, the film misses a trick by failing to include any scenes where the boys actually learn from their mistakes and start treating people right. The only city dweller to whom they exhibit any respect is their grandma, which instead of teaching them the importance of kindness reinforces an unfortunate conservative notion that the only people one need ever be nice to is family. Still most fans are willing to look past the muddled morality for the sake of scenes where the kung fu kids take on perennial punching bag Eugene Thomas (in a parody of Bruce Lee's face-off with Kareem Abdul Jabbar in Game of Death (1978)), bite the legs of Japanese kendo warriors and grab grown men by the balls.