In the recent news of the passing of Lau Kar-Leung, members of the Kung Fu Cinema message boards were asked to give a list of Lau’s films they enjoyed the most. After tallying the votes, a final Top Ten list have been revealed of what the fans feel are some of his best films. These films could actually pose as introductions to new fans of martial arts films.
With that said, here are Lau Kar-Leung’s top ten films in descending order.
10. TIGER ON THE BEAT (1988) – While Lau Kar-Leung was known primarily for classic kung fu and wuxia films, he did make a smooth transition to modern-day action films with this buddy action-comedy. Chow Yun-Fat and Conan Lee are the mismatched pairing of police officers who must protect a woman from a crime syndicate. One of the highlights features a mind-blowing chainsaw duel between Lee and Lau’s adopted brother and kung fu icon Gordon Liu.
9. CHALLENGE OF THE MASTERS (1976) – The first of two of Lau’s films where Gordon Liu plays the legendary Wong Fei-Hung. Here, the young mischievous Wong is sent to train with his father’s teacher, Luk Ah-Choy, played by Chen Kuan-Tai. Lau himself makes a cameo as a villain who specializes in staffwork and kicking. The ending here is not a typical ending for the classic kung fu genre, but it shows how much Lau has respected the martial arts.
8. DRUNKEN MASTER II (1994) aka THE LEGEND OF DRUNKEN MASTER – The pairing of Lau Kar-Leung and Jackie Chan seems like a dream come true for fans. Reprising his role of Wong Fei-Hung, Chan must stop a band of Chinese ex-patriots from stealing artifacts to sell to the British. Lau himself gets in on some amazing action, using a spear against Chan and has a nice brief duel with the late Anita Mui. Sadly, as the saying goes, “two tigers cannot be on one mountain” and Chan took over with shooting the film’s final sequence himself.
7. LEGENDARY WEAPONS OF CHINA (1982) – Lau directs and stars in this film as a leader of a faction hired by Empress Dowager to find various masters who are invulnerable to bullets. However, Lau disbands his group and becomes wanted from treason. While there are elements of the supernatural in this film, it is the finale between Lau and his real-life brother Lau Kar-Wing that highlights the film’s use of the titular “legendary weapons”.
6. MAD MONKEY KUNG FU (1982) – Once again, Lau not only directs, but takes the lead of a former monkey fist expert who goes off the deep end when he is tricked by a rival, played by the late Lo Lieh. He ends up with his hands cripples and his sister, played by protégé Kara Hui, is forced into working for the rival. Living as a recluse, he becomes a street performer when he takes in the orphaned Monkey, played by protégé Hsiao Ho. Unfortunate circumstances forces Lau back into the rivalry and as the title indicates, he goes into “mad monkey” mode with the help of his new student.
5. MY YOUNG AUNTIE (1980) – Lau combines comedy and kung fu with this tale of cross-generational chaos. Lau’s protégé Kara Hui makes her lead role debut as a traditional young woman (and kung fu expert) who decides to help a dying landowner from giving his estate to his greedy brother by marrying him. When the landowner finally passes, she is given the inheritance and by her husband’s will, meets his nephew, played by Lau himself, and his Westernized son, played by Hsiao Ho. When the greedy brother-in-law, played by Wang Lung-Wei, steals the deed, the “young auntie” and her family rally to stop him.
4. EXECUTIONERS OF SHAOLIN (1977) – The original “Iron Monkey”, Chen Kuan-Tai, reprises his role of Shaolin master Hung Hsi-Kuan from HEROES TWO (1974) and MEN OF THE MONASTERY (1974) with this action packed epic. Here, Hung takes on the evil Pai Mei, played by Lo Lieh, after the white-bearded assassin has begun a wave of destruction against anyone who originally comes from the Shaolin Temple. Lo would reprise the role of Pai Mei in 1980’s CLAN OF THE WHITE LOTUS while Gordon Liu took on the role in Quentin Tarentino’s martial arts opus KILL BILL (2003/2004).
3. EIGHT DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER (1984) – What starts out as a revenge tale of two brothers avenging the massacre of their family ends up as a tribute to Shaw Brothers star Alexander Fu Sheng, who had died at the age of twenty-eight in a car accident during production of this film. While Fu’s character ultimately goes crazy, Gordon Liu saves the day as the brother who trains at Shaolin and instead of killing, uses a new method for revenge: “defanging” the killers…in other words, using the staff and knocking loads of teeth out literally!
