The Chinese Boxer [龍虎鬥] (1970)
AKA The Hammer of God, Der Karate-Killer, Cinque dita di morte
Starring Jimmy Wang Yu, Lo Lieh, Wang Ping, Chiu Hung, Fang Mian, Cheng Lui, Wang Kuang-Yu, Chai No, Kong Ling, Wong Chung, Chan Sing, Wong Ching, Tung Li
Directed by Jimmy Wang Yu
Expectations: High. You don’t enter the first legitamite kung fu movie without high expectations.
It’s not every day you get to witness the birth of a film genre, but The Chinese Boxer is just that. This is the first legitimate kung fu film, and boy is it a good’un. It definitely doesn’t reach the heights that the genre would later ascend to, but it is a stunning début for the genre and a highly influential film. While Chang Cheh brought martial arts into the republic period with Vengeance!, changing out the wuxia swords for knives and a bit of unarmed combat, Jimmy Wang Yu took it to the next level by completely removing the weapons all together (except for one fight where Wang Yu must battle multiple samurai).
The Chinese Boxer features a story you’ve heard a million times before if you’re a big martial arts fan, and this film is essentially the genesis of the trope: some assholes from one school decide to challenge another school, thus killing the master of our main character and setting him on the path to vengeance. While tales of rival schools are forever popular within the genre, my heart holds a special place for films that pit rival styles against each other, and The Chinese Boxer is — as far as I know — the first film to feature the eternal struggle between kung fu and karate. It may not feature any actual Japanese people playing the roles of the Japanese karate masters, and their fighting style may actually be closer to kung fu than karate in the choreography, but the idea alone of kung fu battling karate was enough to put a broad smile on my face.
No matter how much I’ve come to enjoy the high-flying thrills of the wuxia genre, they will never compare with my love for the kung fu genre. It’s my bread and butter, my go-to fix for entertainment, my always dependable cinematic friend. I’ve watched martial arts films since I was a young child, and I literally could not survive without hand-to-hand martial arts films. It makes me very happy to see this project finally enter a period when such films are at least a possibility.
Based on his prior work, I’m incredibly surprised to find that the martial arts genre’s first big star, Jimmy Wang Yu, is basically responsible for kicking open the door to “fist and leg pictures” (as Chang Cheh called them). In addition to starring in The Chinese Boxer, he also wrote and directed it. I had reservations going in, as this was his début in both of those behind-the-camera roles, but he pulled it off perfectly. The direction is crisp and exciting, and the writing moves quickly and tells its story succinctly. This was Wang Yu’s final film for the Shaw Brothers as well, breaking his contract and taking his big-star name to make movies independently (and with Golden Harvest) in Taiwan for many years to come.
But as I always say, a great martial arts film hinges on its choreography and the work here from Tang Chia is absolutely superb. Every fight is exciting and really well laid out, whether it’s Jimmy Wang Yu laying waste to a group of karate baddies, or Chiu Hung judo throwing kung fu students around their dojo. Based on the evolution of the Shaw Brothers martial arts film that I’ve cataloged so far, I imagined that hand-to-hand fighting movies would take a similar slow trajectory towards greatness, starting clumsily but eventually developing into something more recognizable. This isn’t the case, as Tang Chia explodes the genre wide open by crafting stunning fights from beginning to end. The final battles are a little slower than I’d like to see, with the choreography’s edges showing through, but even this can’t rain on the fun parade too much. It’s also interesting to note how badass Jimmy Wang Yu looks due to the editing and the choreography. If a non-martial artist like him can look this great, you can quickly see how the rise of legitimate martial actors took place. I’ve come to love Jimmy Wang Yu, but he’s never going to capture the movements of people like Ti Lung, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and all the other fantastic stars that came in Wang Yu’s wake.
Oh, and in case all that groundbreaking wasn’t quite enough for you: The Chinese Boxer is also the first martial arts film to feature a training sequence! Previously in martial arts films the training always happened between the cuts, meaning that the character would say they needed to train, and then it would cut to five years later after the training had already taken place! Here Jimmy Wang Yu remembers his master’s words about using the Iron Palm and Light Leaping techniques, and we actually see him strapping iron to his shins and thrusting his fists into hot sand. It’s not quite as thrilling as later training sequences, but hey, it’s a training montage and that’s always a good thing. Gotta start somewhere, right?
It’s so interesting to find that many of the genre’s tropes existed right here at the genesis of the genre, and this is probably a huge reason why they were perpetuated throughout the genre for so long. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The Chinese Boxer is a must-see for anyone that fancies themselves a kung fu fan and would like to see where the genre started. And if you want to see Lo Lieh completely wig out when karate is insulted, then this is pretty much your go-to movie. It should probably be noted that the Celestial-remastered DVD features a new electronic score for most of the movie, and this definitely feels out of place and just plain bad in spots. It does ruin a bit of the fun, but regardless, The Chinese Boxer is highly recommended.
The original HK trailer too!
Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is another of Chang Cheh’s forays into non-traditional martial arts cinema, The Singing Killer! I really enjoyed Chang’s The Singing Thief, so I expect to enjoy this one as well!