June 19, 2007
King Boxer (aka Five Fingers of Death) came out in 1973 and is a classic example of a Shaw Brothers kung fu film – a genre they helped pioneer and perfect with this movie being one of the finest efforts from this time period. It also has the distinction of being the first kung fu film to be released in the United States, just ahead of Bruce Lee’s equally influential Enter the Dragon. In the 1980s, it inspired filmmaker John Carpenter to make Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and more recently was a huge influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies.
King Boxer wastes no time getting into it with a martial arts teacher being attacked by members of a rival school that features guys jumping fantastically through the air and lots of action. However, it is all over too soon but this sequence is merely a taste for things to come. The teacher, feeling he’s getting too old, sends his star pupil, Chi-Hao (Lieh) to Master Shen Chin-Pei whom he feels has much more to offer. This way the young man can compete in an upcoming martial arts contest, become champion and be worthy enough to marry Yin Yin, his master’s daughter.
We soon meet Chen Lang, a fighter with an unbelievably strong forehead that he uses to best a local strong man (Yeung). We find out that he’s working for the rival martial arts school, run by the evil Ming Dung-Shun. Chi-Hao shows up at Master Chin-Pei’s martial arts school and is quickly humbled. He starts off at the lowest, menial position until he shows improvement and is soon dodging spears and breaking branches with his bare hands. Eventually, Chi-Hao becomes skilled enough that is new teacher entrusts him with knowledge of the dreaded Iron Palm technique that causes his hands to glow red as he channels his inner chi. The catch is that Chi-Hao cannot use it in personal duels, only for righteous conflicts.
Dung-Shun also wants to win the contest and beat Chin-Pei’s school and tries to gain the advantage through spying, bringing in three hired guns in order to take out the leaders of Chin-Pei’s school, and using his own son, Meng Tien-Hsiung as an enforcer. You can tell that his son his a bad guy by the sly, arrogantly evil expression permanently affixed to his face and the long cigarette holder he uses, much in the same manner as made popular by Nazis in movies. All this guy needs is a cat on his lap and he could be Bond villain.
The filmmakers maintain just the right level of pacing with very short lulls between action sequences. Let’s face it – we’re not watching King Boxer for its thoughtful characterization. That is not to say that this film is not well made or doesn’t take itself seriously because it does, but it is hardly Shakespeare either. Director Cheng Chang Ho employs sudden zoom in and outs and even the occasional freeze frame during many of the film’s dynamic fight scenes. This is a beautifully shot movie with expert use of the 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio with superb compositions of every frame. The use of shadows for dramatic effect in one scene, and a brief fight that takes place at sunset that looks like something right out of 1950s Technicolor era, is part of the reason why this film is so revered among kung fu film fans.
The film’s fight scenes gradually build up in intensity and in terms of style to the final showdown between Chi-Hao and Tien-Hsiung at the competition where, of course, the Iron Palm technique is used, but this sequence is merely a warm-up to the penultimate fight at the end.
King Boxer features betrayal, torture, revenge and even some heroic style redemption thrown in for good measure – all heightened to melodramatic levels making for a very entertaining ride. Our hero has to deal with a devastating injury and his own self-doubts before he can face the bad guys and use the Iron Palm technique to save the day. You soon find yourself rooting for Chi-Hao to win the competition and the cute woman he loves as well. Even though our hero triumphs at the end, it is a terrible cost with friends, family and his mentor dead or horribly maimed all because of a petty rivalry between two martial arts schools.
There is an audio commentary by filmmaker Quentin Tarantino and film critics Elvis Mitchell and David Chute. Love or hate Tarantino, the guy knows his film history, displaying an impressive encyclopedic knowledge of kung fu cinema. For example, he not only talks about how it was the first kung fu film released in America but then rattles off 5-6 other films that came after. Mitchell compares King Boxer to John Steinbeck but without the sex (?!) while Chute talks about how the film is about professional honour. They speak admiringly of how King Boxer works on multiple levels and the richness of its themes. This is a very entertaining, information-packed track by three guys who are fans of the film and display a genuine love for the genre. Highly recommended.
“Interview with Chang-Hwa Jeong.” He talks about how he got involved with the film. Initially, he found the script to be “common” and studied Chinese history and literature in order to make improvements. He talks about some of the techniques he used to make the action sequences so exciting and visceral.
“Interview with action director Lau Kar Wing.” He came from a family of martial artists who worked in movies and so he started acting in his teens. He talks about how he started working for the Shaw brothers and how he got the King Boxer gig. Kar Wing was the kung fu director on the movie and speaks about how he approached the many fight scenes, including the challenge of matching the actor with their stunt double seamlessly.
“Interview with film critic/scholars David Chute and Andy Klein.” Chute gives the film a historical context in terms of American cinema including its shocking level of violence at the time. They point out that the soundtrack was a pastiche of music ripped off of other film and that this would often hamper its distribution because of rights issues.
Also included are two trailers and alternate opening sequence that features very crude opening credits.
Finally, there is a “Stills Gallery” with poster and promotional photographs.