Boxer From Shantung (Ma Yong Zhen)
Hong Kong (1972) Dir. Chang Cheh
Is it possible to reach the top of a corrupt world and keep your principals intact? Will money, notoriety and manipulation, betrayal and malfeasance prove too strong for your moral compass? Legendary Shaw Brothers director Chang Cheh explores this notion in one the company’s biggest box office hits of 1972.
Ma Yongzhen (Chen Kuan-tai) is a country lad recently arrived in Shanghai along with his best friend Xiao Jiangbei (Cheng Kang-yeh) seeking a better life for themselves. Ma is highly skilled with his fists which he demonstrates in front of local “noble” gangster Boss Tan Si (David Chiang). Tan Si offers Ma money as reward but Ma is intent to succeed by on his graft and not rely on hand outs.
While this earns Tan Si’s respect, other gangsters are less impressed, namely Boss Yang (Chiang Nan) whom Ma turns down an offer of an alliance, enraging the corrupt boss. Things heat up when Ma effortlessly defeats the hatchet wielding Four Kings then defeats a giant Russian wrestling champion (Mario Milano). With money in his pocket and a formidable reputation to his name, Ma is now seen as the new boss in town which Yang vows to put a stop to.
On the surface your regular Shaw Brothers/Kung Fu flick storyline with the well intentioned country boy rising to the status of hero with a few benefits thrown in for good measure, but Cheh and co-writer Ni Kuang take a more deliberate detailed approach to telling this story in Boxer From Shantung.
For a start, it is just over two hours long and uses much of that time in building not only Ma’s character but that of the antagonists too, while casting a wry eye over the social caste system created by the intimidation of the gangster’s bullying presence. There are fights aplenty but they are often swift affairs, congruent to the plot and not slotted in because there is an action quota to fulfil.
Indeed Ma’s rise up the ladder of local infamy is gradual and marked with milestone rewards, staving off the easy route Cheh could have taken with having him get a swell head and setting himself up for a big fall. The twist here is that Ma remains largely grounded, never betraying his poor roots, insisting that struggling local traders can pay their donations whenever and not be beaten for it.
When he does earn some money, the first thing Ma buys himself is a cigarette holder similar to Tan Si’s, a symbol of the material luxury items Ma craves over excessive wealth. If anything Ma becomes noted for his largesse towards Xiao and others under his purview, sharing the wealth when he can afford it.
But it comes at a price as always, and in this instance, indirectly. The target Yang puts on Ma’s back is the obvious one but the elder gangster uses his deviousness to get at him from another angle, with great human cost. The other loss is the love of singer Jin Lingzi (Ching Li), who thought Ma was different from the other gangsters but finds the nascent signs of arrogance in him a turn off, believing him to be o different after all.
Yet this relationship is never explored beyond a few interested glances by both parties and Jin’s public dismissal of Ma, making the idea that Ma has cost himself the love of a good woman an insignificant one to the audience. The fact Jin is barely seen in the film anyway suggests either the clichéd love affair was deliberately eschewed for good reason, or it ended up on the cutting room floor.
Similarly an unspoken bond of respect and admiration is hinted between Ma and Tan Si, but again, nothing is cemented, meaning later developments do not have the emotional impact they should. This is not due to the run time as both plot lines could have been followed through, replacing the scenes which did survive that are simple re-runs of a previous one.
It would take a while before the direction of Kung Fu flicks broke out of the familiar style the Shaw Brothers popularised and was often imitated, but Cheh tries a few little different tricks here, most notably in the visual symbolism of Ma’s journey. Since the central theme is on upward mobility, Cheh uses staircases a lot to illustrate the “top means successful, bottom means worthless” axiom.
When Ma is rewarded with the top floor bedroom in the small inn he sleeps in, the camera shoots from below to capture his ascent to the next level in life. Later, in the film’s climactic and bloody fight, Ma again is forced to climb a staircase and fight numerous men to reach Yang – but he has a crafty trick up his sleeve to expediate his mission.
Of course it wouldn’t be a Shaw Brothers film without the fights and Ma engages in a fair few scrapes. However in a case of saving the best until last, Cheh devotes the entire final act to a massive claret soaked punch up, involving knives, hatchets and anything not nailed down, which actually is driven by a philosophical narrative than a quest for vengeance.
Also atypical of the genre, Cheh ends the film with a music free denouement of bittersweet nature to follow one of the boldest fight climaxes seen in a long while. Star Chen Kuan-tai enjoyed huge success as an actor and director after this film, yet his shirtless appearance and certain poses in the final fight *might* just make him the first ever Bruce Lee clone, coming just a few months after Lee’s The Big Boss popularised the look! Coincidence?
Regardless of this whimsy on my part, Boxer From Shantung provides a solid balance of action and storytelling, rich with subtle but effective experiments to make this a unique Shaw Brothers classic, proudly breaking with tradition whilst delivering the goods as expected.