[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a monthly column dedicated to retrospectives on the martial arts films I grew up watching. We’ll be covering all kinds of Hong Kong action films from Bruce Lee all the way to Joseph Kuo. Get ready to be introduced to some weird, wacky, and utterly badass films.]
Over the course of the last month and a half, I’ve been slowly upgrading my collection of Kung Fu DVDs to Blu-Rays and it has helped me realize one thing: I still absolutely adore these films. There is just something so satisfying about the production of these films that gets me excited even at the worst of times. It’s almost like watching a person grab a camera and try their damnedest to make a movie, conventional wisdom or budget be damned.
That’s exactly how King Boxer plays out. An early attempt by Shaw Brothers studios to make a somewhat more contemporary martial arts film, there are flashes of good ideas in here that get buried by non-stop pacing and repetitive stunts. It remains an important entry in the illustrious company’s catalog of films, but you can tell that the formula that would propel other Shaw stars to the top wasn’t quite landed on yet.
Released in April of 1972 in Hong Kong, and roughly one month after the incredibly similar Fist of Fury with the legendary Bruce Lee, King Boxer is ultimately a movie about revenge. Director Jeong Chang-Hwa included everything and the kitchen sink here, giving viewers tons of action, plenty of violence, training sequences, and even a small musical number. When rewatching the film (courtesy of Arrow’s awesome Shawscope box set), I was surprised how many tropes of Kung Fu cinema got their start here.
The film begins in a dark alley where master Sung Wu-Yang (Ku Wen Chung) gets assaulted by six assailants from a rival school. Looking to kill him before he can finish training his student, the brawl is broken up when a bystander brings Sung’s pupil, Zhao Zhihao (Lo Lieh), over. It certainly is an energetic way to open the movie, not even going a single minute -credits excluded- before fists are thrown.
From there, Sung explains to Zhao that he is getting old and won’t always be able to properly teach him. Wishing Zhao to win a regional martial arts tournament, Sung advises Zhao to seek master Seun Hsin-Pei (Fang Mian) and further his skills. Zhao is initially hesitant as his love interest and daughter of master Sung, Sung Ying Ying (Wang Ping), won’t be accompanying him. Not wishing to defy his master, he sets off and vows to one day return as the champion.
It’s a decent setup for the whole film, but one that quickly gives way to a tremendous amount of exposition, twists, turns, and plot setup. Despite how dreary that sounds, King Boxer only runs 97 minutes and has something like 14 fight scenes in it. It’s a lot to take in.
The main thing I remembered King Boxer for was its opening theme song. A striking bit of synthesizer chords that immediately grabs your attention, self-righteous director Quentin Tarantino would steal it for Kill Bill and use it every time The Bride set her sights on a target. Hell, the scene in Volume Two where she gouges out Elle Driver’s eye is even inspired by King Boxer.
It’s striking details like that that have kept this film in my mind over the last 16 years. As one of the first of its kind from Shaw Brothers studios, it pioneered a new wave of Hong Kong films that would take over US cinemas for a short while in the mid-70s. I brought up Bruce Lee earlier, but Fist of Fury isn’t an exact comparison. A better example would be Enter The Dragon, which saw its international release just one month after Warner Bros. brought King Boxer to American screens. The two films would cement the legacy of this genre across the globe, ensuring that even the most obscure of martial arts films would receive a dub or stateside release.
That history lesson might give you an idea of why King Boxer is important, but I don’t know that I would call it a must-watch. For all of the ideas it kicked off, the film truly does feel a bit slapdash. Most of the fights are quite good, but there is an overuse of trampolines to send people in the air, resulting in some duels being two guys constantly flying through the air at each other. There is also an extreme lack of character development, with Zhao simultaneously being weak and powerful when the script calls for it.
You also have the introduction of the Iron Palm technique that gets used a total of three times. I understand Zhao doesn’t want to become a killer, but it feels like a late addition to the plot that mostly crops up to show off some neat lighting effects. It makes for an amazing poster but isn’t integral to the plot at all.
I sound like I’m bashing the film, but I do still enjoy the thrills that King Boxer provides. Movies like this may not hold up over 50 years, but they still offer value to viewers accustomed to more modern thrills. Not only do I have a better appreciation for the films that would follow in its wake, but I finally understand why I always looked back on King Boxer with such reverence. It was instrumental in getting Shaw Brothers into pure martial arts fare and would lead down the path to such classics as The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Dirty Ho, and The Five Venoms.
Not only that, but it provides a rare leading role for Lo Lieh who would go on to become one of Shaw’s most prolific villains. He definitely isn’t as charismatic as some other Shaw stars, but his deadly moves and imposing face would get put to excellent use in the years after.
If you’re interested in watching King Boxer, it recently became a lot easier to do so. While an HD iTunes release exists with limited supplemental material, a new restoration by Arrow Video was released this past month as part of the Shawscope Volume One box set. It contains the absolute best transfer of the film thus far, not to mention comes alongside 11 other Shaw Brothers films. It may not be in 4K, but the beautiful transfer from Celestial Pictures will make you think it is.
If you’d like to read more of Peter’s Kung Fu Corner, you can do so by clicking here.