The Spiritual Boxer [神打] (1975)
AKA Naked Fists of Terror, Fists from the Spirit World

Starring Wong Yu, Lin Chen-Chi, Kong Yeung, Shut Chung-Tin, Fung Hak-On, Lee Hoi-Sang, Ng Hong-Sang, Ngaai Fei, Chan Shen, Teresa Ha Ping, Chan Mei-Hua, Wong Ching-Ho, Keung Hon, Lee Sau-Kei, Shum Lo, Tin Ching, Chen Kuan-Tai, Ti Lung, Wilson Tong, Ho Kei-Cheong

Directed by Lau Kar-Leung

Expectations: High.

The Spiritual Boxer marks the directorial debut of one of the most influential figures in all of martial arts movie history: Lau Kar-Leung. Along with frequent partner Tang Chia, Lau began work at the Shaw studio choreographing Shaw’s first color martial arts film: Temple of the Red Lotus — a job they secured after pioneering Hong Kong’s first wirework in the Great Wall film The Jade Bow. Over the next 10 years, Lau’s collaborations with Chang Cheh resulted in a slew of iconic and lasting martial arts films that defined the genre. Lau’s goal throughout his film work was to bring more true-to-life representations of martial arts to the screen, and this ambition eventually led to Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Cycle of films. These films represented the closest Lau had come to realizing his dreams, and his strong, definite ideas led to a falling out with Chang Cheh during the filming of Disciples of Shaolin (though I’ve also seen it cited as being during Marco Polo, which Lau is not credited on). Producer Mona Fong then invited Lau Kar-Leung to return from Chang’s Film Co. in Taiwan to direct a movie of his own at the Shaw Brothers Studio in Hong Kong. Obviously, he took the offer and The Spiritual Boxer was the result.

The film begins near the end of the Qing dynasty with an intro showcasing the history of the “spiritual boxer,” a martial artist who could become invincible to all weapons after being infused with spirits of legend. Chen Kuan-Tai and Ti Lung make wonderful cameos as the spiritual boxers showing off their skills to the Empress Dowager Cixi, but the film isn’t about them, or this time, or even a spiritual boxer of the same ilk; it’s actually about a young apprentice, Hsiao Chien (Wong Yu), who travels the land with Master Chi Keung (Kong Yeung) performing spiritual boxing rituals. What their audiences don’t know is that they are just performers trying to earn a living from the reputation of the spiritual boxers, and when this trickery doesn’t go as planned it leads to much of the film’s conflict & comedy.

The script was written by the ever-resourceful Ni Kuang, but surprisingly it’s not as thematically refined or arc-driven as his other work. The Spiritual Boxer is quite an episodic film that follows Hsiao Chien through a variety of situations where he uses his performance abilities to either manipulate or get him out of trouble. This, in turn, also gets him into more trouble, but he meets Jin Lian (Lin Chen-Chi) along the way, resulting in a wonderful relationship that carries the film’s subtle through line to a fun, satisfying conclusion. Even some of the comedy is subtle and easy to miss, but it’s clever, well-written and largely avoids the typical broadness of Chinese comedy. In Chang Cheh’s memoir he claims that the idea to make the film a comedy was his, but I wonder to what degree Chang’s influence had on the film’s tone. The Spiritual Boxer is notable not just for its comedy, but for its lack of — and perhaps rejection of — the usual Chang Cheh-style strong masculinity. It’s possible that Chang Cheh helped to guide Lau in his first work as a director, but I feel like the defined tone and feel of the film is due more to Lau’s artistic personality than anything else.

In terms of choreography, Lau Kar-Leung handled it by himself and, of course, it’s fantastic, but what came as a surprise was the small amount of fights. There are many displays of martial ability, but it only moves into full-on fight territory occasionally, and even then sometimes only for brief altercations. This might sound like a slight on the film, but the fact that it manages to be as entertaining as it is without falling back on a pile of fights is pretty impressive. This restraint also explicitly shows Lau’s respect for the arts; he was interested in directing films with heart, passion and character instead of merely indulging his desires to display true martial arts on the big screen. But there is a lot of that, too; the kung fu on display is intensely precise, with an unmatched clarity of movement for this time period.

The intro is a fantastic example of this precision, with both Chen Kuan-Tai and Ti Lung showing off their skills as practitioners, not fighters. This focus on display over fighting continues through the rest of the film, with lengthy sections of Wong Yu performing as the Monkey God, Guan Yu, and other well-known Chinese figures. It’s an approach new to the genre at this time, allowing the audience to marvel at the abilities of the performers without the tension of a fight. It’s this type of thinking that would later lead naturally into the genre-defining training sequences that all kung fu fans know and love. These sequences appeared sporadically in Shaw films since Jimmy Wang Yu’s The Chinese Boxer, but it wasn’t until Lau’s filmography that they truly came into their own (with no offense to the wonderful training scenes shown in the Shaolin Cycle films). His next film, Challenge of the Masters, as well as what some would call the pinnacle of kung fu training films, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, perfectly emphasize the rigorous commitment and strength of character necessary to complete the training and do well in the arts.

The Spiritual Boxer is a wonderful film to begin a directorial career with, and it immediately sets Lau Kar-Leung apart from other Shaw directors. His eye reveals new angles on old sets, as well as a penchant for a shallow depth of field that gives the film a unique look among the Shaw catalog. The story offers a blend of martial arts and comedy previously unseen in the genre, and it introduces ghost and spiritual elements that would soon permeate the Hong Kong industry throughout the late ’70s and ’80s. The Spiritual Boxer also introduces us to a talented, charismatic martial arts star: Wong Yu. I don’t know that The Spiritual Boxer is generally thought of as a “great” or “classic” film, but for its place in history it definitely deserves attention. And, y’know, it’s pretty damn fine entertainment, too!

Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Ho Meng-Hua’s The Golden Lion, which seems to be an unfinished film from 1971 finally given release in 1975! I’ll set my expectations accordingly. See ya then!