Heroic Grace: The Chinese Martial Arts Film, Part II

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Bruce Lee holding a baby

This follow-up to the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 2003 series of classic Hong Kong martial arts films once again offers a dazzling array of acrobatic kung fu and visual splendor, almost all in brand-new prints, showcasing Celestial Pictures’ beautiful restorations of films from the legendary Shaw Brothers studios. While the earlier series featured films from the 1960s and early 1970s, this series continues through the early 1980s. “Heroic Grace” screens from July 12-20 at the Walter Reade Theater.

One of the most successful Shaw Brothers contract directors was Korean émigré Chung Chang-wha, represented in the series by King Boxer (1972). Also known as Five Fingers of Death, this film features Lo Lieh as a fighter who masters the “Iron Palm” technique, which allows his hands to magically repel opponents. King Boxer follows the standard martial-arts boilerplate plot of rival schools fighting for dominance, and the student who, through a series of bouts, attains mastery.

King Boxer also features a strong nationalist theme, since the evil ruthlessness of one of the warring schools is demonstrated through its recruitment of Japanese fighters. “You owe us Chinese too much,” one of the characters tells his Japanese opponents. King Boxer was a major success in the West, setting the stage for the phenomenal popularity of the martial-arts genre in the 70s, especially with Bruce Lee’s films.

Taiwanese director Zhang Che has three films in the series: The New One-Armed Swordsman (1971), The Boxer from Shantung (1972, co-directed with Bao Xueli), and arguably his most famous film, The Five Venoms (1978). The latter film is a prime example of the all-male ensembles of Zhang’s late career. The young protagonist (Chiang Sheng) and last disciple of the Venoms House is sent to track down the other five members of the school, some of whom have used their skills for nefarious purposes.

Each of them has mastered a different fighting style: Centipede (Lu Feng), who uses rapid punches, earning him the nickname “Thousand Hands”; Snake (Wei Pei), who uses quick jabs with his hands, his right hand as the head and his left hand as the tail; Scorpion (Sun Chien), who uses his arms as the pincers and his legs as the stinger; Gecko (Kuo Cheh), who climbs walls; and Toad (Lo Meng), who cannot be penetrated by blades.

Zhang Che made a number of films with this same cast, and the relationships and rivalries, loyalties and betrayals, between these chiseled fighters are more of interest than the standard plots they find themselves in. The integrity of the individual and a personal sense of honor are privileged over authority and government figures, who easily succumb to corruption and oppression.

Chu Yuan’s Clans of Intrigue (1977), as suggested by its title, is a film almost dizzying in its twists, turns, betrayals, and double-crosses among its characters. A famous swordsman (Ti Lung) tries to figure out who has framed him for a succession of murders. Throughout the film, torture chambers, bloody deaths, a lesbian fighter, and other elements are depicted with lurid color and imagery, creating a delirious, almost surreal variation of the martial-arts film.

Lau Kar-leung’s My Young Auntie (1980) adds wacky humor to the genre, enlivened by Kara Hui’s exuberant lead performance, showcasing her impressive fighting skills, acquitting herself well as a distaff version of the kung fu hero. In this film, Hui is a young widow attempting to restore her late husband’s inheritance to its rightful heir, as other family members scheme to steal it for themselves.

Much of the film’s humor derives from the fact that by virtue of her marriage into the family, she must be regarded as an elder, despite her youth. Also, she is very much a fish out of water, trying to adjust to city life, learning to wear high heels and Western dresses. She has to fight men wearing such outlandish attire as garish party dresses and a masquerade ball costume, complete with blonde curls. Hui’s sex appeal is definitely played up here, as her fight scenes often involve pieces of her clothing being torn off. My Young Auntie is a delightful discovery of the series, and there is a clear line from this film to Stephen Chow’s latter-day kung-fu comedies.

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