King Boxer (Five Fingers of Death) Review
Chao Chih-hao (Lieh Lo) is a young student at the Sung Wu-yang (Wen Chung Ku) martial arts school. After Wu-yang fails to fend off a group of thugs who ambush him late one night, he sends Chih-hao to another martial arts school to complete his training. And leaving his home, his teacher and her daughter Sung Ying Ying (Ping Wang), who he has fallen in love with, Chih-hao does just that. On his way to Chin-pei's school, Chih-hao meets Meng Tien-hsiun, a young female singer. Chih-hao rescues her from one of Meng Tung-Shun's (Feng Tien) henchmen, tossing them about a restaurant before blinding one with a face full of dough and walking quietly away. However, all is not well in Shen Chin-pei's school of kung fu. With his pupils terrorised by Tung-Shun and his goons, Chin-pei's school is threatened with closure. What looms on the horizon is a martial arts tournament in which Tung-Shun's son is expected to win. Success must be guaranteed no matter the cost.
I could try and fool all of you into thinking that I knew something about this film before watching it but the more knowledgeable amongst you would quickly see through my flimsy attempt at deceit. Instead, I'll tell you what the Kung Fu annual said of this film back in 1977. In between pictures of David Carradine, pencil drawings of martial arts weapons and stills from Enter The Dragon, they say that King Boxer wasn't anything particularly special by Chinese standards but proved to be so novel to western audiences that it turned out to be a smash hit. We don't often use the words 'smash hit' any more to describe box office successes but it fits their description of King Boxer.
The ferocity of the violence is what stands out even now. At times, it's so excessive as to be comical, not least so when a slap to the back of the head by Chih-hao results in such a gush of blood that it threatens to redecorate the set a bright red. Or when an instance of hari-kari produces such an overwhelming amount of blood that it probably, if briefly, ranked amongst the world's most powerful waterfalls. Add to that gouged eyes, head butts, slicing and dicing and all the kicking, punching and slapping commonplace in martial arts, all of which are accentuated by strikes that sound as if bones are being broken, cartilage is being snapped and muscles are being torn apart. It's little wonder that western audiences took to King Boxer like its promoters were tossing suitcases full of cash from high in the stalls.
It also helped that King Boxer fitted so easily into a world that had grown up on westerns. Filmed on sets that are lit with rich Technicolor sunsets and with vibrant colours, King Boxer is like nothing so much as the westerns of Hawks and Ford. In his refusal to fight, Chih-hao is like no one so much as Alan Ladd's Shane. He suffers insult after insult, is struck and thrown to the ground and yet bears it all, meeting each slight against him with an air of resignation and does so as long as they are directed at him alone. But come the moment that his teacher is offended, the Ironside siren cuts through the scuffles and all hell breaks loose. If there is a criticism of the film it's that the kung fu (and karate and judo courtesy of the three travelling assassins) isn't that good. Compared to Bruce Lee, Lieh Lo's fighting style is messy and lacks focus, there being too much movement prior to each strike. Indeed, he's often shown up by the better fighters, including James Nam and the film often resorts to movie magic to give Lieh Lo the advantage.
Still, this isn't purely about martial arts and what Lieh Lo brings to King Boxer is an interesting character within a richly told tale of revenge, of honour and of violence. Above all, it manages to entertain. It may not be as satisfying a film as The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, may not offer as much fun as Revenge of the Ninja and its martial arts are not as remarkable as those of Enter The Dragon but it's more than just a good all-rounder. And in the sight of Lieh Lo's hands glowing red while a siren wails, has one of the most memorable of martial arts moments.
A couple of years ago, we seemed to pass through a period in which classic martials arts movies hit the shops on discs that fell far short of what was expected. What made this all the worse was that, in the US, Dragon Dynasty were doing a rather more sterling job with exactly the same films. Although, sometimes it was rather hard to tell if they were the same films or not given how poor some of them looked. Not so any more. With Momentum having gained the rights to release the Dragon Dynasty versions of the films in the UK, Region 2 now has a version of King Boxer that looks and sounds as good as it did on its Region 1 release. And this does look very good indeed.
The film is available in Mandarin DD2.0 and English DD2.0 Mono. I must confess that I didn't bother with the English soundtrack at all, not even passing through it en route to the Commentary. The Mandarin soundtrack is, though, exactly what one would expect, with sharp striking sounds, a rich score (if one that seems to have been lifted from a number of sources) and deep thuds that accompany the throwing about of the cast. Add to that the loud swish of flowing blood and King Boxer sounds great. Finally, there are English subtitles.
Brought across from the Dragon Dynasty release, this version of King Boxer features a Commentary with by Quentin Tarantino and film scholars David Chute and Elvis Mitchell. Tarantino starts off dominating the track - lots of, "hehehehe...alright?" - but Chute and Mitchell warm up to take over. It's better that they do. The track then becomes less about reminiscences of watching King Boxer in rundown cinemas and more about its structure, its similarity to western cinema of the thirties, the slow reveal of the story and the daring framing of individual shots. However, just to show that I'm not entirely down on Tarantino, his saying that the Ironside funk klaxon was accompanied by shouts of, "Oh shiiiiit!" in the screenings he attended is right on the money. All three contributors have Biographies included on the disc.
Otherwise, there are interviews with director Chang-Hwa Jeong, action director Lau Kar-leung and film scholars David Chute and Andy Klein. Chang-Hwa Jeong provides some glimpses behind-the-scenes but everything is mentioned and moved on from so quickly that they're said almost in passing. Lau Kar-Lung is better, spending the early part of his interview in remembering his youth and his start in kung fu and the movie business before discussing King Boxer, its production and what impact it had on martial arts movies. Perhaps from his not knowing the impact it had, he doesn't say much about the release of the film in the west but this is picked up by Chute and Klein, who put the film in the context of what was available in the west at the time and how King Boxer innovated in the way martial arts movies were shot.
Finally, there is a Posters and Stills Gallery and two Trailers.