Heroes of the East [中華丈夫] (1978)
AKA Shaolin Challenges Ninja, Drunk Shaolin Challenges Ninja, Shaolin Vs. Ninja, Challenge of the Ninja
Starring Gordon Liu Chia-Hui, Mizuno Yuka, Cheng Kang-Yeh, Ching Miao, Kurata Yasuaki, Kato Naozo, Harada Riki, Sumi Tetsu, Shirai Manabu, Yana Nobuo, Nakazaki Yasutaka, Omae Hitoshi, Lau Kar-Leung, Norman Tsui Siu-Keung, Huang Pa-Ching, Ou-Yang Sha-Fei, Simon Yuen Siu-Tin, Chow Siu-Loi, Lee Hoi-Sang
Directed by Lau Kar-Leung
Expectations: I expect greatness.
I’ve been dying to reach Heroes of the East in this chronological series; my friend told many tales of its greatness in the early days of my Hong Kong love affair in the late ’90s. He didn’t have a copy of Shaolin Challenges Ninja, but his copy of Master Killer became my first exposure to Shaw Brothers films. Shaolin Challenges Ninja remained in the back of my mind, waiting for its day. I could’ve watched it long ago, but with this self-imposed chronological journey I couldn’t just skip right to it, no matter how many years have passed! Upon finally watching it — via Arrow’s incredible Shawscope Vol. 1 boxset — it was everything I always hoped it would be.
The Chinese title translates to The Chinese Husband, a more apt, but less exciting title than Heroes of the East. We meet Ah Tao (Gordon Liu) on the day of his reunion with his Japanese bride, Yumiko (Mizuno Yuka), whom he hasn’t seen since they were children. Their fathers arranged the marriage to compliment and enhance their business relationship, but Ah Tao, remembering her as a runny-nosed, ugly girl, tries to figure a way out with the help of his friend Shou (Cheng Kang-Yeh). He quickly changes his tune when he catches sight of her beauty… if only he knew how much their cultures will clash! It starts with her refusal to observe Chinese marriage customs, but it escalates into a full-scale martial battle between the arts of their respective countries.
Lau Kar-Leung’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin communicates deep martial themes on the importance of passing knowledge on to the next generation. A fundamental respect for humanity and your own mortality comes with understanding that importance. Heroes of the East contains a similarly simple, yet profound theme at its core: learning to respect the differences in others’ beliefs and practices, or more specifically, learning to respect other martial arts as being just as worthwhile as yours. I always assumed this movie — probably due to the Shaolin Challenges Ninja title I knew it under — was a simple China vs. Japan movie, like many kung fu films. To find that it was actually a thoughtful, beautiful movie with real heart, soul and respect under the surface surprised me. I should’ve expected as much from Lau Kar-Leung; I blame Shaolin Mantis for throwing me off the scent.
The method by which Heroes of the East conveys these wonderful truths of the human experience is action, and Lau Kar-Leung’s action choreography is as superb as you would expect. Only someone filled with true love and respect for the martial arts in all their forms could craft a film like this. I’m used to seeing Lau portray screen versions of various Chinese arts, but to see his talents applied equally well to a parade of Japanese arts and weapons was a real treat. From the early phases of the film as Ah Tao and Yumiko fight over practice methods and weapons storage, to the succession of one-on-one challenges from the Japanese masters, Lau crafts stunning, unique action scenes that rank among the genre’s best. Just in terms of the quality and the variety of the action, Heroes of the East is nothing short of astounding. My only real complaint is that the marriage itself gets lost as the film moves towards its climax.
The resonant themes, along with Lau’s ability to incorporate flawless camerawork and editing along with the choreography, elevates Heroes of the East beyond nearly all of its contemporaries. I wouldn’t call it better than 36th Chamber, but it’s right there. To make one masterpiece is any artist’s goal, but Lau made two in the same year plus Shaolin Mantis! The Shaw Brothers work ethic is truly remarkable! Don’t be like me and wait 25 years to watch Heroes of the East… follow Arnold’s call to the Predator and “Do it now!”
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is the final review of 1978: Wu Ma’s independent film starring Chi Kuan-Chun as Hu Huei-Chien (his character from Men from the Monastery and The Shaolin Avengers!)… Showdown at the Cotton Mill! See ya then (hopefully soon)!