Originally released in the U.S. as FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH by Warner Bros., KING BOXER today is a landmark martial arts movie blockbuster recognized both for being the first kung fu movie hit in America and for helping to chart the course for the entire genre for years to come.
KING BOXER is a masterfully crafted martial arts movie from visionary Korean director Jeong Chang-hwa, the mighty Shaw Brothers studios and the action directing team of Lau Kar-wing and Chan Chuen. It’s also the first and greatest starring role in a kung fu movie for the late Lo Lieh, who became one of the greatest and most prolific non-martial arts-trained kung fu stars of all time.
This is a film, that at the time of its release shocked audiences with a level of graphic violence never before seen in martial arts filmmaking. Although arterial blood sprays had recently become a staple of swordplay in chambara and wuxia filmmaking, KING BOXER made martial arts violence more personal by showing bloody, bone-crushing strikes to the forehead, painful torture of limbs and eyes graphically plucked from their sockets. For the first time, the human body itself was being displayed as a weapon capable of inflicting damage as gruesome and effective as any bladed instrument or gun.
Adding potent weight and visceral magnitude to the film’s action sequences are a number of unusual special effects, some of which became widely used many years later while other may seem more quaint. The glowing red hands of Lo Lieh simulate the accumulation of his qi energy from Iron Palm training. Clouds of fine dust, often referred to today as “power powder,” explode from floor boards as fighters come crashing down or blast forth from bodies to accentuate the force of an attacker’s blow. Fists and various weapons fly at the camera, sometimes on wires. With the camera cranked to slow down playback speeds, fighters leap into the air to clash in a fury of blows above the ground. This was Jeong’s interpretation of Chinese martial arts, partly an adaptation of more fantasy-oriented wuxia lore and partly an experiment in redefining the human body as a lethal force. It was a far cry from the conventional choreography that had once defined kung fu on screen in the long-running WONG FEI HUNG serial.
It isn’t all about graphic violence. At its heart, KING BOXER is a traditional story of one man’s struggle to honor his two martial arts masters in a time of crisis within the martial arts world while remaining true to his first love. Unlike many of the action filmmakers who would come to dominate kung fu moviemaking in years to come, Jeong was a complete martial arts filmmaker, as concerned about character and plot as he was the physical action. In KING BOXER he clearly understands the need to build character in order to give greater potency to the violence.
Representing the everyman kung fu hero in a rural part of early 20th-century China is Chao Chih-hao (Lo Lieh), a filial student beloved by his adoptive father and kung fu master Sung Wu-yang (Goo Man-chung). A scuffle with a rival kung fu school and the reappearance of an old student whose skills have improved under a new master reveals the limits of Sung’s abilities and he reluctantly sends his favorite pupil away to train with Master Suen Hsin-pei (Fang Mien).
After Chih-hao is forced to leave his childhood sweetheart Ying-ying (Wong Ping) behind, he comes to the aid of an attractive street performer (Wong Chin-feng) by battling thugs from another rival school.
Thanks to his unwavering diligence and innate skill, Chih-hao gradually earns the respect of Master Suen, much to the resentment of the master’s senior pupil Han Lung (James Nan). This problem isn’t helped much when Chih-hao’s unwillingness to fight against the same students, from the school belonging to Meng Tung-shan (Tien Feng), is misinterpreted as cowardice by Nam.
Chih-hao proves otherwise by defeating Meng’s hired fighter, the iron-headed Chen Lang (Gam Kei-chu) following the fighter’s disrespectful treatment of Master Suen. This is turn causes Meng to hire three vicious professional Japanese fighters led by a ninja master named Okada (Chiu Hung).
Realizing his need for a successor, Master Suen begins training Chih-hao in his secret Iron Palm technique. Jealously causes Nam to collude with Master Meng in hopes of getting rid of the upstart who has succeeded in becoming his master’s favored student. The fear of both men is that Chih-hao will be selected to represent his school in an upcoming martial arts tournament.
