Heroes of the East
June 9, 2008
Heroes of the East (1979) was produced by the legendary Shaw Brothers and filmed in glorious Shawscope. It pits a Chinese boxer against eight elite Japanese fighters each with their own unique fighting style. Ah To (Liu) is a young martial arts master whose father has arranged for him to marry a Japanese girl named Kung Zi (Mizuno), the beauty of Kyoto. Ah To isn’t too crazy about the idea until he lays eyes on her. It seems that she has matured into quite a beautiful woman.
They get married and everything goes swimmingly until they engage in a spirited debate about the merits of Chinese kung fu vs. Japanese style martial arts. In her zeal to practice her martial arts, Kung Zi demolishes bricks and breaks statues with her bare hands and feet, much to Ah To’s chagrin who wants her to act like a proper Chinese wife. Their “debate” extends to the weapons she has shipped over from Japan but he bests her in every comparison with the Chinese equivalent. Their arguments only worsen and become more heated as they both believe that their respective fighting style is the best one.
Fed up, Kung Zi returns to Japan and he pursues her. When Ah To accidentally insults a Japanese samurai, he becomes embroiled in a competition with eight different masters of eight different styles of Japanese martial arts. Ah To fights one master per day. This allows Gordon Liu to demonstrate his versatility and prowess as he takes on these Japanese masters with the Chinese equivalent of whatever they throw at him. For example, he uses the three-segmented staff against the nunchaku and Drunken-Style Kick-Boxing against Judo.
The competition also showcases a colourful collection of characters that face off against Liu, each with their own look that is as distinctive as their fighting style. It is also a fantastic way of illustrating the strengths of both countries’ fighting styles. Liu shows off some great moves and real skill at dealing with his opponents and this culminates in his showdown with the Ninjitsu master that is all about deception and surprise. Ultimately, Heroes of the East is about mutual respect for all kinds of different styles of martial arts.
There is an audio commentary by Hong Kong cinema expert by Bey Logan. He points out that this film was made during the glory days of the Shaw Bros. At the time, Gordon Liu was doing Shaolin monk roles in films and had a shaved head so he is wearing a wig in this film. Logan identifies many of the actors that appear on-screen and lists off some of their other credits. For those not familiar, he points out various customs of Chinese and Japanese culture which really enhances what we are watching.
“Spotlight on a Legend: A Tribute to Celebrated Martial Arts Icon Lau Kar-Leung.” Because he was a kung-fu master in his own right, he brought a real authenticity to the martial arts films he directed. Traditionally, the Japanese were the villains in Chinese films but in Heroes of the East, he wanted more of a balanced view – although, there is still a definite bias to Chinese kung-fu. Bey Logan talks at length about the man interspersed with clips from several of his films.
“Hero of Shaolin” is an interview with Gordon Liu. He says that his father wanted him to follow a more conventional career path but he had other ideas. Liu took martial arts classes and became very proficient and serious about it. He talks about the Hong Kong film industry in the 1970s and how Bruce Lee’s death impacted it. Liu talks about the genesis of Heroes of the East and working on it, including how he communicated with the actors who only spoke Japanese.
Finally, there is “Shaolin vs. Ninja” which takes a look at the martial arts weapon forms of China and Japan and features experts demonstrating the proper way to handle these weapons used in the film mixed with clips from it. This is a really interesting and engaging primer.