[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.]
For the final Halloween-themed outing of Kung Fu Corner, I was actually fearful that I wouldn’t have another vaguely horror-themed movie to discuss. While I know of a lot more Hong Kong horror films now that I’ve been digging more into that era as of late, in my youth I watched basically none of them. I was aware of some but avoided them as my friend in high school said they were “trash.” That’s kind of funny, in retrospect, as pretty much everything we watched was considered trash by our fellow students.
Regardless, earlier this year I had rewatched Lau Kar-Leung’s Legendary Weapons of China and completely forgot about the mysticism angle the film had. It’s a vague stretch to consider this a Halloween movie, especially since there are zero horror elements, but screw it. This is my column and I’m going to end it with four distinct Halloween-esque movies!
So, Legendary Weapons of China is one of those projects that could be considered a magnum opus for director Lau Kar-Leung. Much like Sammo Hung, his career is loaded with some top-quality Kung Fu movies (a few of which I’ve already covered), but the man was never done. Up until Drunken Master 2, Lau Kar-Leung was cranking out hit after hit with no end in sight. As a man strongly dedicated to martial arts and with a lineage dating back to the actual Wong Fei-Hung, Legendary Weapons of China pays homage to a specific legacy of Wushu known as the “Eighteen Arms.”
Interestingly, though, the plot hangs itself on a mysticism angle despite Kar-Leung wishing to highlight actual, factual martial arts styles. Set during the late Qing Dynasty at the point of the Boxer Rebellion -which, itself, is a pivotal moment in China’s history-. In an attempt to squash out foreign invaders, Empress Dowager Cixi has taken certain leaders from the rebellion due to their prowess in supernatural arts to train combatants to be invulnerable to Western bullets. One man, Lei Gong (Lau Kar-Leung), defected and is now being hunted down for treason.
It’s a lot to take in at the very start, not to mention this is one of the most non-Western films imaginable. While there are obviously some cues taken from Hollywood productions with regard to set-building and plot progression, Legendary Weapons of China makes no concessions for foreign audiences. It’s only at the end of the movie during its final fight sequence that title cards for the various titular arms are even introduced. Lau Kar-Leung was very confident in his ability to tell a story firmly rooted in Chinese tradition and it helped elevate this production beyond typical Shaw Brothers fare.
With a strong foundation to build the story, the film wastes no time in assembling its key players and setting them on a journey. We get introduced to Tit Hau (Hsiao Ho), Fang Shao Ching (Kara Wai), Ti Tan (Gordon Liu), and Lei Yung (Lau Kar-Wing): all four are masters of specific mystical arts that have never met face-to-face. Dispatched to locate Lei Gung, the four then need to determine who is friend or foe and this leads to various entanglements between different characters.
In some way, the plot is almost secondary to the action in Legendary Weapons of China. While there is a strong message about utilizing only “true” martial arts and even a surprisingly honest look at how The Boxer Rebellion wasn’t so glamorous, the movie takes some wild swings in getting to the central focus of its story. Introduced very early on is a character played by the late Alexander Fu Sheng who acts purely as comedic relief. How I made it four years into this column without bringing him up once is surprising, but I digress.
Fu Sheng plays a con artist who is masquerading as Lei Gung in an attempt to steal money from bystanders. He puts on a rather big performance with his cronies in the streets that showcases all kinds of pyrotechnics and fake weaponry. Much like how Lau Kar-Leung parodied the very idea of the Kung Fu film in Dirty Ho, Legendary Weapons of China takes a stab at riffing on Chang Cheh’s output in the 70s. While anyone familiar with Shaw Brothers will get this immediately, the real-life backstory is that Lau Kar-Leung worked his way up through the ranks of Shaw by being an understudy of Chang Cheh. They had some kind of falling out in the mid-70s and Kar-Leung would go on to become an acclaimed director in his own right. For many, he had quickly outpaced his master and was the star of Shaw’s empire.
