Hell'z Windstaff (1979) - comes from a proud tradition of independent kung fu movies that dominated the Hong Kong box office in the late seventies. Although Hell'z Windstaff failed to set the box office on fire, taking HK $1.5m, it has since gone on to receive international cult status. This can be largely attributed to the presence of Korean master Hwang Jang Lee. The high-kicking martial arts expert came to fame as the bad guy in Jackie Chan's breakthrough movies Snake in the Eagle's Shadow and Drunken Master. His performances went down in kung fu history and Jackie lost a front tooth for his troubles! The two main characters are played by Mang Hoi and Meng Yuen Man. Mang Hoi was a regular performer with Sammo through the seventies and eighties (Warriors Two, Heart of Dragon, Pedicab Driver). Meng Yuen Man also had starring roles in Daggers 8 and The Master Strikes, but his movie career was cut tragically short with a heart attack in 1981.
As with many independents that followed in the wake of Drunken Master, there are similar themes running through Hell'z Windstaff. We have the mischievous youths, Wong (Meng Yuen Man) and Stone Dragon (Mang Hoi) who are always getting into 'slapstick' situations. We also have the ultimate bad guy, in this instance Hwang Jang Lee plays a master with an invincible 'Devil's Stick' technique. There is only one way to defeat this invincible technique (so it's not actually that invincible after all!). Fortunately, they know Shek Pun Lat (Young Moon Kwan), who teaches them "White Dragon Fists" and "Paddle Staff" kung fu!
There is some plot about trafficking slave labour, some revenge strands involving the Four Snakes, some guy with one eye and another kung fu instructor. The subtitles for this movie are regularly illegible, so you can be forgiven for not fully understanding all the dialogue and character development. BUT WHO ARE WE KIDDING - this is pure kung fu, I'd probably still watch it without any subtitles at all!
Hell'z Windstaff is not interested in pushing back the boundaries when it comes to the context for the action and training sequences. The opening sequence is shot on the same hill for the opening to Snake in the Eagle's Shadow! Many of the subsequent locations were also used for classics such as The Victim and Drunken Master. The focus for Hell'z Windstaff is exclusively on developing interesting and exhilarating kung fu choreography and some inventive training sequences before the final showdown.
The fighting is certainly well above par in terms of quality and quantity. It's really interesting to see Hwang Jang Lee spend the majority of the movie using his upper body, with either unarmed combat or staff fighting. After his first demonstration with the staff he quickly reveals that he is more than just a high-kicker. Meng Yuen Man provides some spectacular training scenes, which include handstand press ups and plenty of flips and somersaults. This is right up there with Yuen Biao and Jackie Chan in their Knockabout and Drunken Master pomp. The choreography plaudits go to Hsu Hsia (King of Sticks), and the Yuen clan (Corey and Sunny). If there is any criticism to be leveled at their work, the action is 'very choreographed' at times. However, Hwang Jang Lee is menacing enough to prevent this detracting too much from the spectacle. He finishes with a jaw-dropping flurry of triple kicks, as the climax for the movie. This does make you wonder whether he could have done more high-kicks throughout?
This is at the bottom end of the DVD release spectrum. To the credit of Eastern Heroes they have managed to source a widescreen 2.35:1 letterboxed print, which is in 'reasonable condition'. The disc states that there has been some digital remastering going on here but I really don't think so! The sound is a crackly 2.0 mono track in Cantonese and the burnt on white subtitles are barely legible! There are no extras of note, just chapters, trailer and a promo for their disappointing Jackie Chan collection.
Hell'z Windstaff carries no pretence about pushing forward the boundaries of cinema. It is a worthy addition to a busy genre, but it does more than enough to rise above the mediocrity that surrounds it. This contains plenty of high quality action / training and is probably my favourite non-Jackie Chan film by Hwang Jang Lee. It also shows a much wider range of Lee's talent that previously suspected, the audience will remain content, as his final high-kicking barrage ensures he once again steals the show!