Tuesday, March 26, 2013

"K" is for King Boxer

 As I am led to understand, King Boxer set off the "kung fu" craze in the U.S. when the dubbed version (Five Fingers of Death) made a splash on this side of the Pacific. I hadn't seen Five Fingers of Death, but it seemed like the dubbing didn't help the experience of Django, so it made more sense to watch this landmark chop sockey film in its native language.

 Other than 1978's The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, King Boxer seems to be held in the highest esteem for Shaw Brothers Kung Fu movies, and I can understand why. I suspect that the dubbed version would make it even more enjoyable for Western audiences, but the film is no slouch in Mandarin. For such a simple story (a tournament of fighters that will determine which discipline controls the provinces), King Boxer packs in a number of subplots, introduces new characters nearly every ten minutes, and has crisply shot, kinetic fight scenes. And then there's the gore - it doesn't start until nearly an hour in, but when Chang-hwa Jeong (Six Assassins) commits to eye gouging and decapitation, he goes all out.

Chao Chi-Hao (Lieh Lo) is a student under the tutelage of Master Sung (Wen Chung Ku) and is in love with Sung's daughter Ying Ying (Ping Wang). When bandits attack Sung, he decides it would be better for Chi-Hao to study under Master Sun*(Mien Fang), where Chao's brother Ta-Ming (Bong-Jin Jin) has been training. He sends Chi-Hao out, not knowing that the bandits are servants of Meng Tung-Shun (Feng Tien), who wants to eliminate the other disciplines in order to win the tournament and control the provinces.

 Meng Tung-Shun is, to outward appearances, an honorable man, and in public he stops his son (Shen Chan) from making him look bad. But behind closed doors, he's scheming to destroy Sun and Sung, along with their best pupils. He also collects master-less warriors, including Chen Lang (Chi Chu Chin), a fighter who uses his mighty forehead in combat. Later he attains the assistance of Okuda (Hsiung Chao) a brutal Karate expert from Japan who travels with two swordsmen. They do his dirty work, until Chi-Hao intervenes.

 When Chi-Hao proves himself to be worthy of training, Master Sun teaches him the "Iron Palm," a deadly skill that requires harsh training, all the more so after Meng Tung-Shun's henchmen destroy Chi-Hao's hands (in a very similar way to Django). Not to spoil too much, but let's just say he makes an unexpected full recovery in time for the tournament.

 In order not to bog down the review with names, I'm leaving out several important characters, including a love triangle involving a singer and one of Sun's other pupils - who betrays Chi-Hao out of jealousy - but there's a lot going on in King Boxer between all of the great fight scenes. The lulls between action never feel boring because there's so much going on, so many characters with differing agendas, and allegiances being swapped regularly. It's not the most streamlined movie, but King Boxer is never difficult to follow aside from keeping track of who's who (by name anyway, physically they're pretty distinctive characters).

 I had heard King Boxer was pretty violent, but early on it seemed like that was exaggerating things a bit. Not so later in the film, when blood starts pouring and savage wounds are opened as a result of fights getting serious. Once Okuda shows up, the film takes a decidedly darker turn and as the tournament approaches, King Boxer becomes more of a revenge film than you'd believe early on. Not that I'm complaining, because it elevates the film from "pretty damn good" to "holy crap" in short order.

 Finally, it's worth noting that King Boxer uses the theme from Ironside, and whether you know the show or not, you'll recognize the theme - Quentin Tarantino also used it for Kill Bill, and he appears on the commentary track for this film, which was a nice surprise. I think it's the second commentary from Tarantino I've heard for a movie he wasn't involved with (the other is Hot Fuzz). I will admit it's hard to remove the baggage of Kill Bill when I heard it in the film (and it plays quite a bit in a similar fashion) but that didn't detract from the experience. Call it King Boxer, call it Five Fingers of Death, whatever works for you, but settle down and enjoy some Shaw Brothers at their finest.

 * IMDB says "Sun" but the DVD I watched had subtitles that said Suen.

No comments: