King Boxer (Tian xia di yi quan)

Hong Kong (1972) Dir. Cheng Chang-Ho

Alternatively known as Five Fingers Of Death this classic Shaw Brothers production comes courtesy of one of its more prolific directors, Cheng Chang-Ho who himself is alternatively known by his Korean birth name Jeong Chang-Hwa. It was the film – released with an English dub – which kick-started the “kung fu” craze in the US in the 1970’s.

True to form with the martial arts genre the story is rather basic – aged kung fu teacher Master Sung Wu-Yang (Ku Wen-Chung) is attacked but barely escapes despite sending his assailants on their way. Feeling he is letting down his most loyal student Chao Chih-Hao (Lo Lieh) and sends him to learn under a better master, Shen Chin-Pei (Fang Mian) in order to win a local tournament and the hand of Sung’s daughter Yin Yin (Wang Ping).

Upon arriving at Shen’s school Chih-Hao saves a singer Yen Chu-Hung (Wang Chin-Feng) from the advances of Meng Tien-Hsiung (Tung Lam) and his men. Meng is the son of Master Meng Tung-Shan (Tien Feng), a rival of Shen’s school who seeks dominance in the martial arts world. Meng tries to bully Shen’s fighters but when Chih-Hao defeats one of his top men, the rivalry become vicious.

King Boxer was released in Hong Kong cinemas one week after Bruce Lee’s seminal and much copied Fist Of Fury, even sharing some cast members and themes, but it wasn’t until Warner Brothers (oh the irony) brought it to the US a year later that this film first earned the global reputation it enjoys to this day, paving the way for Lee’s Enter The Dragon to steal its thunder later in the year.

Whilst it would be unfair to compare this to either of Bruce Lee’s film, well schooled martial arts fans will notice the key differences in the choreography, editing, camerawork and the political content in Lee’s scripts compared to this standard but equally influential and exemplary slice of 70’s kung fu mayhem.

Chiang Yang’s script does throw a lot more into the pot than just a martial arts rivalry – there is romance, a potential love triangle, deception, betrayal and music, provided your ears can stand the high-pitched whine of traditional Chinese ballads. Master Sung uses the blossoming romance between Chih-Hao and Yin Yin to inspire Chih-Hao to win the tournament but once he saves Chu-Hung, she falls for him too.

Previously Chu-Hung was involved with Han Lung (Nan Kung-Hsun), Master Shen’s top pupil who becomes jealous of Chih-Hao’s rapid progress at the school. To further stoke the flames of envy, Chih-Hao’s defeat of Meng’s hired hand Chen Lang (Gam Kei-Chu) earns him the accolade of learning Master Shen’s fabled Iron Fist technique, something Han Lung has been waiting to learn.

The idea is that the odds are stacked against Chih-Hao but the script allows some of the other fighters to feel the wrath of Meng and his son’s henchmen, which expands to include Okada (Chiu Hung) a fighter from Japan. All this adds up to plenty of action and while the story does move along at a brisk pace with a new development at each turn, we are never far away from a decent punch up.

Some are quick, some are extensive, some rely purely on punching while others see the old wires brought out for some fancy flipping and flying, but they are all executed with the same deft  precision and tight choreography. Unfortunately as mentioned before this had to compete with Bruce Lee’s lightening fast fights and might seem slow and dated in comparison but the quality of the work here is superior to the many cheap knock offs that followed in its wake to still hold its own.

An interesting way of the structuring the story, the tournament final is not the last fight of the film by a long shot with three more to come, one of which takes place in the dark, the opening gambit being one man having his eyes poked out! The long awaited showdown between Chih-Hao and Okada is short and anti-climactic (a regular problem with Shaw Brothers films) but allows the film to end with a definitive resolution.

One thing about this film is that it is rather violent and gory and not just with the usual bloodied mouth or heavy bruising either. The apogee of this is the removed eyeballs in the hand but not before we’ve seen people sliced up with Samurai swords, Chih-Hao getting his hands broken and Chen Lang head butting faces into a bloody mess. It is not an excessively used feature but appears just enough to still be effective.

Director Cheng Chang-Ho may be Korean but he seems very much at home within the world of the Hong Kong Martial Arts genre to the point you’d never have guess his non-Chinese origins. Cheng noticeably makes an effort to get a credible acting performance from his cast and keeps the story moving along and the fights congruent and not just there for the sake of it.

Lo Lieh had been the hero in many a martial arts flicks since the 1960’s but it was as Chih-Hao that his stock rose internationally (at least until Bruce Lee came along). A rather serious faced actor, Lieh was a top-flight fighter and later in his career he would often play the villain, The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin being a famous example. Tien Feng, playing the dastardly Master Meng, also appeared in Fist Of Fury while a young Bolo Yeung appears briefly a Mongolian street fighter.

There is no question King Boxer might seem dated to anyone weaned on the films of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Donnie Yen and is a product of its time, yet it still kicks ass and the influence it had on the Kung Fu flick is still felt to this day, very much deserving of its status as a classic of the genre.