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Friday, May 27, 2016

The Chinese Boxer (1970) review


Wang Yu (Lei Ming), Wang Ping (Li Hsiao-hung), Chao Hsiung (Tiao Erh), Lo Lieh (Kitashima), Chen Sing (Ishihara), Wang Chung (Tanaka), Fang Mien (Li Chun-Hai), Cheng Lei (Cheung Da Leung), Kang Hua (Lemura), Wong Ching (Kume)

Directed by Jimmy Wang Yu

The Short Version: Cult icon Wang Yu lays down the Hammer of God (the film's US title) on Okinawan Karate experts led by Lo Lieh, Mr. Five Fingers of Death, in this fist and kick fan favorite set in the 1930s. For the first time, Wang Yu, famous for THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967), writes and directs himself chopping down the opposition; but not with swords, but with his hands--both of them--turned into lethal slabs of granite after arduously painful training. One blow means instant death to countless extras before a final, blood-soaked duel in the snow. The Wuxia connection is visible via some modest wirework; only this time, when people are seen flying through the air it's not of their own volition. At one point wearing a surgical mask and gloves to hide both his identity and burn scars on his hands, Wang Yu is essentially Dr. Kung Fu--making house calls and performing open heart surgery on scores of bad guys. The first pure martial arts movie where combatants bloody each other up with their fists and feet.

Tiao Erh returns to his hometown for revenge after being kicked out by Master Li of the Chung Yi School of Martial Arts. Despite his impressive Judo skills, he's easily defeated by old man Li. Tiao leaves angrier than ever, promising to return with Japanese specialists to level the school. He keeps his vow and brings three ruthless killers back to wipe out the Chung Yi students and their master. After a bloody massacre, one man survives, Lei Ming. Training intensely to counter the ferocious Japanese arts, Lei Ming toughens his fists like iron before taking revenge for his classmates and teacher. Donning a surgical mask to hide his identity and white gloves to conceal the scars of his training, Lei Ming cuts down the aggressors till he gets to the Japanese thugs that slaughtered his master and classmates.

After becoming a superstar under the guidance of Chang Cheh, Jimmy Wang Yu (Wong Yu) wanted to direct a movie of his own. At that time, it wasn't a regular occurrence for an actor to direct himself on camera; especially since Shaw's ran his company like the old Hollywood system--strictly controlling his stable of stars (for a two part article about Sir Run Run Shaw click HERE). In comparison, Tien Feng, famous for his villain roles, directed a movie, THE GOLDEN SEAL (1971), around the same time only he didn't take a lead role. 

This reluctant gamble payed off in a big way... THE CHINESE BOXER was a huge hit upon its release in November of 1970 and was among the first wave of Kung Fu movies to hit US shores in 1973 when it was retitled THE HAMMER OF GOD. Cited as the first bare-handed fight flick, Wang Yu's directorial debut was a genre trendsetter--ensuring more bone-cracking, chest-crushing violence would come. 

There had been hand-to-hand action in past pictures, but this was the first time the 'student revenges for master and school' template had been utilized. The Wuxia movies before it had revenge scenarios, yet the training process had yet to be visualized--not to mention that fists and feet could now do lethal damage akin to any bladed implement. The evolution of the Kung Fu film was in full swing.

Another film made at the same time, but released in May of 1970, Chang Cheh's award winning VENGEANCE! (1970), was of a similar aesthetic, and likewise a departure from the swordplay features that had been clogging up theater screens for years prior. Unlike VENGEANCE!, THE CHINESE BOXER was strictly, and purely, about martial arts. Chang's movie was highly dramatic, performance driven, and no particular fighting styles are specified.

Additionally, a Cathay picture shot and released earlier in 1970 titled FROM THE HIGHWAY features slivers of where the genre was heading. Something of a bridge between Wuxia trappings and the impending fist and kick style, its box office success further paid off when the picture won a Best Director Award at the 1971 Golden Horse Awards and was director Chang Tseng Chai's ticket into Shaw Brothers Studio.

A former athlete and swimming champion, Wang Yu wasn't much of a martial artist; yet the actor showed great skill behind the camera, differentiating his work from many of the formula Wuxia movies being made at Shaw's and elsewhere. The quality of his later directing gigs fluctuate, but the man showed an unmistakable prowess behind the camera. He clearly learned a great deal from the master of macho bloodshed, Chang Cheh; much of THE CHINESE BOXER has that raw power evident in Chang's works although Wang Yu creates his own style in the process. Curiously, once Wang broke away from Shaw Brothers, the meticulous care he exhibited here goes flying off the rails.

