The most amazing thing about Leung Kar-Yan, also known affectionately as “Beardy”, is that he never underwent any formal martial arts or Opera training. His greatest asset lies in his uncanny ability to faithfully recreate any movement shown to him by the action director. Both Liu Chia-Liang and Sammo Hung paid testament to this ability, and often favoured him over better-trained individuals who would otherwise incorporate their own styles into the movements.
Leung’s career began in the early 1970’s after writing a letter to the head of Shaw Brothers – the leading studio of the time – asking for a chance to audition. His good looks and natural physical athleticism led Run Run Shaw into offering him roles in early period flicks such as ‘Shaolin Martial Arts’ and ‘Five Shaolin Masters‘ alongside such legends as the late Alexander Fu Sheng and “The Pops” Liu Chia-Liang. However, at Shaws, more popular contract players were favoured for the lead roles and Leung began to look elsewhere for his big break.
If one was to pick any number of history’s greatest martial arts movie heroes, and see where their greatest moments lay, the chances are that Sammo Hung’s name would feature prominently. Completely unselfish in his desire to make people look their best, Sammo always gave his cast the chance to shine. If they did well, he used them more prominently. If not, then they were still given the chance. Many actors were given their break this way including Yuen Biao, Lam Ching Ying, Yuen Wah and also Leung Kar-Yan. 1978 would see a collaboration with Sammo Hung which has rarely been outdone – ‘Warriors Two‘.
Playing the lead role of Leung Tsan, later made more famous by Yuen Biao in the prequel ‘The Prodigal Son‘, Kar-Yan gave this role the grace and nobility it required, while also performing some of the finest and most accurate Wing Chun forms ever seen. Although his character didn’t survive to take part in the exhausting final reel, Leung made his profound mark on the film, and helped to create one of the finest martial arts movies of all time. This performance was just the beginning of a whole host of fabulous movies, usually alongside Sammo, throughout the late 70’s and early 80’s until the end of the old-school style of filmmaking.
Large supporting roles in the excellent ‘Knockabout‘ with Yuen Biao, and Lau Kar-Wing‘s ‘Odd Couple‘ – possibly the finest weapons movie ever – further established Leung as a bankable leading man, and proficient physical performer. Playing both heroes and villains with consummate ease, many of the eras all time greats featured Beardy in a large capacity. More classic appearances followed, such as 1980’s ‘The Victim‘, a film which Leung himself admits was the most gruelling he has ever made. Fortunately, all the hard work paid off, and what we see on screen is another sublime example of old-school choreography and brutal action, as Sammo and Leung leave no man standing. ‘The Thundering Mantis‘ and ‘Dreadnaught‘ are further examples of Leung’s undeniable screen presence and physical prowess.
Leung’s finest hour came in 1982 with Yuen Woo-Ping‘s ‘Legend Of A Fighter‘. Based on the exploits of Fok Yun Gap (the murdered master of Bruce Lee in ‘Fist of Fury‘), this tale of Chinese resistance to Japanese aggression motivated Leung to give his best acting performance among a number of intricately stylised action sequences. Perhaps not up to the same action standards as ‘The Victim’ or ‘Warriors Two’ it is nonetheless a defining moment in Leung’s career. Things for Kar-Yan were going great and the future was looking extremely rosy.
Another great, yet different, performance in the extremely bizarre ‘The Miracle Fighters‘ was unfortunately Leung’s last great moment of the 1980’s. For some reason, a star that had shined so brightly was suddenly extinguished with little explanation. Perhaps linked to his directorial debut ‘Profile in Anger’ being relatively unsuccessful, Leung virtually vanished from quality HK productions and transferred himself to the wilderness of independent films in Taiwan. Minor roles in impressive actioners like ‘Tiger Cage‘ were not enough to resurrect his career, and it seemed as though we would never see Leung in a good film again.
As the 90’s began, a new wave of action performers arrived, and a fresh look was created with Jet Li‘s phenomenal ‘Once Upon a Time in China‘. Li made the character of Wong Fei Hung his own, appearing in numerous spin-offs with one in particular standing out: 1993’s ‘Last Hero in China‘. This saw Jet reprise the role of Wong, with Leung Kar-Yan drafted in to play Ah Foon, a role he successfully played more than 10 years earlier in ‘Dreadnaught’. Unfortunately, this was still not enough to bring Leung back into the limelight and he has become even more secluded since. Preferring comedy to heavy action, Leung can be seen in a number of Stephen Chow flicks of the 90’s such as ‘Fight Back to School 3‘ and ‘Flirting Scholar‘, but he has never lived up to the great image he was synonymous with in the old-school era. Perhaps it was a case of his star burning too brightly to begin with, and so faded more quickly. Whatever the reason, he is a legend of the Jade screen and will forever be remembered and re-discovered, as more people become aware of his classics making their way onto DVD in the West.
The Postman’s Top Five
5. The Postman Fights Back
Directed by Ronny Yu in 1982 and featuring a very young Chow Yun Fat in an early action role, it is Leung who impresses the most in this stylish thriller. Not particularly fast paced or action packed, it is driven by a twisting plot and makes a nice change from the usual kung fu fare floating around at the same time. It is easy to see, even from this early example, why Yu is regarded so highly as a director.
4. The Odd Couple
Directed by Sammo Hung, and co-starring Lau Kar Wing, this is the ultimate weapons movie. Sammo’s prowess with both sword and spear are unrivalled and it is still incredible to watch more than 20 years on. Kar-Yan plays the seemingly invincible villain performing admirably in some brutal, yet beautiful physical encounters. Not his largest role, but one of his best, and as a result is another must-see!
3. Warriors Two
Filled with some of the most true to form Wing Chun choreography ever seen, it is hard to believe that Leung is not a true Wing Chun practitioner himself. Instead, making use of his incredible mimic skills Leung provides a fitting tribute to the legend of Leung Tsan. The finale, although not featuring Kar-Yan, is exhausting to watch and incredibly long and intricate. Made before ‘The Prodigal Son’ but nevertheless a worthy sequel.
2. The Victim
An all round excellent film! Filled with good drama as well as hard-hitting, intricate and impressive choreography, this was apparently the most difficult film Leung ever made. It is billed as a co-starring role alongside Sammo, but he easily gets more of the screen time and the best of the action. Surprisingly, the UK Eastern Heroes DVD of this is good, meaning there is no excuse not to have it.
1. Legend of a Fighter
Seemingly lost forever, it was a surprise when HKL announced they were releasing it after months of painstaking restoration. Leung’s greatest moments in a lead role allow him to show all his emotions and physical skills in a superb re-enactment of the legacy of Fok Yun Gap. Yuen Woo-Ping created some very special fight sequences showcasing a wide variety of styles including Chinese kung fu, Japanese Karate and Western Boxing. His final showdown against Yasuaki Kurata is highly innovative and shows both men at their peak. Britain (also co-released in Holland) has the definitive and only version of this film currently available on the market, and I greatly urge you to take advantage of this luxury!
Although it’s supposed to be a top 5, special mention must also go to ‘Dreadnaught’. An all time favourite of mine sees Leung in a supporting role as Foon (a student of Wong Fei Hung) helping his friend Mousy (Yuen Biao) to catch a serial killer. A good mix of comedy and typically excellent action courtesy of Yuen Woo Ping, this is a must have for any fan of old-school kung fu. Leung himself does not show too much in the way of physical skill, although he is still great to watch. All of the films mentioned are available on DVD from various sources, and are not expensive or too hard to find. As a result, it is more than worth your while tracking them down, especially if your only taste of old school fighting is ‘Drunken Master‘.