The Spiritual Boxer Review
As the opening title and credit sequence demonstrate, spiritual boxers were “invincible...no weapons could hurt them”. Our eponymous spiritual boxer (Wang Yu), however, is a fraudster who, with his master (drunken, of course) goes from town to town tricking unsuspecting but not unbelieving audiences that he can invoke various gods and share their mythical powers. Too inebriated on one occasion to perform, our hero’s master leaves him to go solo, thereby triggering a series of events that finds him conning the entire population of a small town solely for his own selfish means. The introduction of a female companion-cum-sidekick (Lin Chen Chi), forces a change in his outlook and soon he is acting more for the poor than himself, a situation that much aggrieves the picture’s chief villain.
A new label and a new collection, it is difficult to determine whether Momentum Asia are presenting The Spiritual Boxer, from their first batch of Shaw Brothers movies, as an introduction to the producers’ distinctive style or simply playing safe. It’s a flawed, often unexceptional piece, and when compared to director Liu Chia-Liang’s later works for the brothers (this was his debut) lacks either the genuine classics status of Dirty Ho or the sheer outrageousness of Executioners of Shaolin and its bizarre sexual politics. What we’re offered instead is more of a grab-bag approach to filmmaking with the martial arts curtailed slightly in order to accommodate a helping of comedy and even an interlude onto horror territory.
Understandably this makes The Spiritual Boxer an episodic affair as Wang Yu goes from con to con and slowly softens his attitude to those around him. The problem is that this is the only true sign of a narrative thread. Certainly, the episodes are engaging enough, especially with such agreeable leads, but they often seem no more than an excuse to wheel on a roster of guest performances. Moreover, The Spiritual Boxer makes the mistake of being a con-movie that doesn’t hold any cards close to its chest; unlike The Sting or House of Games there is never anything to reveal. Rather, from the start it is made clear that Wang Yu is a swindler, and as such there is no dramatic tension. With this lack of direction there is also a difficulty in bringing the film to a conclusion and so, inevitably, the two unsavoury characters whose “wanted” posters are glimpsed in the opening minutes (and never mentioned again) come into town looking for a climactic showdown.
If there are problems with the storytelling, then this certainly isn’t the case elsewhere. The Spiritual Boxer offers the usual Shaw Brothers’ hallmarks of beautiful widescreen photography, a wonderful orchestral score and superb handling of the fight scenes, plus the requisite whip pans and crash zooms. However, with little dramatic centre the film is, to misquote the end title, just another Shaw production.
Remastered for DVD, The Spiritual Boxer looks and sounds absolutely superb. The picture contains a wealth of detail and there’s not a single scratch in sight, whilst the clarity of the original Mandarin mono (rendered over the front two channels) means that every last sigh and grunt of physical exertion can be picked up. However, points are deducted as Momentum Asia are offering the film - unlike the Hong Kong release - in a non-anamorphic transfer. Perversely, in a move that will surely annoy purchasers of the disc, both the snappy menus and even the anti-piracy ad which opens the DVD have been presented anamorphically. Also disappointing is the fact that the only extras are a series of trailers for the first six releases in the Shaw Brothers Collection. Note, however, that despite being in Mandarin (with optional English subtitles, just like the main feature), these are mere promos and not the original theatrical trailers.