1978 was a big year for Jackie Chan. After years of flailing about in serious kung fu films, with producers and directors attempting (as they did with so many of his contemporaries) to fashion Chan into the next Bruce Lee, he was loaned out to the independent production company Seasonal Films for two films. Their director, Yuen Woo-ping (who would later achieve international fame as the martial arts choreographer on the “Matrix” and “Kill Bill” films), gave Chan not only the freedom to direct his own fight scenes but to free himself of the stone-seriousness of those early efforts. Those two films, “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow” and “Drunken Master,” would become Chan’s biggest hits to date and would help establish his signature style, which mixed kung fu and action with broad, even slapstick comedy.
But those weren’t his only films that year. Chan’s home studio, Lo Wei Motion Picture Company, also released two films that tapped this new vein, with varying degrees of success. “Half a Loaf of Kung Fu” and “Spiritual Kung Fu” are not among his best-remembered works, but the duo – part of a “Starring Jackie Chan” package now streaming on the Criterion Channel – are fascinating in their own right, as artifacts of an artist still puzzling out his distinctive style.
“Half a Loaf of Kung Fu” hit theaters first, and is the lesser of the two pictures – more overtly comical, which means, in spots, that it’s a good deal sweatier. There’s sped-up camerawork, goofy sound effects (including that old cartoon standby, the “booo-iii-nng”), and more than one wacky horn blast. Chan himself veers into something like Jerry Lewis territory, playing an errand boy who gets in over his head; his primary emotions here are bluster and bravo, his tools his rubbery face and expressive eyes, which he deploys like a silent movie comedian.
Appropriately, his character in “Spiritual Kung Fu” is something of a Chaplin-esque ne’er do well, a “naughty” apprentice at a Shaolin monastery who’s forced to step up when “The Manual of the Seven Deadly Fists” is stolen from their library. “It will lead to widespread trouble,” warns one of the monks, so with the help of a gang of ghost fighters (in white costumes and makeup, donning pink fright wigs – you can’t take this stuff too seriously), Jackie trains to take on the evil-doers.
There’s also something of a romance along the way, which is especially tricky for our Jackie, whose monastery upbringing means he’s never met a woman (“How come you smell so good?”). “Miss Shek” is no shrinking violet, though; she’s tough, and they’re well-matched as both actors and fighters.
Their two fights are among the film’s highlights, along with a big stick fight between Chan and the monks, which offers up some hint of the performer’s comic inventiveness with props. That scene is masterfully choreographed, and breathtakingly shot as well; “Spiritual Kung Fu” may not equal “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow” and “Drunken Master” as groundbreaking mash-ups of kung fu and comedy, but it’s arguably a better straight-up martial arts movie. And it’s not hard to understand why – Lo Wei helmed it himself, and was one of the great directors of the form. He can shoot a fight (or pile-on) straight on, as most of his contemporaries did, but he’ll throw in little flashes of flair, like the sly fish-eye lens he throws in for a few seconds in the middle of the first fight between Chan and Miss Shek.
And he really pulls out the stops in the film’s final fights, trotting out all kinds of unexpected (and sometimes oblique) low and high angles and unusual compositions, along with a few more slightly distorting wide-angle lenses. These touches are especially effective because Lo Wei saves them for so late in the film – it’s as if he’s anticipating viewer fatigue, the kind of “seen it” response that always prompts the best action directors to up the stakes for their big climaxes.
For that matter, “Half a Loaf of Kung Fu” does the same, with a wild, well-blocked, all-hands-on-deck closing brawl. But the scope of the sequence, and the number of participants, aren’t what make it worth talking about. It’s the little jokes and gags that work their way in from the edges. This is what he would perfect in the years to come, the seamless interweaving of comic and action beats, but it takes work to get that balance right, to lean into one without the other tumbling over.
That’s what makes these early films so fascinating, particularly when consumed alongside other films in the Criterion Chan collection, like his beloved “Police Story” pictures, where the formula had gelled. But it’s important to remember that great artists aren’t born fully formed; they have to try different things, arriving at their singular style after years of near-misses and close calls. So films like these offer retrospective pleasures for viewers, as we see not only the performer Chan once was, but hints at the one he would become.