Handi-Capable Chop Socky By Mike White. The use of the physically disabled/disfigured in film is almost as old as the cinema itself. The most famous instance of this phenomenon is Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks...

The use of the physically disabled/disfigured in film is almost as old as the cinema itself. The most famous instance of this phenomenon is Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks. With a cast including dwarves, pinheads, bearded ladies, and living torsos, Browning’s film captured the satisfaction of a sideshow while keeping the majority of the cast in the background as misshapen props to allow audiences the comforting dehumanization of the abnormal folk.

In recent years, the spectre of political correctness has spared the disabled from open ridicule in film. Instead, the mentally “troubled” have become the objects of derision and source of laughter, as if to say that physical deformity cannot be helped while disorders of the mind are, if not curable, at least fair game. The same used to be true of homosexuality (which was once classified as a psychological abnormality).

For example, in James L. Brooks’s As Good As It Gets, Greg Kinnear’s gay artist would have been portrayed even a decade ago as a simpering queen. If he were “lucky,” he’d be “cured” by a romp in the sack with Helen Hunt (after some case of wacky mistaken identity). Instead, as homosexuality no longer appears in mainstream media as being “remediable,” Helen Hunt plies her womanly wiles on Jack Nicholson who suffers from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

Played for laughs, there are “uproariously funny” moments of Nicholson paralyzed with fear, nearly unable to walk down a city street for fear of stepping on a crack in the sidewalk. All it takes is a few dates and Nicholson has started on the road to recovery. Hunt’s presence in his life has convinced him to start taking his meds and his “silly rituals” begin to decrease. Between As Good As It Gets, Girl Interrupted, and Me, Myself and Irene, mental disorders got a new spin in the Age of Prozac. Could this be some sort of backlash against the need for psychotropic drugs?

The portrayal of mental illness has garnered several accolades from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. A brief list of Oscar-nominated films/performances over the last few years include Shine, Slingblade, Rain Man, As Good As It Gets, Girl Interrupted, I Am Sam, et cetera. Again, these films center on mental illness and not physical deformity.

The portrayal of the disabled by able-bodied folk has been common practice nearly since the inception of film as an entertainment medium. Until Forrest Gump, faked-out camera angles or layers of make-up aid in the portrayal of characters sporting a major physical defect. Rather, Gary Sinise’s character in Forrest Gump appears cripple via computer-generated effects. It still feels like an “Oscar grab,” albeit more for effects than performance. It’s the rare exception (The Best Years of Our Lives, Twin Peaks) that doesn’t employ a “cheat” when it comes to showing abnormalities.

For all the talk of acceptance of differently-abled people, the sight of one on screen gives many audience members the heebie-jeebies. While it may be a great accomplishment for an actor to convincingly represent an ailment, we must ask ourselves if there might be a better person for the job. More than for the sake of realism, are these “Oscar-caliber performances” merely protecting the public from “The Unsightly?”

Sensitive portrayals of anomalous protagonists have occasionally cropped up on some U.S. screens (The Elephant Man, Mask). Too often, the silver screen has been tarnished with exploitative depictions of “those who are not like us” (The Terror of Tiny Town, The Wizard of Oz, The Other Sister). It’s only under scrutiny that world cinema reveals positive performances of the differently-abled by the differently-abled (France’s Toto Le Heroes, Mexico’s El Topo, etc). The cinema that’s enjoyed myriad prominent and positive parts for the differently-abled belongs to Asia.

In Japan, there have been several series of films wherein physically challenged individuals successfully overcome their handicaps. To name a few, there were the mute Kiichi Hogan (Wakayama Tomisaburo), the blind Crimson Bat (Nagato Isamu), and the blind Zatoichi (Katsu Shintaro). Zatoichi not only had a series of films and television series spanning several decades, he faced off against other well-known film protagonists such as Yojimbo (Toshiro Mifune—see CdC #6) and the Cantonese One-Armed Swordsman (Jimmy Wang Yu).

The film, Zatoichi Meets The One-Armed Swordsman commonly bears the title Zatoichi Meets His Equal, for the two opponents were so evenly matched in skill. The single-limbed swordsman was the subject of at least five films in the early seventies along with a few remakes in later years. However, the aforementioned Asian films have all starred able-bodied persons. Then came the Crippled Masters...

While it may initially sound like a cruel joke, the extremely malleable genre of the kung fu film became a forum for the physically challenged. The films of the Crippled Masters series (Two Crippled Heroes, Crippled Masters, and Fighting Life) starred Frankie Shum (aka Frankie Shun or Sum Si Wah) and Jack Conn (aka Jack Con or Chow Se Tung). Both men were born with birth defects: Shum with withered legs and Conn with a single stub of an arm. For ease, they’re often referred to as having “no legs” and “no arms” (despite the one man’s semi-arm/half-hand being crowned with a very functional finger/thumb combination).

