A jewel thief named Ho (Wong Yue) finds himself poisoned by Wang (Gordon Liu), a travelling antiques dealer from Peking. In order to receive the antidote, Ho must obey and train under Wang – not realising that Wang is actually the 11th prince of Manchuria in disguise.
Dirty Ho is a 1979 martial arts comedy directed by noted Hong Kong filmmaker Lau Kar-leung. The film reunites him with actor Gordon Liu, who in 1978 starred in arguably Lau’s most famous martial arts film: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. The tone, however, could not be more different; whereas 36th Chamber was a relatively serious martial arts picture, Dirty Ho plays the action as slapstick comedy. Wang is a master martial artist, but is in disguise. He therefore cannot play his hand directly in combat, and instead attacks his enemies through a combination of feints, pratfalls and impressively speedy footwork. Ho is far less accomplished a fighter, and in a series of early bouts he completely fails to recognise Wang’s skills at all.
The comedic martial arts work is stunning, and to be honest it is the reason that the majority of viewers will track down and watch the film. It is a Shaw Brothers kung fu movie, and that brings with it a lot of expectations that Dirty Ho fulfils: bright colours, enthused exaggerated performances, combat scenes played out less like fights and more like Chinese opera routines. There is a broad stylistic commonality to these films that makes them to a large degree interchangeable. It is how a film operates within its narrow Shaw Brothers margins that determines its quality. Dirty Ho does an okay job, but in all honesty it is far from Lau at his directorial best – that would be the aforementioned 36 Chambers and Drunken Master II. The stunts are, for the most part, impressive, but a few slightly sexist and homophobic moments put a small dent into its comedic prospects.
Gordon Liu is excellent at Wang, managing to handle the comedy wonderfully while showcasing some brilliant moments of kung fu and acrobatics. There is a seemingly effortless charm about him in most roles, and he is particularly charming here. He also bounces well against Wong Yue, who plays Ho with a nicely abrasive bravado and petulant rage. With them working in tandem, a lot of the film’s faults do not seem quite as irritating to watch.
They are at their absolute best in the film’s climactic fight, with both of them – and Wang without the use of one leg – fighting off a trio of master martial artists, and sharing the one long pole in doing so. The timing is beautiful, and Lau shoots the scene in such a manner as to emphasise the skill and talents of the performers over the drama of the scene. It is simply glorious to watch.
Shortly afterwards the film ends so abruptly it is hard to decide whether to feel cheated of a conclusion or to applaud the bravado of it all. Dirty Ho is not the best Shaw Brothers film – not by a fair margin – but it is a wonderfully enjoyable bit of B-grade nonsense.