Martial Arts Gold is a short season of classic Shaw Brothers martial arts films being broadcast on Film4 in the UK each Friday from January 15th to February 5th. Every film is being presented at its original aspect ratio and in its original language, complete with English subtitles. I'll be putting together a review for each film in the season, as well as for the films shown in a second season due in March and April. The season continued with King Boxer on January 22nd – here's my belated review.
King Boxer (1972) [HKMDB]
Directed by Chang-hwa Jeong
Starring Lo Lieh, Wang Ping, Feng Tien
Of all the dozens of martial arts films Shaw Brothers made, King Boxer is (like the other entries in Film4's season) among the most famous. Having just seen the film for the first time, I'm inclined to think that fame is due more to what the film did, rather than what the film is. While it's definitely an entertaining piece of martial arts action which will entertain most fans of Shaw Brothers fare, King Boxer isn't in my view on a par with something like Lau Kar-leung's wonderful 36th Chamber of Shaolin.
King Boxer is remarkable primarily because it was released in the US by Warner Bros in March 1973 under the title Five Fingers of Death and would begin the so-called kung fu craze which swept the country in the early 1970s. However, it was soon eclipsed in that respect by Enter the Dragon, which starred Bruce Lee and was released that July. Notably, Enter the Dragon was itself produced primarily by Warner Bros. The film was released in Hong Kong not by Shaw Brothers, but by the company's then-recently formed rival Golden Harvest.
Besides the fact that it was helmed by the only Korean director to work for Shaw, Chang-hwa Jeong, King Boxer is more typical than atypical. For those with some knowledge of Hong Kong martial arts films, it features familiar actors in familiar roles, as well as a familiar story with familiar themes. In numerous respects, including the presence of actor Feng Tien and the theme of a bloody conflict between rival martial arts schools, Jeong's film echoes another classic of 1972 – Lo Wei's Bruce Lee-starring Fist of Fury, made for Golden Harvest.
Additionally, King Boxer suffers from a few of the problems which are known to plague many martial arts films. The script feels rudimentary and the film has an excessively complex plot which attempts to include too many threads and characters. In particular, a sequence in which our hero Chao Chih-hao has his hands crushed by a group of Japanese villains is quickly resolved and has very little significance (the idea brings to mind various spaghetti westerns, particularly Sergio Corbucci's legendary 1966 effort Django).
To its credit, King Boxer was very influential and Jeong uses some innovative techniques to good effect, such as the dusting of floors to give falls a greater sense of impact. The title sequence and music are great, and Lo Lieh is very strong in his central role as the uncomplicatedly heroic Chao Chih-hao. Crucially, the fight scenes are also varied and impressive – although the excessive emphasis on quickly-cut leaps can grate. A decent but far from perfect entry in the Shaw catalogue, King Boxer is well worth a watch but is probably bigger in reputation than in reality.
The Martial Arts Gold Season on Film4
January 15th: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)
January 22nd: King Boxer (1972)
January 29th: Come Drink With Me (1966)
February 5th: One-Armed Swordsman (1967)