Singaporean kung fu film resurfaced and restored after being banned and lost for decades
Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team will program films and contribute our best, most insightful, or most creative thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.
Very few films can be said to be unique. 1973’s Ring of Fury might just qualify.
Considered to be Singapore’s first and only kung fu movie, Ring of Fury was a no-budget work of passion from directors Tony Yeow and James Sebastian, inspired by the films of Bruce Lee. Using almost entirely non-professional actors, including local karate master Peter Chong as the film’s lead, the film tells a fairly standard martial arts movie story.
A humble noodle-shack owner Fei Pao (Chong) becomes a local legend when he refuses to pay protection fees to the gangsters who have been terrorizing the neighborhood. Fei Pao’s standoff with the gangsters escalates until his mother is caught in the crossfire. Grief-stricken, Fei Pao dedicates himself to learning martial arts so he can exact real vengeance from his tormentors.
While Ring of Fury’s violence and content seems remarkably tame even by the standards of 1973, its depiction of a thriving gangster system and a vigilante taking justice into his own hands offended the Singaporean censors enough that the film was banned for decades.
The film was known and discussed among Asian cinema academics and kung fu movie fans, but thought to be lost. Miraculously, a single print survived in the refrigerator of Peter Chong, the lead actor. Chong had been given a copy of the film in lieu of actual payment, and while he never acted again after Fury, he held onto the print through the remaining years.
The Asian Film Archive did a loving (and excruciatingly difficult) restoration of the print which was finally unveiled in 2017, and just this month it was posted on Youtube for the world at large, free and legal. A long-whispered about legend in film history, now available for everyone.
So please join us as Two Cents steps boldly into the Ring of Fury!
Next Week’s Pick
Robert Eggers hit the film community hard and seemingly out of nowhere with his debut feature The Witch, with its classic styling, subversive themes, and terrifying conclusion. His highly anticipated follow-up, a claustrophobic, black and white tale of two lighthouse keepers, garned massive praise for its cinematography but many found its style and aura of madness too intense or obtuse to enjoy. Join us as we watch The Lighthouse, starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, available streaming on Amazon Prime.
Would you like to be a guest in next week’s Two Cents column? Simply watch and send your under-200-word review to twocents(at)cinapse.co anytime before midnight on Thursday!
You know… just because something has been banned at one point in time and is extremely rare or hard to find… doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great work of art. I hate starting out my thoughts on Ring Of Fury in this manner, because the film is solid goofy fun that feels almost totally unremarkable OTHER than the extra-narrative story of this restoration of a single surviving print of the film that was provided by the filmmaker to Asian Film Archive. It’s SUPER cool that the film has been saved and that the internet has allowed it to be easily watched by anyone who’s curious. It’s also neat that it was one of the only Singaporean martial arts films at the time in 1973. It’s just that I’ve seen hundreds of martial arts films in my day and… this isn’t all that great of an example of those films. There’s a very familiar narrative of a hero being victimized, training in martial arts, and getting revenge. There’s a hilarious masked villain that evokes some kind of low rent Blofeld vibe and it’s all silly fun without being well acted or presenting particularly compelling action. It’s a curio that I’m glad to have seen and am glad it exists for others to see, but it won’t linger long in my consciousness. (@Ed_Travis)
It’s no secret that I’m a “dubs over subs” guy, especially as it pertains to my kung-fu! Thus, I cannot state just how painful this film was for me in that regard. The barely readable subtitles are the number one reason I’ll never watch this one again. [*Editor’s note: the film has white “burned-in” subtitles common to kung fu films of the era which are difficult to read, especially given the fadedness of the print]
Beyond that, the history of this film is far more interesting than the film itself… which is genuinely not very good. True, many kung-fu films are extremely campy and some are incredibly cheesy, but most of them are still a great deal of fun. I had very little fun with this one, however. Its amateurishness is not the fun kind and it does little to create interest in its story.
Honestly, if not for the awful subtitles, I’d likely feel a bit more forgiving of this one and could see myself maybe taking a second shot down the road. However, as it stands, there’s not enough fun to be had to overcome the headache given to me by the subs. (@thepaintedman)
Ring of Fury is a fairly dull and ponderous film, feeling much longer than its under-eighty-minutes runtime. As Justin pointed out, the subtitles are a genuine pain to read, especially since they so often are borderless white font against white backgrounds.
But there are definitely moments when the film has some of that classic Robert Rodriguez/Sam Raimi sense of energy and invention running through it, individual cuts and bits that suggest a genuine understanding of the cinematic language and suggest that with some more money and some more practice, these guys could’ve put together something pretty great. Ring of Fury is a more interesting backstory than it is a movie, but there is genuine talent on display here, and it’s a shame that that talent wasn’t given the opportunity to evolve and improve. (@TheTrueBrendanF)
I agree with the general vibe that this is at best a mid-tier martial arts movie which is more interesting for its real-life story than its on-screen drama, but there’s some cool stuff here to appreciate. The Singaporean locale offers some unusual environments and fight locations, and I dug the appearance of villainous boss Iron Mask, which is probably the most iconic imagery of the film (besting even the protagonist’s heirloom yin-yang ring, which serves as the film’s title).
Flipside, the lead character is a pretty dull until he learns to fight, and the sitcom-style music accompanying the end credits (superimposed over the bloodied villain’s presumably dead face) certainly made me chuckle. I also feel like the identity of Iron Mask could’ve been more thoughtfully handled so that its revelation had greater impact.
Interestingly, while this wasn’t the original intention, the print’s faded and discolored appearance gives it a certain fever-dream vibe, a bit like that haze of watching some oddity on TV late at night, half awake. (@VforVashaw)
Next week’s pick: The Lighthouse