Ronny Yu’s 1982 film THE POSTMAN STRIKES BACK (or THE POSTMAN FIGHTS BACK in the U.K.) is not a sequel to Kevin Costner’s THE POSTMAN, but it is about a heroic letter deliverer. Courier Ma (Bryan Leung, IRON MONKEY, IP MAN, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS) enjoys his humble life as a messenger in bandit-ridden territory between Canton and Shanghai. Like many of us he has the shadow of technological advancement hanging over him: when the trains come in, people like to tell him, they won’t need guys like him anymore. But he’s still reluctant to take 300 taels of gold for a sketchy delivery-through-the-mountains job offered to him by Hu (Eddy Ko, HEROES SHED NO TEARS, THE EAST IS RED, LETHAL WEAPON 4).
He only delivers letters, he says. And you can see why he likes it. The villages treat him like the ice cream man when he shows up. Now that I think about it it might not be because of the letters – he actually does bring the kids treats. He tries to introduce some kids to chocolate, which he got in Canton, but they refuse it because they say it looks like mud (or dog shit in the dub). I guess that shows you how important it is to experience different parts of the world and learn from different types of people. Those dumb little shits missed out on free chocolate! Back when it was rare!
Ma’s wimpier friend Yao Jie (Yat-Chor Yuen, CHINESE HERCULES, SOUL BROTHERS OF KUNG FU, IN THE LINE OF DUTY 4) really wants to take that job, and he can’t do it alone, so eventually Ma gives in. All they have to do is carry several cases, “a gift for Zhao Long” to deliver by his birthday to keep the peace. They just can’t look to see what’s in the cases. (That’s one of the Transporter’s rules also.)
They recruit miner and explosives expert Bu (Fan Mei-Sheng, THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN, MAGNIFICENT BUTCHER, YEAR OF THE DRAGON), and Hu assigns them Fu Jun (Chow Yun-Fat, motherfuckin HARD BOILED), a suave, scarf-wearing hunk from Canton described as a “scholar” by some dudes who are looking for him for killing somebody in a fight over his cheating in gambling. The team doesn’t trust him because he must be there to spy on them, but I mean… he’s Chow Yun-Fat. He’s a lovable scoundrel. Obviously he’s gonna win them over.
Bu brings a cage full of rats, for reasons he’s coy about. He also likes to drink, and shares some with the rats. His introduction (fearlessly winning a game of dynamite-stick-hot-potato with a dude named Shen who, judging from the burns on his face, has had some experience in this game) really reminds me of the introduction of James Coburn’s knife thrower character in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, which of course was the American remake of the Japanese SEVEN SAMURAI. And Fu Jun, being a guy who’s likable even though he kills somebody who was rightfully coming after him for cheating at gambling, is just like Chris Pratt’s character in the Antoine Fuqua remake of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. Whether any of these are referencing each other or they’re just sharing tropes, it goes to show how universal these stories are across different cultures.
When they embark on their journey a young woman named Guihwa (Cherie Chung, THE ENIGMATIC CASE, PEKING OPERA BLUES, ONCE A THIEF) asks Ma if she can travel with them to get back to her village. He turns her down. But she follows them anyway, and when she warns them that bandits stole their horses while they slept she becomes an official member of the group.
Although not listed as fight choreographer, Yuen Woo Ping gets a “production supervised by” credit, and that makes sense. Chow does more martial arts than in any movie I’ve seen him in besides CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (also with Yuen). Obviously that’s not Chow’s forte, but it wasn’t Keanu’s either and that didn’t stop Yuen on THE MATRIX. Fu Jun uses his scarf as a weapon and has an arrow that launches off of his wrist for emergencies. At one point he takes on two debt collectors who use what could only be described as a Master Blaster or Doubleman fighting style.
The crew travel through snow and non-snow, get in fights with bandits (including one at night, fighting with torches, and one against guys on ice skates, like hockey players, except with spears), talk about what they plan to do with their money, make new friends. They get betrayed and robbed by a Revolutionary Army who believe they have to steal the cases because they’re a bribe for Zhao Long. But then a mysterious ninja (later revealed to be Hu) comes out from under the snow to kill the rebels.
Not surprisingly, the mission turns out to have a catch. The package they deliver is the parts for a machine gun which Hu demonstrates by executing a bunch of rebels Zhao Long has tied up. Then they pretend to let Yao Jie go, only to shoot him and his young siblings full of holes. Kids with squibs!
So the final act is the revenge. Bu apologizes before knocking out Ma so he can single-handedly blow up and shoot and bash every last one of these motherfuckers like he’s Rambo. And I am delighted to report that the reason for Bu’s rats is to tie dynamite to their tails and send them into the enemy camp. They’re kamikaze rats. (I was gonna say suicide rats, but that sounds like they could be nude rats with tattoos and piercings.) Bu probly isn’t planning to live through this, but he goes down like a champ. He gets impaled with a scimitar and still punches a guy in the face.
Finally there is a duel between Courier Ma and Ninja Hu. I guess this is when the postman strikes and/or fights back. All good citizens of the world love a fight full of ninja tricks, and that’s what this is. One second Hu is riding a horse in a fur hat, but Ma punches him and his head falls off and suddenly he is a dummy and the real Hu is in full ninja gear falling from above. Hu will do his awesome ninja tricks, but Ma will observe and figure out how it works, like Penn and Teller. Hu shoots fire balls from his wrist, Ma notices gun powder pouring out of the sleeve, so he sets the suit on fire. Good counter.
To his credit, Hu recovers from that by throwing a smoke bomb and then coming out of the ground somehow changed into a white ninja suit. This guy has more costume changes than Madonna!
Ma notices that Hu uses a magnet in his wrist to catch a metal weapon, so when the ninja disappears Ma puts down a compass to find him (moving around under the ground like a Graboid).
Ma finally defeats him (SPOILER) using the coolest trick weapon I’ve seen in a long time. He stabs him with a small bamboo dagger. When Hu tries to pull it out the handle comes off and ignites the fuse on a stick of dynamite inside! I have always tried to tell people in movies that if you get stabbed it’s best to leave the weapon in the wound until you get to a doctor. If you pull it out you’re just gonna bleed to death. And now I can add that you also might blow up.
THE POSTMAN STRIKES BACK looks more like a standard low budget martial arts movie than the visually lush productions Yu later became known for, but it’s closer to those than his early cop movies at least, and every once in a while you get a really beautiful shot.
Yu wrote the screenplay with Kiu-Ying Chan (GEN-X COPS 2), Kang Chien Chiu (INTIMATE CONFESSIONS OF A CHINESE COURTESAN), Siu Fung Koo and Yiuh-Wah Koo. As a world traveler bridging different cultures, and getting involved in something big (directing movies) after just wanting to help his friend (Philip Chan the cop who wanted to star in a movie), maybe there’s a tiny drop of autobiography in there for him.
Tomorrow: Ronny Yu’s first horror movie, THE TRAIL (1983)
March 21st, 2023 at 9:25 am
I think there’s a suggestion that this was, like the King Hu movies from around this time, made in Korea. That would raise the look of it above the standard low budget martial arts movie of the period. And ninjas and exploding rats sound like way more fun than the monks squabbling over ancient scrolls that Hu delivered in RAINING IN THE MOUNTAIN.
Great that you’re still on given name terms with Yuen Woo Ping, Vern. Long may it remain so!