King Boxer aka Five Fingers of Death Review
With all that has come after it, a new viewer could be forgiven for feeling that King Boxer is full of things that they have seen before. This isn't because the film is one of those martial arts flicks which have been knocked off the conveyor belt of Kung Fu cliche, it is because the film was a ground-breaker in critical and commercial terms. Directed by a Korean director, Chang-Hwa Jeong, and consequently not versed in the previous heritage of Hong Kong action cinema, King Boxer was innovative, dramatically satisfying and coherently created. Compared against the numerous genre films which have followed it, the film avoids all their pitfalls of uneven tempo, poorly drawn characters and stodgy obvious action. Its appearance on DVD owes much to the references to it in Tarantino's Kill Bill and the geeky one's advocacy of the film, but don't let that put you off as this is no film unearthed for home video by retro fashion, King Boxer, aka Five Fingers of Death, is simply one of the best Martial Arts films you will ever see.
One factor in what makes the film so effective and so worth revisiting is the colour and character created by its dramatic intensity and clever casting. The plot is a familiar one of revenge where the student must avenge his ignobly murdered master and the basic morality of the piece is the battle between honest endeavour and foul ambition. The everyman centre of the film is Lo Lieh's Chih Hao, whose training is undertaken first under Master Sung and then later under Master Sheng. His humble example and pure hero will graduate to righteous avenger as the insidious competition of the Meng school brings threat to his masters and his loved ones. Lieh is better known for his endless filmography of grotesques and villains in films like Black Magic and Human Lanterns, and his fine direction of a classic like Clans of the White Lotus. In King Boxer, his hero is whiter than white, a man who will endure personal humiliation but who will fight for others' honour and safety. He shows the traditional value of forbearance rather than get lost in personal ambition like others around him. To contrast against Lieh, the script allows for two characters, Han and a character played by Bolo Yeung, one a hero who gets lost in envy and the other a villain who discovers chivalry. This depth in the writing, and the careful attention to the dramatic, has rarely been matched in this kind of cinema, but this quality doesn't stop with these characters, as it extends to all the roles in the film. Chih Hao is given two romantic foils, his master's chaste daughter and his devoted tavern singer, and this leads to greater depth to his character and subplots which satisfy as Chih Hao chooses between personal gratitude and public integrity. The Meng school is full of villains who are all given different hues, such as the sneaky and outwardly respectable Master, the self-serving son, and the mercenary killer Okada and his samurai helpers. This variety in characterisation and expert skill in the drawing of the story is truly remarkable within a genre known for precisely the opposite values.
So the story works, the acting works, and the casting is bang on. Still, as modern retreads of the Wu Xia prove, you can have these virtues and still have some very dull films with arty fights which raise eyebrows rather than cheers. King Boxer's fights act as vehicles of the drama, illustrating character and story development. The fights balance between the cruelty of the Meng school - beatings, ambushes and baiting - and the visiting of justice and fair play by his masters and Chih Hao himself. This enables the villains to be given appropriate menace to the forces of good and chivalry, and it makes the final resolution all the more effective as a pay-off. The violence is bloody and often indiscriminate - the breaking of hands, gouging of eyes and the murder of women - but the action is choreographed and edited with a great sense of movement and tempo so that the contests do not become repetitive or confusing. This isn't simply the kind of action which is filled with viscera or inhuman feats, and the performers are required to act as they fight rather than simply entertain physically. Like many a Hong Kong movie from the 1970s, the film is filled with borrowed musical themes, Bond and Ironside to name but two.
There are some minor narrative goofs around time and some character volte faces that you may feel stretch credulity, but there is little to criticise here. Few films yield up so much enjoyment for the viewer and if you only own a handful of movies from this genre, then this should be one of them. King Boxer is an excellent Martial Arts flick, expertly made and acted, and provides immense entertainment.
The existing IVL disc of this film suffers from a standards conversion and some extra sound effects designed to cover silence. Like this new R1 disc the IVL is anamorphic and at original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. As a moving image the new R1 disc is infinitely superior as it is a true NTSC conversion and shows no motion shake or combing, it is also a lot sharper although this is a film shot with lots of short lenses so a great deal of the background looks soft anyway. Below is a comparison shot from both discs with the R1 on top:
The two discs do look similar in terms of framing and colour and contrast. In motion, the R1 disc is warmer in colours and stronger in contrast but the chief improvement is the lack of conversion problems. The audio on the R1 disc is slightly punchier and has different musical and effects cues in its Mandarin track. In addition to this there is an English dub which is often very different to the words in the original Mandarin - my personal taste is against such dubs and I suppose that its inclusion here is to please those who feel the same about subtitles. The English subtitles are optional and not translations of the English dub, they are an improvement on the IVL disc for grammar and spelling.
The extra which some have been waiting for is the commentary where QT, and writers David Chute and Elvis Mitchell discuss the film in the light of its success in the US and impact on future films. The two writers attempt to add scholarly points to QT's motormouth monologues, but the commentary eventually turns into a blokey sharing of experiences around the film and the genre. If you like QT, or are new to the film then this commentary will be very entertaining and useful, but for those who know the film there is little new to be gleaned and some rather dubious opinions are shared. At one point QT talks about the director's Lady Snowblood rip-off, Broken Oath, and calls it better than the original film - this seems a strange point from the man who borrowed that film's episodic structure and snow bound fights for Kill Bill Vol 1. My chief gripe with the commentary is that there is too much chatter and occasional breaths for air might be more advisable if these three find themselves together again.
Far better than the commentary is the interview with action choreographer, Lau Kar Wing. The insight he gves into working in the genre and the importance of his collaboration with the film's editor is fascinating. He is also rather frank in discussing the pros and cons of technology and the lack of safety measures in making the film. The director also appears for a 5 minute talk where he talks about needing to read up on Chinese tradition and to improve the original script before he shot the film. Jeong explains his philosophy about the importance of montage in making the action scenes effective. The final interview piece is a splicing of David Chute and Andy Klein's appreciation of the film which cites the film's trail blazing in the US market before Bruce Lee broke through properly and talks about the film's Iron Palm sequences in terms of the blending of different traditions. The two men clearly like their subject but this short piece is rather disposable.
The disc is filled to bursting with trailers for Shaw films and Dragon Dynasty releases which are listed below:
King Boxer (video and Theatrical)
Clans of the White Lotus
Executioners from Shaolin
One Armed Swordsman
My Young Auntie
36th Chamber of Shaolin
Born to Fight
Infernal Affairs 2
We also get alternate opening titles from the US release of the film, a stills gallery featuring poster art and colour and black and white photos from publicity materials. Sadly the storyboards from the IVL release are not included.
Undoubtedly the best presentation of the film available on DVD. A budget priced release with fine extras and a glut of trailers. So you need to own it, it's that simple. So to paraphrase the words of the great Carl Douglas "take a bow, make a stand and start swinging with the hand".