Boxer From Shantung/Review
From The Grindhouse Cinema Database
Boxer From Shantung is a classic martial arts-crime film from the master of kung fu cinema: Chang Cheh. This time Cheh worked with Bauu Hok Lai, the result is one of the finest team ups in Asian directorial history. The two directors went on to co-direct several more films.
The films story involves a young kung fu fighter from the country named Ma Yongzhen (Chen Kuan-tai) who travels to the city of Shanghai to become a prize fighter. At this time in the early 20th century the crime underworld ruled the streets, so Ma has to figure out a way to up the ladder to become somebody. Ma doesnt know anyone in the city, but one day he meets Xiao Jiangbei (Cheng Hong-yip) who helps him out by becoming his personal carriage driver. While making his way through the city he then encounters a gangster named Tan Si (David Chiang) who agrees the help him out by bringing him into the inner circle. While Ma makes friends with Tan Si he also makes enemies out of some rival gang lead by Boss Yang (Chiang Nan).
This is the beginning of Ma's apprenticeship under Tan Si. He even manages to get a small piece of territory for himself with Tan Si's help. Ma becomes his own small boss and he begins his own rivalry with Boss Yang. Yang begins to plan a way to get rid of Tan Si and Ma along with him. There are some truly breathtaking fights between Ma and Boss Yangs thugs, especially the big fight in the auditorium. Its one of my favorite kung fu battles ever.
The strengths of Boxer from Shantung lie in the wonderful screen martial arts, Kuan-tai's performance, and the directors' subtler touches. This film came out at a time when Chang Cheh was experimenting with artsy elements like dream sequences and symbolism. It can be be seen very well in Vengeance! (1970). Here, Chang visually uses stairs as a metaphor for Kuan-tai's attempt to rise up from poverty. His first success is being offered a job by Yang's men. This results in Kuan-tai being offered a nicer room at the hostel he lives at. Chang goes out of his way to show the importance of Kuan-tai ascension to this place of privilege, which is on the coveted second floor. This also acts as foreshadowing of events to come for in Kuan-tai's climatic struggle against Yang in the final reel, he repeatedly attempts to reach the top of a staircase where Yang hides behind his men. Rather than reach the top which is something he will never be able to do in a larger sense, he topples the staircase and brings Yang down to him. Chang Cheh would elect to discard such thought-provoking imagery in his latter career to focus on simpler and campier themes, but this shows that in his prime, Chang was truly one of the genre's finest filmmakers for being able to bring meaning to action.
The choreography of Lau Kar-leung and Tong Gaai gain additional assistance from Lau's brother Kar-wing and Chan Chuen. The quartet craft excellent screen action. I must admit to being extremely fond of the early '70s style of kung fu action. It varies quite a bit from the acrobatic and forms-specific Chinese opera influences that dominated the latter half of the decade. Both styles have their strengths, but this earlier boxing form is generally more raw and frenzied, which suits Chang Cheh's depictions of heavy bloodletting and provides a nice break from the prim and proper swordplay of wuxia films. Chen Kuan-tai is simply incredible to watch as he takes on rooms full of knife or hatchet-wielding thugs. He was one of Hong Kong's first real martial arts stars who came to the studio already well versed in kung fu, unlike other top stars of the day like Lo Lieh, Jimmy Wang Yu, and David Chiang. Interestingly, this role also paved the way for Kuan-tai to become a successful dramatic actor as well in films like The Tea House and Big Brother Cheng. David Chiang has what amounts to an extended cameo, probably meant to draw in theater audiences unfamiliar with Kuan-tai. But it's a good role since he gets to lay on his trademark charm and dole out some decent kung fu in two key scenes.
While not the best fight in the film, the most memorable one is easily Kuan-tai's match with Italian-Australian, Pro-wrestling champion Mario Milano. While Ng See-yuen would make a habit of casting foreigners in his movies in years to come, gweilos in Hong Kong kung fu movies were a rarity in 1972. It isn't critical to the story, but provides a great opportunity to watch Kuan-tai's iron-fisted kung fu match the massive girth of Milano's frame, although I wouldn't place bets on a real fight between the two.
Apart from Cheng Lee's disappearance midway through, Boxer from Shantung is a well-crafted film with a classic premise, good performances, and gritty kung fu action. Chen Kuan-tai isn't as strong an actor as say Ti Lung, but makes up for it with an understated performance that transforms into animal fury backed up with his heroic looks and skilled form. Arguably, the Chang Cheh heroic bloodshed motif gets a little out of control at times with blood being unnaturally smeared on victims, but that's part of the fun. It's a good reminder that this is still Chang Cheh's wacky world of exaggerated destruction. Overall, the film ranks with King Boxer and Fist of Fury as one of the most influential and important Chinese boxing films of the era.