THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG marks the first of several successful collaborations between directors Chang Cheh and Pao Hsueh-lieh. Even more notably, it’s the film that made a superstar of martial arts expert Chen Kuan-tai, who went on to be one of Shaw Brothers’ staple kung fu stars throughout the ’70s and early ’80s.
The film itself is a masterpiece within the kung fu genre. It’s Hong Kong’s SCARFACE, its ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. It’s the story of how a poor nobody walks into opportunity and with nothing but his wits, determination and fighting skills as guides rises to become a successful gangster, only to witness the consequences of his chosen profession. BOXE FROM SHANTUNG is story-driven, rather than simply a series of martial arts brawls like so many other kung fu movies. It still lacks the complexity or character emphasis attributed to the better gangster films of Japan and Hollywood and even Chang Cheh himself would improve on the film’s premise several years later with THE CHINATOWN KID, but there’s still no doubting that it ranks as the ultimate kung fu gangster movie.
In his first starring role, Chen plays Ma Yongzhen, a poor laborer from Shantung, a rural area outside of the bustling city of Shanghai. Seeking his fortune, he comes to China’s most prosperous city during its pre-Communist heyday in the early part of the 20th century where gangsters ruled the streets. With no money or connections, his only assets are his incredible kung fu skills and a few loyal friends, particularly the humble Xiao Jiangbei (Cheng Hong-yip) who becomes his carriage driver.
A chance meeting with one of two leading gangsters named Tan Si (David Chiang) who befriends him sows the seeds for his rise and eventual fall. He also encounters thugs belonging to Tan Si’s rival, Boss Yang (Chiang Nan), and quickly makes enemies of them. With the lines drawn, he uses his kung fu skills to make a name for himself and take over a small piece of territory with the blessings of Tan Si. Ma begins to challenge Yang, who confidently hatches a plan to get rid of Tan Si and this young upstart. Threatened and looking for revenge, Ma lashes out at Yang and his entire army of hatchet-wielding goons in a last-ditch effort to determine who will run Shanghai’s underworld.
This story was strong enough to be revisited by Shaw Brothers again in 1997 when they produced a remake entitled HERO with Yuen Biao in David Chiang’s shoes and Takeski Kaneshiro (HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGER) in Chen’s role. This new version wasn’t as good overall, but did expand on one key element, the title character’s relationship with his leading lady. In the 1972 version, Cheng Li plays a lowly singer who entertains patrons at a tea house. She catches Chen’s eye, but rejects him when he embraces the gangster lifestyle. The directors unfortunately drop the relationship there and we don’t see her again until the end as she boards a train leaving the city.
The strengths of this movie lie in the wonderful screen martial arts, Chen’s performance and the directors’ subtler touches. This film came out at a time when Chang Cheh was experimenting with artsy elements like dream sequences and symbolism. It can be seen very well in VENGEANCE (1970). Here, Chang visually uses stairs as a metaphor for Chen’s attempt to rise up from poverty. His first success is being offered a job by Yang’s men. This results in Chen being offered a nicer room at the hostel he lives at. Chang goes out of his way to show the importance of Chen’s ascension to this place of privilege, which is on the coveted second floor. This also acts as foreshadowing of events to come for in Chen’s climatic struggle against Yang in the final reel, he repeatedly attempts to reach the top of a staircase where Yang hides behind his men. Rather than reach the top which is something he will never be able to do in a larger sense, he topples the staircase and brings Yang down to him. Thus, he chooses to attempt to destroy the system he once admired.
Chang would elect to discard such thought-provoking imagery in his latter career to focus on simpler and campier themes, but this shows that in his prime was truly one of the genre’s finest filmmakers for being able to bring meaning to action.
The action direction team of Lau Kar-leung and Tang Chia gain additional assistance from Lau’s brother Kar-wing and Chan Chuen. The quartet craft excellent screen action. I must admit to being extremely fond of the early ’70s style of kung fu action. It varies quite a bit from the acrobatic and forms-specific Chinese opera influences that dominated the latter half of the decade. Both styles have their strengths, but this earlier boxing form is generally more raw and frenzied, which suits Chang’s depictions of heavy bloodletting and provides a nice break from the prim and proper swordplay of wuxia pian.
Chen Kuan-tai is simply incredible to watch as he takes on rooms full of knife or hatchet-wielding thugs. He was one of Hong Kong’s first genuine martial arts stars who came to the studio already well versed in kung fu, unlike other top stars of the day like Lo Lieh, Jimmy Wang Yu and David Chiang who were largely trained at the studio. Interestingly, this role also paved the way for Chen to become a successful dramatic actor as well in films like THE TEA HOUSE and its sequel BIG BROTHER CHENG.
David Chiang has what amounts to an extended cameo, probably meant to draw in theater audiences unfamiliar with Chen. But it’s a good role since he gets to lay on his trademark charm and dole out some decent kung fu in two key scenes.
While not the best fight in the film, the most memorable one is easily Chen’s match with Italian-Australian, Pro-wrestling champion Mario Milano. While Ng See-yuen and Robert Tai would make a habit of casting foreigners in their movies in years to come, gweilos in Hong Kong kung fu movies were a rarity in 1972. It isn’t critical to the story, but provides a great opportunity to watch Chen’s iron-fisted kung fu match the massive girth of Milano’s frame, although I wouldn’t place bets on a real fight between the two.
Apart from Cheng Li’s unfortunate disappearance midway through, THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG is a well-crafted film with a classic premise, good performances, and gritty kung fu action. Chen Kuan-tai isn’t as strong an actor as say Ti Lung, but makes up for it with an understated performance that transforms into animal fury backed up with his heroic looks and skilled forms. Arguably, the Chang Cheh heroic bloodshed motif gets a little out of control at times with blood being unnaturally smeared on victims, but that’s part of the fun. It’s a good reminder that this is still Chang’s wacky world of exaggerated destruction. Overall, the film ranks with KING BOXER and FIST OF FURY as one of the most influential and satisfying Chinese boxing films of the era.REVIEW: Boxer from Shantung, The (1972),
Chang Cheh • Chen Kuan-tai • Genre: Kung Fu • Shaw Brothers • The Boxer from Shantung (1972)