It should be noted that researching the Crippled Master series has been an arduous task. Despite their age, they seem to still have the power to make viewers uncomfortable. Thus, both “serious” cineastes and cult cinema devotees often neglect them, which has led to discrepancies in the titling of these films, as well as some poor anglicizing of names. Witness the above actors’ names, and that the director of Crippled Masters is listed in various sources as Ho Wang Muri or Joe Law. Meanwhile there are no credits on either Fighting Life or Two Crippled Heroes. There is even a very likely possibility that Fighting Life was the first film in the series, while Two Crippled Heroes may have rounded out the trio as dates on these films are sketchy at best.

Boasting very few fight scenes and an overabundance of badly dubbed conversations (all set to a horrendous score done on a Wurlitzer organ), Two Crippled Heroes is definitely the weakest of the three films. The story has our two appendage-challenged protagonists meeting casually one afternoon in the country. They are immediately at odds and learn to be friends only after being brought together by a girl on the run who has been temporarily blinded (bringing to mind Sally Yeh’s character in John Woo’s The Killer).

Two Crippled Heroes is mired in hazy political intrigue involving alliances to the Red Army, donations to war orphans, and doublecrosses. The strained budget is evidenced by the fact that only the main characters are dressed in period garments while the scads of extras are all garbed in clothes befitting the year the picture was made.

Definitely showing a better budget and a more understandable plot, Crippled Masters begins with our protagonist having his arms cut off (Conn) for not doing his best for the clan. Seated at a table (as to hide his condition), it is Shum who gives the order.

Shum’s sadistic boss, Lin Chen Kung, is not without physical abnormality. He has a hump on his back like a turtle and his face is disfigured. Kung owns a chain of casinos and employs some of the oddest henchmen around. His main thugs are called “Black” and “White.” Black is an enormous bald man with amazingly prominent dark eyebrows. White is so pasty-faced, he looks like he’s never seen the sun.

The uneven first act of the film finds Conn dealing with his new injury. He tries to find food, water, shelter, and a trade that will accommodate his new, nearly armless state. Suddenly, the film cuts to Lin Chen Kung in a secluded area with a handful of his subordinates where he’s got a bottle of acid poised to dispatch Shum’s “healthy” legs.

It isn’t long before the “legless” man happens upon the “armless” man and a battle ensues. Lucky for the two of them, there’s a sprightly old man within earshot who convinces them to join forces and fight their true enemy, Kung. Roll the training montage...

The introduction of a plan to steal eight jade horses from Kung’s garden complicates the simple revenge plot. Things are further padded with the addition of Po, a rakish, able-bodied, and skilled martial artist who helps the two crippled heroes in a barroom brawl, only to be employed later by Kung. After a few more incidents, it turns out that Po is actually a secret agent sent by the government to recover the eight jade horses. Po divines from the horses that if the crippled warriors combine their strength and fight as one they can beat Kung’s incredible kung fu. Indeed, this is the payoff of the films and what the audience has been waiting for all along. Who hasn’t imagined the legless guy hopping on the shoulders of the armless guy and the pair kicking some serious butt?

Easily the most contemporary film in both setting and the depiction of the hurdles the handicapped face daily, Fighting Life is far from a typical karate film. While our two heroes have often been initially antagonistic, this film has them playing loving brothers who face a far-greater challenge than a mad general or gruesome gangster. Herein they must fight rampant societal prejudice against people with disabilities. While not openly welcomed by their countrymen, in no previous film have they faced the overwhelming ostracism they encounter when moving from their rural lives into the big city.

Conn drives Shum and he in his foot-steered car to the bustling metropolis with the dream of getting a job to help pay for his brother’s education. When the ignorance of others eliminates all prospects of traditional gainful employment, he is forced to become a street performer, juggling plates for pennies. Meanwhile, his brother isn’t as interested in learning a trade as he is in perfecting his kung fu. After some arduous training, he’s finally accepted at a local dojo; proving himself so skilled that he’s chosen to represent his school at an international competition.

Their perseverance and courage in the face of adversity such as typhoons, slander, and gangsters changes the perceptions of those around them. Shot and released in 1981, the filmmakers included several shots of actual events surrounding the International Year of the Disabled. The film is far from subtle in its message, as characters have lines like, “Be kind to others and show respect to all people,” and “I wish that all mankind would unite in harmony.”

Is it really such a stretch of the imagination to have differently-abled folks as the main characters of a kung fu film? The formula followed by the majority of chop socky flicks is the protagonist’s necessity of learning a “style” of kung fu in order to be victorious over his enemy. In these movies the two protagonists must both learn they can only win with the help of their fellow man (Two Crippled Heroes), or to realize that they are handicapped not so much physically, but have mental blocks to circumvent (Crippled Masters and Fighting Life).

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