If I had to pick a favorite Shaw Brothers director, and thankfully I don’t, Lau Kar-leung would be my choice. His visual style isn’t particularly innovative or beautiful, and he doesn’t bring the raw, anguished physicality that distinguishes the work of Chang Cheh, or the sense of the spiritual transcendence found in the work of King Hu. His direction is elegant and precise, valuing the clarity of the image above all else, particularly if those images involve bodies in motion. In this sense, he’s the kung fu heir of Fred Astaire, who famously demanded that his dances be shot with as few cuts as possible, with the actors visible in full, head-to-toe shots. I’m willing to bet that Lau’s average shot length is higher than most Shaw directors, as his films always seem to have a few scenes of extended single-take action, with dual combatants engaged in a series of movements as intricately intertwined as any Astaire-Rogers foxtrot.
Lau’s skills as a performer take center stage in Mad Monkey Kung Fu in addition to his obvious talents as director and choreographer. I’ve seen him in smaller parts in other films, but never in as big a role as he plays here. I’ll admit, seeing him actually perform his routines was as fun and exciting for me as when I first saw Bob Fosse perform his own routines in movies like Kiss Me Kate and Give a Girl a Break. Lau often worked with his sort of brother Gordon Liu, and the two couldn’t form a better, closer choreographer-performer partnership. It’s great when two (or more) minds can collaborate in creating something as elaborate as a dance or kung fu routine, but there’s a special charge in seeing someone performing their own work, unmediated by the artistic drive of their collaborator(s).
Lau plays a traveling performer and master of the Monkey Fist kung fu style, which mixes quick, darting movements with circus acrobatics with goofy monkey-sounds and scratches. The Monkey King story is an enduring one in Chinese mythology and films, but I still can’t help but think Lau was led in this more comically lowbrow direction following the breakthrough success of Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master (directed by Yuen Woo-ping), which was released the year before, in 1978. Before this, the Lau films I’ve seen have all been very serious (Executioners from Shaolin, Shaolin Mantis, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin) with the latter even mixing in some King Hu-inspired Buddhist theology. Even Heroes of the East (aka Shaolin vs. Ninja), from the same year as 36th Chamber, treats its comic premise rather seriously. Mad Monkey Kung Fu starts seriously enough, with Lau’s performer Chen tricked into getting blackout drunk by a gangster (the great Shaw Brothers villain Lo Lieh) which leads to Chen’s sister agreeing to become Lo’s mistress and Chen agreeing to have his fingers broken so that he’ll never be able to do his kung fu again. But much of the rest of the film is devoted to silly comedy and mugging.
Several years later, Chen is a struggling street performer (he has a trained monkey) who befriends a local pickpocket, serendipitously named Little Monkey. Chen trains Little Monkey in the way of the Monkey Fist so that he can defeat the local extortion gang. When that gang turns out to be headed by Lo Lieh, who savagely beats the unprepared Little Monkey, the training begins in earnest for a final revenge showdown. These final training and fight sequences are some of Lau’s best work as a choreographer. The last session, with Chen displaying impossibly quick and detailed movements and Little Monkey quickly learning to mimic them until the two are totally in sync reminded me of nothing less than one of the great tap duets in film history, Gene Kelly & Donald O’Connor’s “Moses Supposes” from Singin’ in the Rain.
Beginning with Mad Monkey, Lau increasingly seemed to reach for the blend of action and comedy Chan and Sammo Hung were then pioneering and that would reach its apex (or nadir, depending on your point of view) with the films of Stephen Chow and Wong Jing in the 1990s. His next film, 1980’s Return to the 36th Chamber, is easily my least favorite of his movies thanks mostly to the lameness of its comedy, and though My Young Auntie, Legendary Weapons of China, and especially Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (all made between 1981 and 1984) mark somewhat of a return to form, he never really regains the seriousness or ambition of the first 36th Chamber. After the mid-80s, his career as a director pretty much ground to a halt (along with the Shaw Brothers studio as a major force in Hong Kong cinema), though he did have one masterpiece left: directing Jackie Chan himself in Drunken Master II.