King Boxer (1972): Winning isn’t everything. But no actually, it is

MOVIE: King Boxer

RELEASED IN: 1972

STARRING: Lo Lieh, Tien Feng, James Nam

WRITTEN BY: Chiang Yang

DIRECTOR: Chang-hwa Chung

PRODUCER: Run Run Shaw

FIGHT CHOREOGRAPHER: Lau Kar-wing, Chan Chuen

RATING: ★★★★☆

1972 King BoxerWhether it was by coincidence, or that my brain subconsciously told me to gravitate towards this film, but either way I recently ended up watching another Shaw Brothers DVD.

Critics, including the likes of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, suggest that King Boxer was the film that broke open the floodgates for kung fu movie releases in the US. Directed by Korean moviemaker Chang-hwa Chung, King Boxer would also be the feature debut of Lo Lieh, an enduring figurehead of Hong Kong action cinema despite having no professional martial arts training in real life.

While I maintain that The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was one of the most iconic films produced by Shaw Brothers Studio, King Boxer aka Five Fingers of Death deserves an equal share of accolades, not only because it happens to be one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite movies, but because it has managed to stay memorable in each subsequent decade since its release, bringing with it a snowballing cult following.

Fans of Tarantino’s awesomely-gruesome revenge fest Kill Bill could immediately place its sampling of King Boxer’s soundtrack and the instantly recognisable trumpet that would sound during the fight scenes and stare downs, accompanied with the retro tints of colour on screen.

But I would like to think that it was more than a synthesizer and 60s special effects that would inspire Tarantino and the procurement of a loyal fan base. To speak of the true Shaw Brothers style, King Boxer showcases the very elements that make the quintessential kung fu film: slightly dicey wigs, dramatized encounters with enemies, and fight scenes with bladed weapons and requisite hand-to-hand combat. Yet it was the graphic violence never before seen in martial arts films that would shock audiences upon its release in both Hong Kong and overseas, and act as a defining moment for filmmakers of action cinema.

1972 King BoxerI can assume at least that the squirting blood bags, mutilated limbs and even one fighter plucking another fighter’s eyeballs out of their sockets certainly made an impression on Tarantino.

But it was the brutal fight scenes and glorified violence that added a new potency to the film’s action, in the way that audiences soon grasped how hand-to-hand combat could be just as, or if not more deadly than wielding a weapon.

Much like other films of its time, this martial arts movie starts off by introducing a young, promising martial arts student, who will end up overcoming adversity and emerging triumphant in whatever quest he finds himself pursuing. In this case – our hero will be training to win a local martial arts tournament.

King Boxer’s youthful protagonist Chi-Hao is a faithful disciple of kung fu master Sung Wu-yang and an even more faithful suitor to his master’s daughter. Though his kung fu is less than to be desired (more flailing than fighting), he is determined to represent his master’s teachings in an upcoming martial arts tournament, and rightfully earn the hand of his sweetheart.

But before we get bogged down in romantic plot lines, Sung Wu-yang, having seen what a former student has achieved under a new master and realising his own shortcomings when fending off a bunch of street thugs, sends Chi-Hao to study under another kung fu master called Shen Chin-Pei, who will end up teaching him his secret Iron Fist technique.

But unfortunately for Chi-Hao, his entering of the tournament will drag him into a bitter fray with the very same thugs who attacked his master, headed by treacherous tyrant Meng Tung-shan (played by Tien Feng) and his self-important son who are determined to take out the competition at all costs.

The unscrupulous pair even hire the help of three Japanese professional martial artists and the face-breaking forehead of street fighter Chen Lang in their bid to establish themselves as the best kung fu school.

Unrelenting, their methods for preventing Chi-Hao and his new school from competing in the tournament were verging on reprehensible; picking fights with Chi-Hao’s fellow students, to picking fights with his masters, to leaving a trail of bodies in their wake.

Chi-Hao’s new adversaries soon prove they mean serious business, as their actions descend from petty criminal to downright murderous. So, like a good revenge film should, the villains were long overdue for a severe comeuppance. And who to deliver it but the new master of the Iron Fist, Chi-Hao.

In terms of kung fu movie standards, storylines either tend to be too simplified or too muddled. For King Boxer, the attempts at creating contiguous plot lines and expanding on supporting characters pushed this film into a new territory, where the storytelling can rival that of a gripping thriller/drama. Though as the plot intensified, unfortunately then would the fight choreography fall somewhat wayside.

However, the important thing to consider at this point is to realise just how commendable of a production this film turned out to be. Apart from the stunt actors, many of the film’s cast had little to no martial arts expertise, and relied on the fight choreography and film direction to pull off what would be convincing action scenes. And while we may be a more discerning audience when it comes to special effects and the impacts of action and violence, in light of today’s more modern, sophisticated productions, the rough-chop editing, overstated make up and costuming, crude or less realistic special effects and, above all, a fundamental knowledge of how a fight scene should be executed all speak of a culture that managed to captivate audiences around the world. The fact that that this film, now 43 years old, can be found on DVD should speak volumes about its ability to still entertain us.

EXTRA BITS:

  • The trumpet synthesizer sound effect that would play during stand offs with Chi-Hao was actually taken from the theme song of US TV series Ironside. In one Ironside episode, Bruce Lee made a guest appearance.
  • King Boxer would be the first kung fu film to be released in the US, only several months before Fist of Fury arrived at their shores.
  • Bolo Yeung makes a short appearance in the film as a street performer from Mongolia.
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