Meng sends his Japanese fighters to capture Chih-hao and cripple his hands so that he will be unable to fight. Thanks to his training and support of both the street performer and a fellow student, Chih-hao recovers to defeat Nam in a sparring session to determine who will represent Suen’s school in the tournament.
In response, Meng orders the Japanese to kill Chih-hao before he can reach the tournament grounds. An unlikely ally intercedes on Chih-hao’s behalf, allowing him to fight in the tournament.
Yet little does Chih-hao know that both his old master Sung and his new master Suen have both been marked for death by the treacherous Meng. The tournament becomes a sideshow to the real conflict when a furious Chih-hao musters the strength of his Iron Palm skills to take care of Meng and his hired thugs. At the same time, a betrayed Nam prepares to strike back against Meng with the aid of the street performer.
This story is unusually sophisticated by kung fu movie standards as it contains a host of fleshed out supporting characters and sub-plots, all tightly wound together. On the surface there is the standard revenge theme, but it doesn’t come to that until Jeong has had time to develop the circumstances that lead to it.
I would favorably compare this movie to Chang Cheh’s BOXER FROM SHANTUNG as a prime example of a dramatic, story-driven kung fu movie. It started with Jimmy Wang Yu’s A CHINESE BOXER, ironically with Lo Lieh playing a Japanese villain, yet it took more skilled directors like Jeong and Chang to fully realize the potential of kung fu for gripping drama. Hereafter, the action improved in kung fu movies but the storytelling generally declined. For this reason, KING BOXER remains a vital classic despite its slightly crude and exploitive, wuxia-inspired fight work.
That’s no slam against Lau Kar-wing or Chan Chuan though. These very talented guys perform magic with a cast mostly made up of actors with little or no formal martial arts training. There are a few notable exceptions in supporting and stunt roles that include Yen Shi-kwan, Yuen Shun-yee and Hsu Hsia, the latter being best known for his stick fighter role in DRUNKEN MASTER. The most famous among the stunt actors in attendance is Bolo Yeung, who briefly shows up as a Mongolian fighter working as a street performer.
KING BOXER receives superb treatment in its production from Shaw Brothers. It represents some of the best filmmaking the studio had to offer at the time, from the gruesome make-up effects to dynamic and stylized cinematography from Wang Yung-lung. Wang was previously responsible for shooting some of Shaw Brothers’ top wuxia classics of the ’60s including Chang Cheh’s THE MAGNIFICENT TRIO.
Music in classic kung fu movies has always been a hot topic, for its obvious plagiarism of other film soundtracks and in some cases for helping to define the movie for Western audiences. KING BOXER is a prime example with a distinctive clarion call during Chih-hao’s glowing Iron Palm scenes being taken from the theme song to TV’s 1967 detective series IRONSIDE. Why IRONSIDE? Besides having a cool, early synthesizer theme song from R&B pioneer Quincy Jones, the series also enjoyed a guest appearance from Bruce Lee during the episode “Tagged for Murder. In 1972′s Hong Kong, anything to do with Bruce Lee was pure gold, even from a studio that had foolishly let the superstar slip from their grasp.
The importance of KING BOXER in the history of martial arts filmmaking cannot be overstated. This was the first kung fu movie ever screened in the U.S., several months before Bruce Lee’s FIST OF FURY (aka THE CHINESE CONNECTION) arrived. Its violence, dynamics and martial culture thrilled audiences at the time.
Years later, the movie’s diminished shock value in the face of far more realistic violence and the martial arts action, dependent on what looks today like crude wire work and sometimes rough editing, hasn’t made the movie any less entertaining today. Lo Lieh wasn’t the next Bruce Lee and lacked both the same real-life skills and charisma that the film’s gory violence and simple light effects try to make up for. But still, in the tradition of great genre moviemaking, director Jeong Chang-hwa and Shaw Brothers studio made the most of their medium to create a true kung fu classic that has stood the test of time.REVIEW: King Boxer (1972),
King Boxer (1972) • Lo Lieh • Shaw Brothers