The Shadow Boxer [太極拳] (1974)
Starring Chen Wo-Fu, Shih Szu, David Chung Gam-Gwai, Wai Wang, Cheng Miu, Yeung Chi-Hing, Cheung Pak-Ling, Wang Kuang-Yu, Shum Lo, Yeung Chak-Lam, Chan Shen, Wu Chi-Chin, Lei Lung, Pao Chia-Wen, Li Min-Lang
Directed by Pao Hsueh-Li
Expectations: Moderate. I don’t know much about it.
Director Pao Hsueh-Li was one of Chang Cheh’s trusted proteges, so I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when The Shadow Boxer opened with a short intro detailing the philosophy of Tai Chi and showcasing the art form as performed by noted master Cheng Tin Hung (who was also the film’s technical advisor). It’s not a full-fledged short film like the one that opens Heroes Two, but it serves the same purpose in grounding the feature in a sense of martial reality. But where Heroes Two follows this up with a story that is enhanced and informed by our newfound knowledge of Hung Gar, The Shadow Boxer isn’t as successful at doing the same with Tai Chi.
Like a lot of Pao’s films, there are many elements in play that would be suitable for a Chang Cheh film; they just don’t come together in a way that brings about the deep emotions and excitement that Chang Cheh was capable of. I have hopes that as I delve deeper into the Shaw catalog Pao will eventually prove himself a capable director all his own, but for now, his films mostly feel like lesser Chang Cheh movies with unrealized potential. Pao does utilize something unique in The Shadow Boxer, though. It’s a kind of “fake slo-mo” that’s just regular footage slowed down. This might sound dumb, but it’s really effective. It’s slow, but without the grace of traditional slow motion, so there is an extra brutality to the strikes in these highlighted moments.
The Shadow Boxer is built upon the framework of The Big Boss, and tells a simple tale about persecuted road workers with greedy bosses. The film opens with hundreds of workers standing in the sweltering sun, waiting for the month’s pay. After an attempted uprising, the bosses beat up Wu Bing Lien (David Chung Gam-Gwai), the man who started it all when he asked that a fainted worker be let inside to cool off. This is where the film’s main character, Ku Ding (Chen Wo-Fu), steps in to defuse the escalating situation by taking the beating in Wu’s place. This is definitely an interesting way to open a kung fu movie and be introduced to the hero, and this kind of non-violent heroism continues throughout the film.
Ku Ding gets this idea of taking the beating from the principles of Tai Chi. Master Yeung (Yeung Chi-Hing) teaches him that Tai Chi is for health and defense, and that Tai Chi is about turning force against itself. In his master’s home, a wall hanging is prominently displayed with nothing but the character for tolerance on it. In moments of struggle for Ku Ding, he thinks back on this tolerance tenet, allowing him to bear whatever comes his way (which is usually a beating that he takes without any reaction, as if he were a wooden training dummy). I guess that’s one way to interpret tolerance in a martial arts setting, and in this case, it is an interpretation approved by his teacher.
As the film continues, it’s clear that Ku Ding takes this approval too literally, refusing to consider any other approach for future situations. He just goes around letting people beat him up! In my limited understanding of Tai Chi, I understand the significance of “becoming like water,” basically absorbing force and in turn directing it back on the source. Ku Ding has definitely got the absorption part down; he is formless in his focus on tolerance, but he never deflects the negative energy back. When he eventually decides to do so (well into the film), he is not betraying his beloved tolerance, but instead he has come around to a greater understanding of the entirety of the Tai Chi art. It kind of seems like a no brainer, but Ku Ding is a dense one. I like looking on his arc as a long, slowly flowing Tai Chi movement, instead of as individual sections (absorption, tolerance, deflection/reaction). But to look at the film this way, I have to disregard the moments that suggests Ku Ding regrets fighting back and will soon revert back to tolerating beat downs.
The fights are choreographed well enough by Yuen Woo-Ping (with Tai Chi input from Cheng Tin-Hung), but what I found most distracting was the somewhat sloppy execution by the cast and specifically Chen Wo-Fu’s performance. Chen was a champion martial artist, so his physical performance of the choreography is good, but his craft as a screen fighter is lacking. This is understandable as it was Chen’s first starring role, and he shows the potential to do well in future films. Unfortunately, Chen killed himself in January 1974, after he had shot a few films but before any of them had been released. He was only 24 years old.
If you translate the film’s Chinese title, The Shadow Boxer is actually titled Tai Chi Chuan, after the featured martial art. This is a far more suitable title for this philosophical film, but no matter what the title is, the film can’t escape that it’s kinda boring. Its plot is too standard, and its attempts at a Chang Cheh-style martial drama are largely ineffective. The main character just doesn’t inspire the love or emotion required for this type of film to work. The music is rather good, though, especially the theme that plays whenever Tai Chi is used, and Shih Szu definitely steals the show from Chen Wo-Fu (as does Yeung Chi-Hing as his master).
The Shadow Boxer is worth a watch, but it’s more of a curiosity than a good movie. I love the attempt to focus on martial philosophy, though, and I welcome future films in the Shaw catalog that might do a similar thing.
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Chang Cheh’s second Shaolin Cycle film: Men from the Monastery! See ya then!