The use of the physically disabled/disfigured in film is almost as old as the cinema itself. Certainly the most famous instance of this phenomenon is Tod Browning's 1932 film FREAKS whose cast included dwarves, pinheads, bearded ladies and living torsos. Browning's film captured the satisfaction of a sideshow. By keeping the majority of the cast in the background as misshapen props, audiences were allowed 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 "defective" 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).
Take, for example, James L. Brooks' AS GOOD AS IT GETS. A decade ago, Greg Kinnear's gay artist would have been a simpering queen who, if lucky, would be "cured" by a romp in the sack with Helen Hunt (after some sort of wacky mistaken identity, I'm sure). Alternatively, as homosexuality is no longer popularly shown as "remediable", Helen Hunt plies her womanly wiles on Jack Nicholson who suffers from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Played for comedy instead of drama, there are "uproariously funny" moments such as Nicholson 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. Her presence in his life has convinced him to start taking his meds again and his "silly rituals" begin to decrease.
What's next: Jim Carrey as a kooky agoraphobic? Housebound hilarity ensues! How far we've come… For all the talk of acceptance of differently-abled people, the sight of one on screen would still give too many audience-members the heebie-jeebies. Yes, 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"?
While sensitive portrayals of anomalous protagonists have occasionally cropped up on some U.S. screens (THE ELEPHANT MAN, MASK), too often the American silver screen has been tarnished with exploitative depictions of "those who are not like us" (THE TERROR OF TINY TOWN, THE WIZARD OF OZ). Though it might initially seem an odd source, the cinema that's enjoyed a myriad of prominent and positive parts for the differently-abled is Asia.
In Japan there have been several series of films with physically challenged individuals who successfully overcome their handicaps. To name a few, there were the mute Kiichi Hogan (Wakayama Tomisaburo - see CdC #10), 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 also 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).
ZATOICHI MEETS THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN is commonly called ZATOICHI MEETS HIS EQUAL, for the two opponents were so evenly matched in skill. It's even been said that two endings for the film were shot for both Japanese and Cantonese audiences, which favor each audience's homegrown hero at the conclusion. It's rather ironic when a major theme of the film is the attempt to overcome language barriers in order to create a better understanding between the two noble men. Apart from the single-limbed swordsman (the subject of at least five films in the early seventies along with a few remakes in later years), Cantonese cinema had few other notable handicapped heroes until the early '80's and the introduction of the Crippled Masters.
The portrayal of the disabled by able-bodied folk has been common practice nearly since the inception of film as an entertainment medium. This has also been the source of accolades - just look at the Oscar nominations of recent years such as SHINE, SWINGBLADE, MY LEFT FOOT, NELL, and RAINMAN to name a few. However, until FORREST GUMP, a character sporting a major physical defect has usually been handled with faked-out camera angles or layers of make-up. Rather, Gary Sinese's character in FORREST GUMP is rendered cripple via computer generated effects. It's 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.
TWO CRIPPLED HEROES was such an exception, as were the two other entries in this odd series: CRIPPLED MASTERS and FIGHTING LIFE. Yes, while it sounds like a cruel joke, the extremely malleable genre of the kung fu film became a forum for the physically challenged. Each film 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; one with withered legs and the other 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, or that the director of THE CRIPPLED MASTERS is listed in various sources as Ho Wang Muri or Joe Law, while there are no credits on either THE CRIPPLED MASTERS 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.
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 (who seems a precursor to Sally Yeh's Jenny in John Woo's THE KILLER).
The film 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, not when it was set.
Definitely showing a better budget and a more understandable plot, THE CRIPPLED MASTERS begins with our protagonist having his arms cut off (guess who?) for not doing his best for the clan. Seated at a table (as to hide his condition) is the man giving the order, who is still in good with his facially disfigured, hump-backed boss.
The sadistic head honcho, Lin Chen Kung, owns a chain of casinos and employs some of the oddest henchmen around. Called "Black" and "White," these two thugs are a big bald guy with amazingly prominent dark eyebrows and a pasty-faced dude who looks like he's never seen the sun.
The uneven first act of the film has our hero dealing with his new injury-trying to find food, water, shelter, and a trade that will accommodate his new, nearly armless state. Without warning, we cut to Kung in a secluded area with a handful of his subordinates where he's got a bottle of acid poised to dispatch his now former employee's "healthy" legs.
Of course the "legless" man meets up with 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 simple revenge plot is complicated by the introduction of a plan to steal eight jade horses from Kung's garden. 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. He divines from the horses that if the crippled warriors combine their strength and fight as one that they can beat Kung's incredible king fu. Isn't this what we've all been waiting for all along? For the legless guy to hop on the shoulders of the armless guy and kick some serious butt? It's the payoff!
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 sockey flicks is that the protagonist must learn a "style" of kung fu in order to be victorious over his enemy. In these movies there are two protagonists who must both learn that 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 that they have mental blocks to circumvent (CRIPPLED MASTERS).
Easily the most contemporary film in both its 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.
The armless fellow drives the two in his foot-steered car to the bustling metropolis with the dream of getting a job to help pay for his brother's education. However, 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 manages to change 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 are given dialogue like, "Be kind to others and show respect to all people" and "I wish that all mankind would unite in harmony."
TWO CRIPPLED HEROES is not widely available on video but can be purchased from Bizarre Videos (142 Frankford Ave, Blackwood, NJ 08012-3723). FIGHTING LIFE is not often stocked in video stores but it is available to order through places like Amazon.com or Reel.com. Meanwhile, Released by New Line Home Video, THE CRIPPLED MASTERS is the most popular and easily accessible of the three.