With Heart-Pounding Action, ‘Ring of Fury’ Uncovers a Side of Singapore Films That Could Have Been
A humble noodle-seller refuses to pay protection fees to a gang of thugs, resulting in tragedy befalling his family and loved one. To exact revenge, he learns martial arts to deal with the gang led by a mysterious man in an iron mask. Inspired by the kung fu craze sparked by Bruce Lee in the 1970s, Ring of Fury is Singapore’s first and only martial arts film featuring local karate master, Peter Chong.
Director: Tony Yeow, James Sebastian
Cast: Peter Chong, Dawn Tsao
Runtime: 78 minutes
What if Singapore’s first martial arts film wasn’t banned and saw a wide release? 1973’s Ring of Fury 血指环 had the makings of being a hit in its day with the worldwide popularity of the genre, the talent involved, and the glimmering passion amongst the multi-ethnic cast and crew for the film to shine.
Unfortunately, it was deemed by censors of its time to be incompatible with Singapore’s efforts to clean up crime and to put a stop to vigilantism. There are definitely references to these themes in Ring of Fury – but the film makes it rather clear it is more of a daytime fantasy than glorification. It follows Fei Pao (Peter Chong), a modest hawker, who trains to be a kung fu warrior after being tormented by a sinister local gang.
While harassment and extortion were definitely widespread in its day, the film tries to position its antagonists away from reality. The gang is led by a villain in an iron mask (appropriately named Iron Mask) living in their lavish supervillain-style hideout in the middle of the forest. However, these outlandish elements proved insufficient to please the censors, perhaps, because the film does too good of a job in morphing this group into a heinous stable of criminals.
Through repeated bullying, arson and even sexual assault, it makes it impossible not to root for the film’s kung fu fighting protagonist. While it’s hard to imagine the country riddled with crime, Ring of Fury makes 1970s Singapore look like the wild west (which might have played into why it was banned) with the police making a brief cameo only at the film’s one hour mark.
So it’s all up to the humble and righteous everyday man to literally take matters into his own hands. Chong, a bonafide karate master in his first and only film role, does a superb job as the film’s lead. While his lack of acting training leads to occasional clumsy, emotionless deliveries and expressions, this also turns into a strength as he naturally melds into the plot as an all-too-relatable underdog.
The action sequences are clearly where Chong shines. After a training montage turning him from noodle seller to human tornado, he effortlessly dispatches an endless horde of gangsters. Energetically jumping around while sneaking in a few grins, it feels like Chong is having the time of his life, and it’s hard not to join along in his fun.
Fighting through perilous hills and quarries, the excitement is further punctuated by the film’s action choreography – or rather its lack of it. There is a freewheeling sense to the choreography with a heavy reliance on each of the actor’s individual skills. The actors still provded ample highlights even though it felt like there were no specific styles or moments that were pencilled in before the shoot.
Capturing it all is the excellent technical work of the film’s crew. Directors Tony Yeow and James Sebastian (credited as James Sah Pah Tien) navigate the film’s meagre budget with tenacity and brimming creativity. The crew runs the gamut of film techniques from editing tricks to rear projections to create a film that visually punches above its weight. While the locations hardly vary, no two shots look the same with some standouts drenched in style and flair.
What stood out to me the most about Ring of Fury is its splendid soundtrack. Taking cues from Bruce Lee flicks and the blaxploitation genre, its groovy mix of energetic drums and blaring horns could have stood side-by-side with its international contemporaries. Taken together, the film looks, sounds, and feels just like most of the international offerings at the time.
There are definitely technical hiccups to note, such as with awkward transitions and less than stellar Foley work. Performance wise, the central romance between Fei Pao and Mei Mei (Dawn Tsao) had little to no chemistry, leading to scenes shared between the pair feeling far too dragged out. Towards the end of the film, Fei Pao is presented with the choice of joining the gang and Chong unfortunately lacks the depth to show his conflicting emotions, or even if the heel turn was all just a fake out.
Still, everything about Ring of Fury amazes me – from how the only remaining copy of the film was kept in Chong’s fridge for over thirty years, to how it’s an incredibly well-made and entertaining film that could have fared well internationally during the martial arts craze. Without the ban, I have no doubt that Ring of Fury would have been a local smash hit with its heart pounding action, relevance to the issues of its time, and a likeable Singaporean star.
Could it have started a wave of similar martial arts films that might have kickstarted a Singapore film industry? Experiencing Ring of Fury makes me believe that we just barely missed the turn towards a Singapore that could have been far more exciting and vibrant.
Thanks to the tireless and underappreciated work of the Asian Film Archive, the film is now available to watch on YouTube:
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