Challenge of the Masters (1976) — June 30, 2013
Gordon Liu as a young Wong Fei-hung, an origin story for kung fu cinema’s greatest folk hero. Lau Kar-leung plays the villain, as scared and desperate as he is merciless and dishonorable. The true climax though is a philosophical one, as Wong learns the value of mercy, of giving honor to your enemy, that violence is not always the answer to violence. It’s Lau’s moral seriousness, and the way he integrates it into otherwise entertaining, if not downright silly plots, that most distinguishes him in the genre, beyond his obvious technical facility in filming action.
Added June 9, 2014
I’m glad the “wrap your ponytail around your neck like a scarf” look never really caught on.
This remains a solid Lau Kar-Leung film, reinforcing the Wong Fei-hung traditions on the eve of their subversion by a new generation. Lau would do some subverting of his own later (particularly in the realm of gender relations and the role of women in kung fu, aspects which are totally ignored here) but never shakes his belief in this humanist/Confucian ethical system, though he will explore it with greater depth and subtlety in later films.
Heroes of the East (1978) — June 15, 2014
I’d always preferred the alternate title Shaolin vs. Ninja, but now I’m not so sure. Heroes of the East fits better Lau’s philosophy and the tone of the film. It isn’t an anti-Japanese propaganda piece like Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury, or a pulpy celebration of action violence like Corey Yuen’s Ninja in the Dragon’s Den. It really is a celebration of the martial arts, both Chinese and Japanese, for their own sake, the differences between them cosmetic or matters of simple miscommunication. Of course, Gordon Liu does defeat all the Japanese challengers, but Lau is generous in his patriotism.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) — June 19, 2014
For those tracking Shaolin folklore: When San Te leaves the Temple and recruits followers, among them are Hung Hsi-kuan and Lu Ah-cai. Hung Hsi-kuan is also the hero of Lau Kar-leung’s Executioners from Shaolin, where he escapes the Temple after it is destroyed by the Manchu (because they’re harboring anti-Qing activists, which was of course the whole point of San Te’s 36th Chamber). He is also known as Hung Hei-gun, and was the founder of the Hong Gar fighting style practiced by Wong Fei-hung and eventually passed down to Lau-Kar-leung. Lu Ah-cai is in some traditions Hung Hei-gun’s student, and then in turn the teacher of Wong Kai-ying, Wong Fei-hung’s father. But in Lau’s Challenge of the Masters, it is Lu (played by Lau Kar-wing) who teaches Fei-hung, after his father refuses to teach him kung fu (in another version of the story, his father’s refusal to teach him leads Wong to become the student of Beggar So, the Drunken Master). I don’t know who the other disciples (identified as Tung Chien-ching and “Miller Six”) are supposed to be, if anyone.
So, if you want to put this in a chronological lineage with the other Shaw Brothers Shaolin films, my guess is it goes something like this:
1. 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Lau) — the beginnings of Shaolin’s involvement with Anti-Qing forces
2. Shaolin Temple (Chang Cheh) — Deepening involvement concluding with the destruction of the Temple
3. Executioners from Shaolin (Lau), 5 Shaolin Masters (Chang), Heroes Two (Chang), Shaolin Rescuers (Chang), Men from the Monastery (Chang) — Beginning with the destruction, these all follow the various refugees as they evade the Manchu. Among these is Fong Sai-yuk, played by Alexander Fu Sheng in several films. Fong gets his own alternative version of history in two films by Corey Yuen from the early 90s, where he is played by Jet Li. Fong’s story is also illustrated in a prequel, Lau’s 1985 Disciples of the 36th Chamber, which chronicles his entrance into the Temple to be trained by San Te.
4. Ten Tigers from Kwangtung (Chang), Challenge of the Masters (Lau) — Sometime later, anti-Qing forces coalesce in Canton and gather disciples and eventually the newer generation takes over, led by Wong Fei-hung. See Yuen Woo-ping’s Drunken Master and its sequel by Lau and Jackie Chan for an alternate take on the young Wong Fei-hung.
5. Martial Club (Lau), Dreadnaught (Yuen Woo-ping), The Once Upon a Time in China series (Tsui Hark) — Wong is established as a Confucian patriarch, no longer a rebel but an upholder of Chinese values in the face of foreign occupation and rapid modernization. Included here also are all those Wong Fei-hung serials starring Kwan Tak-hing.
6. Magnificent Butcher (Yuen Wo-ping & Sammo Hung) — The adventures of Lam Sai-wing, disciple of Wong Fei-hung and the teacher of Lau Cham, father of Lau Kar-leung and Lau Kar-wing and teacher of Gordon Liu.
