Legendary Weapons Of China (Shi ba ban wu yi)
Hong Kong (1982) Dir. Lau Kar-Leung
Moving with the times is very important otherwise we run the risk of being left behind and unable to integrate with a modernised society. This doesn’t mean one can’t still be respectful of the past or keep hold of some traditions, nor does it mean admitting defeat, just being in need of a new solution.
In the wake of the Boxer Rebellion during the late Qing Dynasty, many martial arts factions felt they could augment their fighting skills to withstand modern weapons like bullets. As the experimentation with extreme forms was taking its toll on the students and causing fatalities, one master Lei Kung believes it is futile to try to counter modern artillery and disbands his school, sparing his students further harm.
The Empress Dowager sees this as treason and demands fighters from three schools are sent to locate and kill Lei Kung, now living incognito. Chosen for this task are Ti Hau (Hsiao Ho) who uses sorcery, Lei Ying (Lau Kar-Wing) a specialist in mind control, and Fang Shao-Ching (Kara Wai), niece of Shaolin master Ti Tan (Gordon Liu). Unaware of each other’s identity, they all arrive at Yunan at the same time and suspect the other of being Lei Kung.
One of the later Shaw Brothers films, Legendary Weapons Of China is ironically a fine example of why the martial arts genre really needed to be updated for the 1980s, whilst firmly reminding us of what the Shaw Brothers were good at. It may not be a bona fide classic entry into their legendary canon but has all the classic ingredients to come across like one.
Historical setting, fights aplenty, and a simple storyline of feuding martial arts schools, it’s all here but even this swish new HD Blu-ray transfer can’t disguise the fact this could have been made at any time in the decade prior to its 1982 release. Whether director, co-writer, and star Lau Kar-Leung was aware of this when he and Lee Tai-Hang came up with the plot I can’t say, but it is amusing to see the aforementioned parallels in it.
Something else of note is that is one of the few films to address the Boxer Rebellion, which took place in the at the turn of the 20th century in which Chinese patriots rose up against foreign influences in their country. Since many of the members of this militia were martial artists – or Chinese Boxers – this gave it its name, as well as propagating the later notion that they were useless. You’ve no doubt seen the many films where the Chinese hero defends their fighting skills against foreign devils, this is partly why.
Back to the film, and the martial artists employ unusual ideas to prepare their fighters for bullets as already mentioned. The sorcery used as a defence is simply magic tricks like fireworks to distract their opponent. Ti Tan uses straight up physical and mental training to make the bodies impervious to swords – bullets no so much. This upsets Fang and she tries to make her uncle stop sacrificing his students but she is silenced.
Most fun/ridiculous is the voodoo of Lei Yung, using a small yellow doll which he stabs, twists and contorts to control his foe. The problem is it is played for comedy. In tracking Lei Kung down, the assassins are told he has a habit of showing off his skills. Also in Yunan is a charlatan (Alexander Fu Sheng) who puts on fighting shows for money and is an immediate suspect in Lei Yung’s eyes, leading to a twenty minute segment set at a riverside latrine.
Quite how Fang ended up agreeing to assassinate Lei Kung isn’t explained for someone so sympathetic, so it no surprise, after being the first to see beyond his disguise, that she sides with his pacifism and becomes an ally. I should point out that Fang is also I disguise and a male but of course, her femininity is obvious to everyone except the cast, who are somehow shocked when she later drops the façade.
Not content with wearing many hats on the production side of things, Lau Kar-Leung also plays Uncle Yu, an old man who sells firewood, whose remarkable strength and precision of his cuts also make him suspicious as a potential Lei Kung. Interestingly, Lei Yung is played by Lau’s real life brother Lau Kar-Wing a fact which may or may not be a spoiler but I can say quite comfortably that both Lau brothers can fight and they are in good company.
Despite having proven himself in many classic Shaw Brothers films, Gordon Liu is limited to one major fight scene late in the film, after a few minor teases. Kara Wai is another SB star and very competent fighter only given a few moments to shine – including a seemingly impossible scrap against Hsiao Ho set in the confines of the restricted space between two floors of the inn everyone is staying in – only to be reduced to being a spectator by the end.
Lau saves the best until last with an epic clash which involves the use of the 18 Arms of Wushu, a collection of weapons to reflect the various disciplines of martial arts. Some were used elsewhere in the film but most were kept by Lei Kung, but don’t worry if you don’t know what each weapons is their name is helpfully shown on screen when they are introduced into the fight.
After all that, Legendary Weapons Of China ends on a pithy but cheekily moral note on the subject of trying to adapt martial arts into something it isn’t. That it has survived to this day as guns have become more widespread in public life and despite not making its practitioners bullet proof says a lot about the fundamentals of martial arts training. If you can get past the silliness of the middle section, this is a decent kung fu flick.