Tang Chia (who often collaborated with Liu Chia Liang during this time) handled the action design. While there's discernment in some of the styles on display, the fighting is very Japanese looking in execution--and remained so till 1973 when Chang Cheh's Shaolin Cycle showcased traditional Chinese Kung Fu. Till then, action was based on closed or open palm strikes; high or low kicks and sweeps; their movements enhanced with wirework. The fighters, mainly Wang Yu and the actors playing the Japanese killers, pose and growl viciously before each attack, helping the audience feel the blows as they pound their targets into bloody pulp. Eyes are gouged out a multitude of times and fists pierce chest cavities--allowing that famous Shaw Brothers blood to spray mightily from open wounds. Tang Chia was well versed in arranging battles with many extras onscreen at once; the sort of blood-caked duel you'd see in one of Chang Cheh's one-against-many movies. There are a couple sequences like that in THE CHINESE BOXER. 

Writing the screenplay himself, director Wang's characters are straight out of a comic book; and pseudo super-powered like those of the Wuxia (swordplay) genre. Some modest wirework enhances the action; like when Lo Lieh, after chopping a table in half, leaps into the air and smashes through the roof, landing back on his feet like a cat. Wang would go overboard with this sort of thing--his aforementioned derailment--in his later, independent pictures where he'd depict himself walking around on his fingertips, up walls and upside down on ceilings!

He doesn't spend quite as much time creating a brooding character for himself as Chang Cheh and I Kuang did in the classic ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967), although we get enough characterization to remain curious as to how and when Wang Yu will pulverize his opponents. When he does, he wears a surgical mask(!) and gloves; the mask so his enemies won't recognize him and the gloves to conceal the training scars that have turned his fists into deadly weapons. Wearing the mask, he looks like a doctor going around making unscheduled house calls--giving pain as opposed to relieving it. 

With a touch of romanticism, the non-fighting moments are mere trivialities while Wang focuses more on the action and the training, creating a blueprint that would be copied thousands of times over.

Wang Yu uses an intriguing editing style over the course of his movie. Certain scenes will go on without any cuts, only to ratchet up the tension with a few rapid edits before a scene pays off. Evidence of his love of Japanese samurai movies is seen during a duel in the snow towards the end. Squaring off against two Nipponese specialists, Wang Yu takes two daggers and places them in his shirt pockets. Meanwhile, Kang Hua's (alias Tung Li) character has a holster filled with throwing darts. Unfolding like a gun duel, the type found in any of your finer westerns, Wang Yu enhances this scene with the editing technique mentioned above. It's one of the best moments in his movie.

Filmed mostly at Shaw Studios, the snowy exteriors seen in the finale were shot in Korea in March of 1969. You'll notice Wang's hairstyle changes between shots during the climax (see insert pic). He exits the snow-bound Shaw set, the camera panning alongside him as he sets out to battle Kitashima and his goons one last time. When the setting switches to the Korean locale, Wang's hair is now cut and combed differently. It's like he walked all the way from HK to Korea.

Lo Lieh had already worked with Wang Yu six times before getting the role of the main villain, Kitashima, in THE CHINESE BOXER. Lo fluctuated between playing heroes and villains his entire career. Kitashima is among his most memorable bad guys just as his dedicated constable in Chang Cheh's THE INVINCIBLE FIST (1969) was among his best heroic turns. Lo had recently gotten married for the first time in February of 1969, but got less than two weeks to enjoy his honeymoon since he had to return to filming VALLEY OF THE FANGS (1970) and the aforementioned INVINCIBLE FIST before signing on to Wang's movie. There were other pictures the prolific Lo Lieh was attached to--some films where he was replaced (THE DEVIL'S MIRROR) and some that were never finished (THE GOLDEN MACE). As for BOXER, Lo's intense as the vicious Japanese fighter, making one helluva entrance before the big massacre at the Kung Fu school near the beginning.

One of Hong Kong cinema's most beautiful starlets, Wang Ping, an 18 year old Taiwanese actress of the Central Motion Picture Company, had just signed with Shaw Brothers in August of 1969 along with six other ladies from Taiwan--one of which was Cheng Pei-pei's successor, Shih Szu. Wang Ping's first Shaw Brothers picture was THE 5 BILLION DOLLAR LEGACY (1969) for director Inoue Umetsugu. THE CHINESE BOXER (1970) was her second role. Her role in Wang's film mirrors the one she essayed in Cheng Chang Ho's huge international hit, KING BOXER (1972), released around the world in 1973, and most famously as FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH in America. For her third job as an actress, Wang Ping would replace popular swordplay starlet Chin Ping on Ho Meng Hua's THE BLACK ENFORCER--a film that began shooting in 1969, but didn't see release till 1972. Wang Ping replaced another popular actress, Chiao Chiao, in the aborted production, The Drinking Knight--a film that was scrapped and started over with a new cast and director, only to be scrapped again.

