Eastern Spotlight: Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978)

Continuing the series focusing on the Martial Arts genre, Leon Nicholson takes a look Yuen Woo-ping’s hit, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow starring Jackie Chan and Hwang Jang Lee.

Before Drunken Master (1978) and Dance of the Drunk Mantis (1979) there was Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978). Now, there are times when a director’s early work can set the tone and lay the foundations and blueprint for future projects and Yuen Woo-ping’s directorial debut was no different; with Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow being viewed as a precursor for the classic that would be Drunken Master.

The story is centred on two rival Kung Fu schools Snake style and Eagle Claw. Members of the Eagle Claw clan, represented and headed by Lord Sheng Kuan (Hwang Jang Lee) are intent on wiping out every last person practising Snake fist; and to be fair, they’ve done an excellent job leaving one survivor Pai Cheng-Tien who they are desperately trying to track down.

Meanwhile Chien Fu (Jackie Chan) is hired (in a sense) as the general dogsbody of the local Kung Fu School where he partakes in his secondary role as the local punch bag. Without an iota of Kung Fu skills, life is tough for the poor orphaned boy. However, a chance encounter with Pai Cheng-Tien (Siu Tien Yuen) – who everyone thinks is a lowlife beggar – during a street brawl, brings them together. Chien’s kindness and selfless actions, even though he cannot defend himself, impresses Pai, so he passes on his skills and knowledge to, what can only be called, his new student. No longer the human training Muk Yan Jong for the local school, dangerous trials lie ahead for Chien as he has to defend himself and Pai Cheng-Tien from members of the Eagle Clan.

Woo-ping demonstrates his undoubted talent and flair via strong direction, great humour and his obvious strong point – superb fight choreography. Hwang Jang Lee as per usual makes a brilliant villain but rather than seeing his usual displays of spectacular Taekwondo high kicks we see versatility, indicative of the style he has to portray in the movie.  Siu Tien Yuen, Woo-ping’s real life father, is excellent as the grandmaster and teacher to Chien. The comical, inept, local Kung Fu teacher … and bully, played by Dean Shek, at times offers a sense of light relief and of course, the film’s star played by Jackie Chan who effectively grows from zero to hero.

As it turns out Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow would be a tad darker than Woo-ping’s  future movies but it was clear that he found a superb formula that worked to great effect. In addition, this is also credited as the film that catapulted Kung-Fu comedy to a new dimension which, consequentially mapped out Chan’s path to superstardom.

Rumour has it that after the success of this movie, Chan wanted to leave the story well alone and ultimately refused to do a sequel. Thankfully, the director and the producers must have taken this on board because from here they were about to create something a little bit special for their next movie.

The collaboration of Woo-ping, Jackie Chan, Hwang Jang Lee, Siu Tien and Dean Shek was on. Different monikers were fashioned for effectively identical characters but it allowed for more scope and better ideas. What we got was Drunken Master which improved on Woo-ping’s debut tenfold. However, let’s not forget that without Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow we may not have the star that is Jackie Chan, the legendary villain always brilliantly portrayed by Hwang or the innovative acrobatic choreography as seen in The Matrix Trilogy, Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon from Yuen Woo-ping.

Whilst this may always live in the shadow of Drunken Master, as a movie it should not be underestimated. This is most definitely a precursor to everything that followed in the genre of Kung Fu comedy and helped to enhance the popularity of Martial Arts films throughout the world.
An excellent movie and one of the very best!

FMV Rating ****

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