The Boxer from Shantung [馬永貞] (1972)
AKA Ma Yong Zhen, The Shantung Boxer, The Killer from Shantung
Starring Chen Kuan-Tai, Ching Li, Cheng Kang-Yeh, David Chiang, Chiang Nan, Fung Ngai, Ku Feng, Tin Ching, Wong Ching, Mario Milano, Chan Ho, Lee Man-Tai, Liu Wai, Shum Lo
Directed by Chang Cheh & Pao Hsueh-Li
Ma Yong Zhen (Chen Kuan-Tai) has recently moved to Shanghai from the country with his best friend, and he’s sure that the good days will come. A chance meeting with local crime boss Master Tan Si (David Chiang in a fantastic small role) introduces Ma to a different way of life, one that he’d like to live for himself. Yes, The Boxer from Shantung is a Shaw Brothers version of the Scarface story (11 years prior to Brian De Palma’s famous remake), but honestly, the crime story — while skillfully told and engaging — is also one of the film’s weaknesses for modern viewers. We’ve just seen this kind of film far too many times to truly lose ourselves in all the characters’ struggles, although with all the fun martial arts battles, you could definitely do a lot worse than The Boxer from Shantung.
The film is notable for introducing the world to Chen Kuan-Tai, and there couldn’t have been a better story for him to debut with. By showing his character’s rise, we are able to watch Chen Kuan-Tai flex his acting skill along with his martial abilities. He is skilled in both regards, and almost single-handedly makes The Boxer from Shantung a remarkable film to watch. Chen exhibits no nervousness or shaky acting. He is a force of resolute, badass charm throughout the film, exuding star power and raw energy. Throughout the film he always retains his decency, so the character never falls so deep into self-destruction that he becomes unlikeable. This role could have easily gone to Ti Lung to make this yet another Ti Lung/David Chiang/Chang Cheh film, but Chang Cheh wisely cast the newcomer in the role of the fresh-faced guy looking for his big break. With an actual fresh face in the role, we’re sucked into the story all the more and the film feels distinct and different from the previous films of Chang Cheh.
But I must remember not to credit all of this film’s behind-the-scenes glories to the master Chang Cheh. The Boxer from Shantung was the first of many co-directed films that Chang made for Shaw Brothers, and his partner in crime on this one is Pao Hsueh-Li. Pao had previously directed the thrilling 1971 film Oath of Death, and before that he had developed a great working relationship with Chang Cheh as cinematographer on many of his films. Assisting the two directors were a couple of notable figures themselves: Godfrey Ho and later Hong Kong legend John Woo. This was Woo’s first film as an assistant director and at times it almost feels like a Woo film itself. It would seem that the experience here had quite the lasting effect on Woo.
Like just about every Chang Cheh film, The Boxer from Shantung is unique among the Shaw Brothers films of its time. Chang Cheh was always in search of “the next thing,” pushing his films in ways that other directors at Shaw did not have the opportunity to. Chang Cheh had previously explored gangster storylines in his modern films The Singing Thief and The Singing Killer, but neither go into the same depth as The Boxer from Shantung. They are films involving gangsters, while this is one completely about gangs and a rising gangster. The Boxer from Shantung is also first and foremost a dramatic, character-driven film, and an action film second.
But don’t let that fool you into thinking that the action isn’t fantastic. The Boxer from Shantung boasts four of Shaw’s action choreographers: Lau Kar-Leung, Tang Chia, Lau Kar-Wing and Chan Chuen. I don’t know how they broke up the work, but the action is universally thrilling and exciting to watch. Chen Kuan-Tai has a different movement style to his kung fu than any previous film star at the studio, so watching him move is novel just for that reason alone. Most of the battles feature Chen going up against multiple combatants, and while I generally prefer one-on-one fights, the work here is strong.
Easily the most memorable and notable battle comes at the finale. If you’ve seen a few Chang Cheh films you can probably guess roughly how it goes down, but the fight here is especially brutal, engaging and drawn-out to great effect. Like many films, it has the tendency to be somewhat over-the-top and unbelievable too, but you shouldn’t let that stop you from enjoying what is easily one of the best fights up to this point in the Shaw catalog. It’s definitely not the best choreographed, but it’s easily one of the best filmed, as directors Chang Cheh and Pao Hsueh-Li choose to film nearly the entire fight with nothing but the sound effects on the soundtrack. Even in the minutes leading up to the fight, there is no music. The scene slowly builds tension through this careful construction of sound, and the absence of music makes us focus on every minute detail.
The love interest, Jin Lingzi (Ching Li), is also a deep element to the story. It’s handled almost as an afterthought, though, as Ching Li is barely in the movie. Her character and Chen Kuan-Tai’s hardly speak to each other, instead their relationship is mostly handled through looks at each other from across the room. No one ever comes out and says anything but we know the struggle going on underneath the surface. While it would be easy to say that her character is something of a missed opportunity, I think it’s perfect as is. The movie is about these characters’ choices and how they take them down differing paths. I love how abstractly their relationship is portrayed, and it felt so strained and realistic to me.
The Boxer from Shantung might not hit as hard as it did in 1972, but it remains an excellent film nonetheless. It is longer than most Shaw films at 124 minutes, but it’s so well-constructed and written than it flies by without issue. I’d have gladly taken a whole trilogy with these characters, as they are all quite interesting and so much fun to watch. Fans of the Shaw Brothers should definitely seek out The Boxer from Shantung. It’s a great movie and well-worth your time.
Oh, and it also features an early instance of a Western actor in a Hong Kong film (real-life Australian wrestling champion Mario Milano), exhibiting just about every gweilo trait that you’d expect from a Western actor in a Hong Kong film. I have to wonder if this is where it all began.
Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog: it’s the sequel to Duel of Fists, Chang Cheh’s The Angry Guest! See ya next week!