I’m sure I’m missing some too. There’s a lot of these Shaolin movies you know.
(Edit: I later attempted to map the Shaolin Cinematic Universe in an article for The Vulgar Cinema, which was transferred to Frame.land when that original site ceased to exist.)
Shaolin Mantis (1978) (1978) — December 23, 2010
David Chiang plays a spy sent by the Manchus to infiltrate a powerful anti-Qing family—failure will result in his parents’ execution. Despite the family’s misgivings, he manages to marry their daughter, under the condition that he never leave their compound. But eventually, he and his wife try to leave, and must combat the rest of the family, in turn, in their various styles. Chiang fails initially, goes a little crazy, and invents a new style of kung fu by imitating a praying mantis. With his new skills, he returns to the family to exact his bloody revenge. The setup is a bit tiresome, but once the fights begin, the film takes off. Chiang isn’t as intense or virtuosic a performer as Lau’s sort of brother and frequent star Gordon Liu, and he shows less of his natural charm here than in his films for Chang Cheh earlier in the decade, but he’s still my second favorite Shaw Brothers star of the 70s.
Added June 17, 2014
Weird watching this after a half-dozen other Lau Kar-leung movies in which nobody dies at all. The violence here, gory and nihilistic, seems more in line with Chang Cheh than Lau, and one gets the feeling that Lau's real interest is in the ten minute montage sequence two-thirds of the way through the film, when David Chiang, lost and desperate, invents a new martial art by copying the movements of a praying mantis. Lau the teacher is on full display here, demonstrating the genesis of traditional martial arts (Shaolin-derived kung fu has five animal-based fighting techniques) and the logic behind why the fighter moves the way they do.
Spiritual Boxer II (1979) — June 12, 2014
Not really a sequel to The Spiritual Boxer, it’s even given the unrelated and grammatically awkward title The Shadow Boxing on the DVD I watched. Rather, it’s a precursor to kung fu comedies like Encounters of the Spooky Kind, The Dead and the Deadly, and the Mr. Vampire series.
Wang Yue plays an apprentice corpse herder (they reanimate dead bodies to transport them back to their home villages to be buried before they rot, a distinct problem for a heavily migrant population to be sure), his master is played by Lau Kar-wing (Lau Kar-leung’s younger brother) as the kind of degenerate drunken gambler master common in this period (pioneered in the first Spiritual Boxer and really run with in films by Yuen Woo-ping and Sammo Hung). As they set out with a batch of fresh corpses, one of the vampires is acting strange: it’s Gordon Liu, and of course, he isn’t really dead.
There’s a rote thriller plot as an excuse for some fight scenes, which are all very solid. Liu shows off some Eagle Claws and Wang displays the Zombie Fist. It isn’t nearly as impressive as the group fights in Dirty Ho, which came out this same year with these same stars, but in every way this is a less ambitious movie than that one. The fights do have the funny twist that Wang can’t ever remember what to do, so he has to have someone call out the moves to him (“Vampire Wakes Up” “Vampire Greets the Moon” and so on) before he can fight.
My Young Auntie (1981) — June 16, 2014
Emphasis on the “Young”, as the central conflict isn’t the fact that Lau Kar-leung’s new 2nd Auntie knows kung fu, but that she’s much younger than he is. The film isn’t so much about gender but generational conflict. Kara Hui as the Auntie embodies both as she is both young in age (the same age as Lau’s son, played by Hsiao Hou) and old in spirit. A stickler for tradition, both in manners, speech and dress, she’s as flustered by the modern big city, with its foreign influences, zany antics and Anglophilia as the older folks (she’s beautifully confounded all through the middle section of the film, lost in time and space (she’s costumed not just in modern dress (and wow that dress!), but in a European masquerade as well—a jumble of Robin Hood and the Three Musketeers surround her.).
The fact that she knows how to fight is taken as a given and she’s not shy about asserting herself–her role as the “senior” member of the family practically demands she take charge and all others defer to her) The incongruity is that she and Hsiao Hou are so young and headstrong, assuming their elders aren’t up to the task of defending the family honor (they have to steal the MacGuffin back from an evil uncle, played by the perpetual villain Wang Lung-wei). So, in the end, when Lau himself has to step in to defeat the villain, it isn’t a reassertion of patriarchy (as in Come Drink With Me), but rather a reassertion of generational order, an argument that old doesn’t necessarily mean feeble and outdated. Lau’s conservatism has room for the young (Hsiao Hou’s antics reflecting the influence of a younger generation of filmmakers, the comedies of Sammo Hung and Yuen Woo-ping), but nonetheless demands respect for tradition.