So, with that information in mind, it’s not hard to see these extended gag sequences as showing how artificial Chang Cheh’s output was. People flocked to Chang Cheh’s works because of their hyperviolence and ultra-masculine characters, but you could say it was giving the wrong impression of what martial arts were all about. Kar-Leung tried his best to elevate the action choreography of many of Cheh’s pictures, but it was ultimately a losing battle. Thankfully, the world wasn’t robbed of his talent as he successfully began his own cinematic legacy shortly after their dispute.
It’s interesting because all of the fight sequences in Legendary Weapons of China are like this. They poke and prod at the very idea of what a Kung Fu movie is. Do you come to the theater to watch pure unadulterated martial arts, or see spectacle? Do you like when combatants fight with just weapons or bare fists, or do you enjoy smoke bombs, fire, and explosions? This film gives you both and eventually makes it a point to say that all of those tricks are mere gimmicks.
According to a commentary track by Frank Djeng and Michael Worth on 88 Films’ Blu-Ray release of the movie, a lot of filmgoers were disappointed by the movie because of its usage of special effects. We’re not talking CGI or opticals here, but a lot of trick photography, flying weapons, and practical explosions. In the oeuvre that is Kar-Leung’s filmography, Legendary Weapons of China is the most outlandish in terms of its production. I think some of those filmgoers didn’t realize the message was that these kinds of effects can only last for so long.
I think it’s all fantastic and a great distraction from Kar-Leung’s sometimes low-key projects. The man had a way of integrating gender dynamics in his choreography and even working out what the true essence of martial arts was, but he never let himself go full-on ridiculous. His early career is punctuated with more serious-minded films before taking a swerve to straight-up parodies in the late 70s and early 80s. He would end his tenure at Shaw Brothers with another very serious film, but one that again highlighted the meaning of being a martial artist.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. The plot here is messy and that’s almost on purpose. Another tidbit revealed by Frank Djeng in the same aforementioned commentary is that the movie is kind of a contemplation on the looming handover of Hong Kong to China. While that would happen for another 15 years, many were wondering how their daily lives would change after their Hong Kong identities were taken from them. Would they be able to tell their fellow Hong Kongers apart from the Chinese? Legendary Weapons of China asserts that it doesn’t matter: we are all brothers.
It gives a lot more depth to a sometimes-scatterbrained film. At one point, Tit Hau and Fong Shao Ching are battling in an attic while attempting to conceal their identities by pretending to be a cat and mouse. The next, the two are working together to avoid Ti Tan as they aren’t sure of his allegiance. It’s this kind of back-and-forth tug-of-war that could potentially represent the interpersonal dynamics of the time period. It’s also used for some outstanding stealth-focused Kung Fu.
The conclusion finally brings Lei Gung firmly into the fold and Legendary Weapons of China caps off with an extended eight-minute battle. This is where each one of the Eighteen Arms of Wushu is utilized and it’s fantastic. The story has the angle of Lei Gung and Lei Yung being brothers and they are played by actual brothers Lau Kar-Leung and Lar Kar-Wing, so you get a true showcase of familial ability.
There are some things I’m leaving out here (such as an inverted role of the Shaolin Monk that Gordon Liu plays), but I believe that one can’t truly appreciate Legendary Weapons of China without seeing it. Frank Djeng put it that this is maybe not the best starting point for those unfamiliar with Kung Fu films and I do somewhat agree. I loved it as a kid, but I’ve grown to truly appreciate it as an adult with a wider breadth of knowledge in this industry. When you know the historical background of the film and can see the progression of Lau Kar-Leung’s style over his career, this movie really hits very hard.
Even if you don’t know everything about HK action cinema or Shaw Brothers, I would say that Legendary Weapons of China is a standout film in Lau Kar-Leung’s career. It isn’t the absolute best movie, but it highlights some extreme talent performing at what could be considered the apex of their might. Also, it’s technically a Halloween film if we make the same kind of logical leaps the story does.
If you’d like to read more of Peter’s Kung Fu Corner, you can do so by clicking here.