2. HEROES OF THE EAST (1979) aka SHAOLIN CHALLENGES NINJA – This film is living proof that Lau Kar-Leung not only had respect for all Chinese martial arts, but martial arts as a whole. The film revolves around an arranged marriage between a Chinese kung fu expert and a Japanese woman trained in her country’s martial arts. They constantly test to see which of their styles is better. When the wife resorts to using ninjitsu, her husband denounces the art as using dirty tricks. Upset, the wife heads back to Japan and asks her teacher/former boyfriend to teach her husband a lesson. Gordon Liu, who plays the husband, takes on the likes of Yasuaki Kurata, Riki Harada, and other Japanese masters. The ending clearly showcases a level of respect between Chinese and Japanese martial arts, something not usually seen in the classic kung fu era, where the Chinese are always killing the Japanese.
And the number one Lau Kar-Leung film is…
1. THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN (1978) aka THE MASTER KILLER – The quintessential Lau Kar-Leung film, this is the film that made adopted brother Gordon Liu a bonafide superstar. Liu plays a young rebel whose father is brutally murdered by the invading Manchus. Going to the Shaolin Temple, Liu trains and must pass a series of tests by entering the thirty-five chambers of the temple. After years of training and passing each chamber, he becomes the monk San Te and is given the chance to return home to train the villagers in kung fu against the Manchus. The title of the film refers to the new chamber San Te creates, in order for laypeople to go to the temple to learn martial arts. The film’s international title, THE MASTER KILLER would be Gordon Liu’s nickname to many fans over the years after the release.
These are the top ten Lau Kar-Leung films as voted by the KFC forum members. However, there are some honorable mentions that must be noted.
THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967) – Directed by the late Chang Cheh, Lau worked as one of the action directors for this classic wuxia film. This is mentioned because it was Lau who designed the new blade that lead actor Jimmy Wang Yu wields in the finale of this film, according to a Hong Kong television interview.
THE SPIRITUAL BOXER (1975) – Lau combines the supernatural and comedy with martial arts in this pioneering film starring the late Wong Yue. The film would also be the directorial debut for Lau after parting ways with longtime action collaborator Tang Chia and director Chang Cheh.
RETURN TO THE 36TH CHAMBER (1980) aka RETURN OF THE MASTER KILLER – A pseudo-sequel to his 1978 classic, this one combined comedy and kung fu with Gordon Liu playing a conman whose latest trick, posing as San Te, is found out by the Manchus. Deciding to help his brother and friends as a means of apologizing, he goes to Shaolin Temple and while he is met with resistance at first, he eventually self-trains while being forced to put up scaffolding around the temple. Realizing he has learned martial arts the whole time, he returns home to avenge his brother and friends.
MARTIAL ARTS OF SHAOLIN (1986) – After briefly working with Jet Li in choreographing the famous “four seasons” sequence in Li’s film debut THE SHAOLIN TEMPLE (1981), Lau was asked to direct the third and final installment of the Li-led series. Like its predecessors, the cast is made up of members of the Beijing Sports Academy only this time, Lau took over as both director and action director, earning a nomination for Best Action Choreography at the Hong Kong Film Awards.
PEDICAB DRIVER (1989) – While Lau did not direct this film, he makes a very high impact cameo appearance in what can only be described as a duel of legends. Lau’s character, a casino owner, takes on low-level rickshaw driver Sammo Hung in one of the best battles on screen.
OPERATION SCORPIO (1991) aka SCORPION KING – Lau takes the co-lead with young stuntman Chin Kar-Lok as a noodle shop owner who is also a kung fu expert. He trains the always daydreaming Chin in martial arts and together, they must stop a vicious crime ring led by a wheelchair-bounded man and his superkicking son. While Lau engages in his trademark traditional kung fu skills, it is Korean martial artist Won Jin who steals the show as the high-kicking son of the crime lord.
SEVEN SWORDS (2005) – This film, Tsui Hark’s wuxia pian homage of Akira Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI, would be Lau Kar-Leung’s final performance. Here, Lau plays a retired Ming Dynasty executioner who becomes of the titular Seven Swords, a group of weapon experts who band together to save a village from the evil warlord Fire-Wind, played by Sun Honglei. Donnie Yen, Leon Lai, Charlie Yeung, Lu Yi, Duncan Chow, and Tai Li-Wu play the other members of the Seven Swords.
It is clear that while Lau Kar-Leung no longer is with us, his martial spirit will forever live on with his film career. He had nothing but the utmost respect for all martial arts and even respecting the fans with his unique brand of action choreography and directing. As everyone has said time and time again “there is only one Bruce Lee”, the same can be clearly said…”There is only one Lau Kar-Leung”.