Kara Hui won the Best Actress award at the first Hong Kong Film Awards for her performance her (well-deserved, I’d say). Look for Yuen Tak as Wang Lung-wei’s godson. He was one of the Peking Opera troupe that included Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, Yuen Wah, and Corey Yuen.
Cat vs. Rat (1982) — June 14, 2014
Lau Kar-leung at his most cartoonish. Like a Looney Tune, it moves fast, features a lot of slapstick fights and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Everyone looks like they’re having a good time, which is something.
The Lady is the Boss (1983) — June 17, 2014
Very similar to My Young Auntie, but in this case, Kara Hui is the destabilizing modern presence in Lau Kar-leung’s traditionalist kung fu world. She plays the American-raised daughter of his master, come to Hong Kong to take over direction of their new school. She introduces wild ideas like aerobics, form-fitting clothing, and marketing. Seeing Hui and her students (including Gordon Liu and Hsiao Ho) running around crowded streets and clubs in the appalling fashions of mid-80s Hong Kong is a pleasure in its own right, but there are diminishing returns by the time Hui shows up with a BMX dirt bike gang to take on the generic bad guys. Lau once again saves the day in the end, taking on super villain Wang Lung-wei (naturally), but once again rather than this serving as a paternalistic rescue, Lau undermines his own superior position by ending the film in modern dress. He doesn’t need Hui to conform to him, but rather seeks a compromise between the new and the old.
Eight-Diagram Pole Fighter (1984) — October 28, 2010
Gordon Liu’s family, renowned for their excellent pole-fighting skills, is challenged by a rival clan. But treachery abounds and all his brothers and father are killed (except for one brother who goes nuts). Liu escapes and makes his way to the local Shaolin Temple, where he learns some even better pole-fighting moves before getting his revenge. It’s a darker than usual film from director Lau Kar-leung, even if the setup is familiar. In The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, for example, Liu also escapes the bad guys, finds refuge in a Temple, learns kung fu and then gets his revenge. But in that film, the real emphasis is on the philosophy and spirituality and artistry of kung fu, whereas here, Liu makes no real attempt to adopt the Shaolin philosophy, he just works at mastering their pole-fighting technique while always keeping his mind set on his totally unBuddhalike quest for revenge. However, the scene where he finally demonstrates that mastery, and actually achieves some kind of spiritual transcendence despite himself, is one of the great scenes in the genre’s history. That and the marvelously bloody final battle sequence (far more gruesome than anything I’ve seen from Lau before) are enough to make this a truly great film.
Added July 3, 2013
Probably Lau Kar-leung’s darkest film, bringing an end to the Shaw Brothers era with a bleak, brutal distillation of his most fundamental subject, the impulse to worldly revenge versus the pious imperative for withdrawal in the face of injustice. A palace, an inn, a temple, a cabin in the woods, an abstract, unearthly battlefield: the scene of a nihilist apocalypse. Unable to prevent himself from taking bloody vengeance, the hero walks away. Not into the sunset, but first towards the audience and then into the world.
Added August 11, 2018:
First time seeing a Shaw Brothers movie in a theatre, and it was on 35mm no less. Print was in good condition, a bit faded and pink, but it was in the original language, which was nice. The packed audience at the Grand Illusion was mostly receptive to it, though there was one person who kept snickering every time the characters referred to the Yangs by number. I think that was the same person who giggled through the opening fight too. The acting in this is so stylized though, so intentionally old-fashioned and theatrical, that I don’t know that you can really blame an audience for not quite knowing what to do with it. But by the end the audience had calmed down, the “8 Diagram” duel drew an awed silence, and the finale a lot of tension-releasing laughter and whoas.
Disciples of the 36th Chamber (1985) — December 23, 2010
A bizarre melding of the Fong Sai-yuk story into Lau Kar-leung’s 36th Chamber of Shaolin mythology, and one that doesn’t entirely work. It’s weird, in that traditionally, Fong’s mother (who taught him kung fu) is the daughter of one of the Five Elders of Shaolin, who survived the destruction of the Temple by the Qing. So when young Fong, here played by Hsiao Ho, is sent to the Temple to train (and learn some humility), things get a bit confused. And yes, I’m aware of the ridiculousness of complaining about accuracy in a genre where people can routinely leap 30 feet in the air and knock over 20 armed men with a wave of their palm, but what can I say? I am what I am. Anyway, Gordon Liu’s San Te, the master of the 36th Chamber, does his best to teach Fong to mellow out, but fails. And when Fong unwittingly (literally, the guy is really dumb) becomes a pawn in a Qing scheme, the Shaolin monks must come to the rescue in the expected spectacular extended fight sequence. It’s a perfectly good film, but it feels more like Lau is just going through the motions at this point. The slapstick comedy isn’t at the genius level of Stephen Chow, or even Wong Jing (part of that has to do with Hsiao Ho, who just isn’t that compelling a presence) and the action isn’t really anything we haven’t seen before, and better, from Lau and Liu.