Barrel-chested Chao Hsiung played villains most of his career, only headlining two movies as the lead hero in the exciting AMBUSH (1973) as a righteous, and framed, constable; and in THE GOLDEN LION (1975) he was the title strongman in Ho Meng Hua's swordplay film that began production in 1971, but didn't see release till '75. While Chao and Lo Lieh are on the same side in THE CHINESE BOXER, the two were enemies in the classic KING BOXER (1972)--Lo was the hero and Chao was the deadly Japanese samurai. Oddly enough, despite Wang Yu's movie being the first bare-knuckle martial brawler, it was KING BOXER (re-christened FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH for export) that started the Kung Fu craze around the world--with CHINESE BOXER unleashed on America after its success. Ironically, KING BOXER was not a huge success in Hong Kong.

You'll notice a flurry of familiar faces in the background playing both thugs and good guys. One in particular is martial arts champion Chen Kuan Tai (see insert at left; character actor Chan Lau directly behind him). He signed with Shaw's in 1970 and was little more than a background player at this point. However, two years later, after Wang had left and Bruce had burst onto the scene, Chen Kuan Tai surprised everybody with his influential star turn in Chang Cheh's THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972). A massive hit, Chen was suddenly big business; and competition for both Wang Yu and Bruce Lee--the former on a slow decline and the latter dead by mid-1973.

Additionally, Pai Piao (above in middle with closed fist), another future star, is seen in background action. Approximately two years later he was vying for the role of the Tattooed Dragon in Chang Cheh's THE WATER MARGIN movies but was beat out by the sudden success of Chen Kuan Tai. Pai would leave the studio but return by the close of the decade.

A cinematographer before he became a director of crime and fantasy films, Hua Shan (THE SUPER INFRAMAN) keeps the camera moving with lots of tracking shots allowing the viewer to get a wider view of the action as well as connect emotionally with it. Wang Yu's love of low angles is seen a few times as well.

One of Wang's two ADs on this movie was Ng See Yuen, a man who later found fame upon founding the hugely successful independent outfit, Seasonal Films Corporation; and directing the Kung Fu film that would both change the industry and make a star of Jackie Chan, SNAKE IN THE EAGLE'S SHADOW (1978). He also introduced HK cinema to one its greatest icons, Hwang Jang Lee. 

An auspicious debut for Jimmy Wang Yu, he starred in one other Shaw Brothers movie that year, MY SON (1970), a modern day drama for director Lo Chen that he made prior to BOXER. Unfortunately, Wang Yu was gone from the company before that film or his directing debut hit screens. The year 1970 was particularly chaotic for Shaw Studios. They lost one of their biggest stars and key personnel all of whom were desiring a different approach to filmmaking. In Wang Yu's case, it wasn't a genial exit.

The hot-tempered, street-fighting actor broke his contract and left the studio in March of 1970 for Golden Harvest, a new film production company started by former Shaw Brothers Assistant General Manager, Raymond Chow (who also left Shaw around March of that year with GH co-founder Leonard Ho). Wang Yu ended up in Taiwan (and even Japan) where he made around two dozen movies for an assortment of companies,  mimicking some of his Shaw successes. He was rightly sued by Shaw's for breach of contract; and, after unsuccessful attempts to stop him filming elsewhere, Shaw's won an injunction in July of 1971 that the superstar couldn't make films in Hong Kong till his contract with Shaw Brothers expired in January of 1973. Ironically enough, Wang's career went slowly downhill after he left the famous movie moguls for the more unrestricted climes at Golden Harvest and independents like First Films and Cheng Ming Film Company. He did many entertaining movies, but few as memorable, or possessing the staying power, as his earlier works.

Wang Yu's last directing gig was a reunion of sorts; sequelizing his first smash he authored with RETURN OF THE CHINESE BOXER in 1977. An in-name-only sequel, it was a tour de force of Wang Yu craziness that was about as lavish as what the Shaw's afforded him back in late 1969 when he began making the first one.

As for THE CHINESE BOXER (1970), it yields a lot of promise from the controversial actor turned director. There's a controlled, professional quality present in his directorial launch that reflects less of Wang's fiery personality than his later directed efforts such as the wild, unrestrained ONE ARMED BOXER (1972). Arguably the best of his behind the camera resume, THE CHINESE BOXER is a unique entry in Kung Fu cinema. Containing the usual high standards that only Shaw Studio could provide at that time, it's a high-water mark in this genres history.

This review is representative of the Japanese bluray. Specs and Extras: 1080p widescreen 2.35:1; original trailer; new trailer; vintage textless trailer; running time: 1:29:56.

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