Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Shaw Brothers Marathon: King Boxer

King Boxer (1972, Chang-Hwa Jeong)

And now for something different. Hmm, that might not be entirely accurate, for 1972’s King Boxer does fit the mould of what to expect from classic Shaw Brothers fair. There is kung fu, there is a martial arts tournament, and there is a story of personal redemption and one of vengeance for the death of a beloved teacher. And yet, despite the familiarity which sets the film within the parameters of what the studio typically produced in the 60s and 70s, there is an underlying feeling that this entry is shade darker, a shade more brash, a shade more violent and a shade more accomplished than most of the catalogue.

Like so many Shaw Brothers tales, King Boxer immediately thrusts the viewer straight into the action and plot when aging martial arts master Sung Wu-yang (Gu Wen-zong) is attacked on his way home by a gang of hoodlums who serve under a rival school master, Ming Dung-shen (tien Fung).  Old Wu-yang succeeds in fending off his assailants, but not without tremendous effort. Clearly, his best days are behind him, which prompts the wise man to send his best pupil, Chao Chi-hao (Lo Lieh), to a nearby town and receive further, more thorough training from the great Shen Chin-pei (Fang Mian). Chao leaves with a heavy heart since this means separation from his master’s beautiful daughter Yin Yin (Ping Wang), but his concentration must turn to other matters very early upon arrival at Shen Chin-pei’s school, for the rivalry between the latter’s academy and that of Ming Dung-shen is virtually at the boiling point, with outright challenges occurring in the middle of the training grounds. With a martial arts tournament fast approaching, Shen Chin-pei is desperate to send his best student to represent the school in order to save face as well as prevent Ming Sung-shen from taking over more schools.

King Boxer is infused with a visceral quality that few Shaw Brothers films can match. Others try for moments of gracefulness (think of all the Chang Che directed films with David Chiang we have discussed with Chiang’s characters leaping through the air and landing like a cat) mixed in with the violence and heroics. Watching more and more films of this ilk gives one a grander perspective of the tone they aimed for, which ones went for more light hearted affair and which were steadfast in their efforts to have the viewer feel the violence and understand how just about anyone can perish at the hands of evil. King Boxer stands firmly in the second category. What truths can be unearthed in comparing Korean directed films from the current ‘new wave’ of South Korean cinema and movies made in the 1970s, this reviewer does not know for sure, but it is interesting to note that King Boxer is one of the few Shaw Brothers films directed by a Korean, in this case Chang-Hwa Jeong. Might this have influenced how the script was treated and the brutal nature of the violence depicted on screen? It is definitely tempting to think so, although we may never know for sure. The author shall not hide the fact that even before learning that the director was a Korean, multiple scenes in the film came across as far more grotesque (‘graphic’ might be a more à propos term)  in their violence than in several other Shaw films. The violence has a feeling of immediacy to it, but also a sense that the characters involved in it are larger than life to an extent. How about the moments when young Chao, now a powerful student who has learned the ways of the Iron Fist, extends his red glowing palms before a fight as the music to Ironside rips through the soundtrack? The moment is awesome in its theatricality, a theatricality which precedes a titanic battle with a highly skilled opponent.  The excitement factor shoots through the roof. 

The story itself is in sync with those traditional martial arts action movies, with a young hopeful rising from the masses of average students to do his master justice (in this case his two masters!).  Part of the reason why this tale of a rising hero is so compelling resides in the fact that the villains feel genuinely dangerous but also in the earnestness of Lo Lieh’s performance. A second viewing was required to fully appreciate what the actor was trying to pull off. Admittedly, the initial viewing session did Lieh few favours. He seemed a bit stiff, lacking some depth and range. It was not a poor performance, but nothing special either. The recent second screening shed more light on Lo Lieh, who this time felt far more real a character. One must understand that his character is especially young, inexperienced in matters of love, is sent off to another school and master with whom he is unfamiliar. In addition, the character is naturally quiet, choosing his words carefully, speaking only when he has something relevant to say. In a way, he is still a difficult character to fully support precisely because he mostly reacts to what happens around him rather than act out himself, but Lo Lieh nonetheless does an admirable job having the viewer side behind. He simply feels like a good person, instinctively that is. The icing on the cake is the daydream sequence when he and his school sister Yin Yin meet again in a beautiful field after several months apart, running towards one another in slow motion and crashing into each other warm embraces. How many super bad ass martial artists are also hopelessly romantic?

The forces of evil, resolute in their malicious intentions, are great in number and great in their incredible diversity. Enemies emerge from not merely outside of Shen Chin-pei’s school, but from within as well. Chief among them is, without surprise, the rival school master Ming Dung-shen, who performs some truly vile acts throughout the film, proving once again that nobody should ever trust the head bad guy, even if one believes to have his full support. In truth, we do not see all that much of Dung-shen, but his trusted minions more than make up for his long absences. In fact, the number of memorable operatives working for him is pretty stellar. There is his chief spy, a rogue martial artist named Cheng Lung (Kim Kee-joo) whose signature move is a head butt, his son who represents the school in the tournament, a Japanese thug, and, to top it off, one of the Chin-pei’s students, Hang Lung (James Nam) betrays his master by siding with the villains too. It is an entire horde of baddies that Chao must overcome in order to prove his worth! Some are a little but less impactful than others, such as the spy, but Hang Lung for his sneakiness and Cheng Lung for his audacious head butts are terrific. Just seeing one villain after another emerge as the story evolves, thus diminishing the odds of Chao success, creates a powerful impact on the viewer. The classic conundrum of ‘how will our hero get out this time?’ is all the more present in this movie.

Reading up on King Boxer afterwards was revelatory. To begin with, it was the very first Chinese martial arts film to make inroads in North America. Its success opened the floodgates for countless other now classic movies to be shown on the silver screen, allowing people in this part of the globe to discover a whole new world of action filmmaking. And what a film to accomplish such a feat! Cha Hwa-Jeong’s King Boxer carries tremendous impact, figuratively speaking. It flies by like a bullet while still staying true to a complete and compelling story while showing off just how audacious these movies could be with their violence. If anyone reading this review enjoys martial arts films and has not seen King Boxer, you have some homework to do.

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