Martial Arts of Shaolin (1986) — June 18, 2014
Of interest for the early Jet Li performance and the location shooting in China. A glimpse of things to come in the move out of the Shaws studios and into the big, varied world. Lau Kar-leung keeps putting Li in costumes (a monk, a lion, a woman), as if he’s not sure where his persona lies and is just trying stuff out. There was always a vagueness to Jet Li. The script lets everyone down: rote and a little dumb.
Added July 5, 2018:
Martial Arts of Shaolin, from 1986, was Lau Kar-leung’s first film to be shot in Mainland China and his only collaboration with Jet Li. It was part of a series of Shaolin films built around Li, all of which are unrelated to each other and unrelated to either Lau or Chang Cheh’s Shaolin stories. Li plays a monk who secretly harbors plans for revenge against the Manchu minister who killed his family. He sneaks away to the capital and fails in his assassination attempt, but hooks up with two other young people who had much the same plan. Li comes from the Northern Shaolin Temple, while the other two come from the Southern one, which accounts for the fact that Li, trained in a very different style from Lau’s Cantonese martial arts, moves completely unlike Gordon Liu. The primary draw of the film is the location shooting. While Lau was much more particular and inventive in his use of locations than Chang Cheh, rarely reusing the same locations in multiple films and forever finding new spaces for his complex fight scenes, he was always somewhat limited by Shaws’ studio-bound production standards. Filming on the Mainland afforded him vistas unlike anything available in the colony, from the vast courtyards of the capitol to gorgeous green mountains and rivers to the Great Wall itself. Lau pulls his camera back even further than usual to incorporate these features into his shots, giving us both the natural beauty of the environments as well as a more holistic view of the intricate choreography and skills of his highly-talented lead actors, like Jet Li (and later Donnie Yen and Wu Jing), members of the Beijing Wushu team.
Tiger on the Beat (1988) — July 1, 2013
An odd one for Chow Yun-fat, as he’s in-between his silly comic persona of the early 80s and his cool, charming badass of the early 90s. An odd one as well for Lau Kar-leung, trying to adapt to the Cinema City/Tsui Hark/John Woo world with a modern cop comedy-drama after a career making period action films. Might have worked better with a costar other than Conan Lee, who’s great in the fight scenes (especially the chainsaw finale with Gordon Liu) but appears overstuffed and stiff the rest of the time.
Also stars Ti Lung (who gets a neat cameo fight scene), David Chiang (as the attention-grabbing police commissioner), and Jet Li’s wife Nina Li (who jazzercises).
Aces Go Places V: The Terracotta Hit (1989) — December 19, 2013
The series comes to an end with this installment, directed by none other than Lau Kar-leung (there was a sixth film released with a different cast in 1997). From a promising beginning (Sam Hui and Karl Maka have split up and floundered attempting to make it in the real world while Leslie Cheung and Nora Li Chi rip off some thieves wearing Aces masks, framing the heroes) the film meanders for awhile, with a couple solid action sequences (especially an early one involving Conan Lee, as the “Chinese Rambo”) and some funny gags (Sam’s office telephone is made out of Legos, the villain is introduced petting a white cat à la the Bond movies, but the cat turns out to be a glove that he wears and brandishes as a claw weapon, a kitten mitten, if you will). Cheung gets pretty much nothing to do, and the shapely Li’s role is primarily to be the brunt of boob jokes. Danny Lee has a cameo in a bizarre sequence in which the four thieves have been imprisoned in a PRC death camp. The tonal shifts from wacky farce to utter bleakness are impressive, even for an 80s Hong Kong film, unfortunately the farce isn’t that funny and the darkness is too reliant on Maka and Hui, likable actors rather lacking in emotional depth.
After the collapse of Shaw Brothers and the market for period kung fu films dried up in favor of heroic bloodshed and special effects movies, Lau’s career kind of stalled. His previous film, a modern cop movie with Chow Yun-fat, Tiger on the Beat, is admirably weird and grotesque, but Lau just doesn’t seem a good fit for the Aces universe. Despite his pioneering work in blending action and comedy, a model which would be the key to the success of both Cinema City and the Aces movies. Or maybe at this point everyone was tired of a premise which was pretty thin from the beginning (Sylvia Chang doesn’t even appear in this one, having left with the scene-stealing Baldy Jr for Canada).
