Its Kung Fu versus
Judo in this blood-drenched Shaw Brothers release, an Old School hit
often mentioned as one of the titles that helped shape the martial
arts movies of the 1970s. After his belligerent behavior gets him
ejected from his kung fu school, Diao Er (Chiao Hsiung) leaves the
area, only to come back sometime later with enhanced skills and seeking
revenge. Although he easily defeats the junior students, Diao cannot
best his former master (Fang Mien) and vows to return again with some
karate experts to help him. Three Japanese fighters arrive from Okinawa,
led by Kitamura (a brown-haired Lo Lieh), and decimate the school,
with young disciple Lei Ming (Jimmy Wang Yu) the sole survivor. Diao
and his foreign cohorts open a casino and quickly grow rich through
deception and loan sharking. At a remote hideaway, Lei bides his time
practising various techniques to increase his strength and agility.
Donning a mask, he then goes to work on the thugs vicious debt
collectors and starts a fire at the gambling den. This initiates a
series of events, leading to an inevitable showdown pitting Lei against
Kitamura and his main minions.
Thinly plotted, shamelessly overacted,
and mediocre in most areas, THE CHINESE BOXER is more notable for
its overall importance to the genre than as disposable entertainment.
Prior to this point, martial arts films tended to be quite tame, with
fighting rooted largely in Peking Opera artifice. With this picture,
Jimmy Wang Yu (who also directed, with assistance from Ng See-yuen
and Yang Ching-chen) helped established some of the key elements that
would define Chinese martial arts movies in the years to come. The
exaggerated, yet practically threadbare "Honorable Chinese vs
Murderous Japanese Dogs" premise barely provides a framework
for the story, but Wang would recycle it several times in later years.
Despite this flagrantly one-dimensional depiction of the Japanese,
Wang was clearly influenced to a great degree by the countrys
cinema, as displayed by his movies cinematography, settings,
costumes, and battle sequences. The tremendous amount of bloodshed
here is another obvious nod to chambara cinema, which often
presents such graphic violence with great artistry and effect. Unfortunately,
the graceless vomiting and spewing of blood by numerous characters
here is so overdone as to inspire laughter.
One thing THE CHINESE BOXER was praised
for upon release is the detail and emphasis it placed on training,
though these sequences are actually glossed over rather quickly, leaving
the viewer surprised to learn than Lei has supposedly spent an entire
year preparing to fight his rivals. Intricate and often humorous training
scenes would, of course, become an important part of later kung fu
movies, frequently providing their most enjoyable moments. Likewise,
Tong Gais merely passable choreography also demonstrates components
that would later be improved (the few instances of wirework are quite
ungainly) and expanded upon (with more intricate movements and increasingly
elaborate combat to come). While staged somewhat haphazardly, the
fighting here does succeed in delivering the sort of kinetic action
that led to the kung fu movie finding an enthusiastic market overseas,
something that would never have happened with, say, Kwan Tak-hings
far more genteel Wong Fei-hung series. The productions most
laudable component is Dong Shao-yongs cinematography, which
offers a number of very eye-catching compositions and a slicker look
than seen in Wangs later Taiwanese independent productions.
Plenty of familiar faces in support here, including Wang Ping, Chen
Sing, Wang Chung, Wong Ching, Cheng Lei, Fung Hark-on, Jason Pai Piao,
Yuen Woo-ping, and Yuen Cheung-yan.
Overall, THE CHINESE BOXER has rewards
for those interesting in tracing the origins of Old School kung fu
movies, but its debits are considerable enough to recommend it only
to that audience.