I’m glad I saw all these movies, but I wouldn’t say any of them are particularly great. But neither are any of them bad: at worst, they’re OK. Here’s my ranking:
1. Aces Go Places II (Eric Tsang)
2. Aces Go Places IV: You Never Die Twice (Ringo Lam)
3. Aces Go Places (Eric Tsang)
4. Aces Go Places III: Our Man From Bond Street (Tsui Hark)
5. Aces Go Places V: The Terracotta Hit (Lau Kar-leung)
Tiger on the Beat II (1990) — June 20, 2014
Bears no actual relation to the first Tiger on the Beat, which found Lau Kar-leung diving head-first into the world of contemporary cop actioners. Same genre here, along with one of the same stars, the pumped up, slightly dim-witted Conan Lee. He’s paired with Danny Lee this time (a sure sign that this is a step down in prestige from the first film, where Conan was paired with Chow Yun-fat).
Conan plays a sailor from America in town to visit his uncle, a cop played by Danny, who is in turn under orders to find Conan a nice Chinese girl to marry. Instead the two get caught up in the misadventures of a petty thief named “Sweet Dream” (sure, why not?) played by Ellen Chan (who has a bit of an off-brand Cherie Chung vibe, but maybe it’s just the big hair and late 80s clothes that’s got me befuddled). She’s run afoul of a gang of drug dealers (or something) because she’s stolen a ring from one of them (or something). So Gordon Liu (with hair) and Roy Cheung spend most of the movie trying to kill her. She barely escapes each time, but does so in such a way that neither Lee ever sees her in peril, and thus they don’t believe that she’s actually under attack. From this springs comedy and action.
It never reaches the glorious heights of the chainsaw sequence in the first film, though there is an amazing stunt early on. Conan jumps off an overpass, maybe 40 feet in the air, to a light pole, in an attempt to slide down it to the ground. But he misses the pole and lands flat on the asphalt. Lau gives us the jump again from a different angle and it looks for sure like he is seriously injured (edit: He was. They had to stop production for several months while Lee recuperated.) Then Lau cuts to Conan on the ground, who promptly bounces back up, not a mark on him, and continues the chase. This becomes a running gag throughout the film, as Conan never gets a scratch while everyone around him is mangled by the action movie grinder. Only in the end, with a bare-footed Die Hard homage, does Conan ever seem to get hurt.
Drunken Master II (1994) — June 26, 2013
I think you could reasonably say that the Golden Age of the kung fu film began in 1967 with The One-Armed Swordsman, reached its classical perfection with 1978’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, and saw its last gasp with 1994’s Drunken Master II. The common denominator is Lau Kar-leung: he was Chang Cheh’s action director on the first, directed his sort-of brother Gordon Liu in the second, and co-starred and co-directed with the genre’s longest lasting, most successful icon, Jackie Chan, on the third.
That this film remains unavailable in its original form is a travesty, a crime against cinema.
Added November 21, 2021:
First time I’ve seen this in a while and this time I was mostly struck by how little Lau Kar-leung appears to be in this. No wonder he and Jackie Chan fought. Also the last of the opening credits is “A Jackie Chan Film”.
Also Anita Mui is terrific. She’s basically just copying Josephine Siao’s Fong Sai-yuk performances, but still, love her.
Drunken Master III (1994) — June 20, 2014
Well, it certainly has a great cast: Lau Kar-leung, Gordon Liu, Andy Lau, Michelle Reis, Adam Cheng, and Simon Yam. Unfortunately, that’s about it. Hastily thrown together after Lau quit working with Jackie Chan on Drunken Master II. Details are still fuzzy on this, but as I understand it, Lau wanted to make something with a more authentic version of drunken boxing than Chan was interested in performing. There’s some of that definitely on display here, but it’s buried beneath a silly and not especially coherent plot. Willie Chi seems like a pleasant enough fellow, but he disappears among this stacked cast, which is a problem because he’s playing Wong Fei-hung. Still, it’s an amiable film. I suspect Lau was incapable of making a truly bad movie.
Also, Yam is credited as playing “Gay Bus Passenger”, which just seems like the perfect Yam role.
Drunken Monkey (2003) — July 8, 2013
Lau Kar-leung and Gordon Liu together for the last time, passing the torch to a new generation. Lau ends his final fight by grabbing a sword with his bare hand to prevent the killing of the villain. He spends so much of this film wounded and sick, it’s hard not to read it as the film of a dying man, though he still had another decade to live.