On December 9, 2011 (the day I’m writing this) Sir Run Run Shaw, co-founder of the Shaw Brother Studio and media mogul, has decided to finally retire at the ripe old (old!) age of 104. What better way to pay tribute to a man responsible for so many great martial arts films, than looking at one of the best the Shaw studios ever produced?
In the very first ENTER THE FIST column one of the things I tried to make clear is that I don’t consider myself an expert on Kung-Fu films. In fact, while I occasionally talk a good game, I have huge gaps in my knowledge, and part of the purpose of these articles is giving me an excuse to either revisit classics or view certain films for the very first time. Providing a detailed retrospective on the great kung-fu films is one thing, but it’s quite another to discover a classic that – for whatever reason – has simply escaped my attention. Every week it’s like unwrapping a new gift, and this week’s gift makes for a Merry Christmas indeed.
LEGENDARY WEAPONS OF CHINA ranks with the very best of the Shaw Brothers film I’ve seen. While I adore 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN, absolutely love COME DRINK WITH ME and can’t get enough of CHINESE SUPER NINJAS (coming soon!), LEGENDARY WEAPONS OF CHINA is something different. Something special. The plot that, while initially confusing, proves to pay massive dividends and is more than just a framework to hang fights upon. The choreography ranks with the very best from either the Shaws or Golden Harvest. The combination of traditional Chinese kung-fu, unique wire-work, weapons and special effects that make for invigorating, unique fighting scenes. Performers working at the top of their game. It’s all here, and it feels as fresh and invigorating as anything you’ve likely seen. If you’re new to martial arts films, or skeptical about Shaw Brothers films in general, this could make for a wonderful introductory point.
We’ve already discussed in previous articles Lau Kar-Leung and his illustrious family (and extended family) of Kung-Fu experts. Not only do we have Kar-Leung directing, writing, coordinating stunts, choreographing, and playing one of the leads, but there are significant parts for his brother Lau Kar Wing, as well as for their god-brother Gordon Liu. Being the son of a kung-fu legend and pupil of Wong Fei Hung, Kar-Leung has an obvious deep respect and love for traditional Chinese martial arts and weaponry, and this respect permeates every frame of his films. Perhaps surprisingly, here he also introduces supernatural and mystical elements, but still keeps things entrenched firmly in some measure of reality.
As with the best Shaw Brothers films, at first the plot seems completely impenetrable. Characters are introduced rapidly, and you’re left to figure out who is supposed to be important and who you can safely ignore, before things eventually settle down into a fairly simple hierarchy of characters. It’s even more difficult in LEGENDARY WEAPONS OF CHINA, as one of the key themes of the film is appearance versus reality, with characters pretending to be other characters, characters that look like other characters, and characters unsure about the identity of characters. It’s best to just relax and let them reveal themselves, though it makes a second viewing all the more rewarding.
Alternatively, just read along with my plot summary!
Opening credits – as per usual – have our collection of main characters showing off their skill at wielding weapons against a backdrop, and while it’s very impressive, there are few hints at the greatness that is about to come pouring out. That said, there’s some definite talent on display, particularly from female lead Hui Ying Hung, star of the classic MY YOUNG AUNTIE. More on her later.
And we waste no time in getting to it. It’s the Boxer Rebellion (Between 1899 and 1901 A.D.) and we’re introduced to the Yi Ho society, a nationalist group that practices Spiritual Kung-fu, which mixes intense training with trickery, mind control and elements of mysticism. Basically, they can pull throwing darts out of anywhere, blades are hidden all over their bodies, and they are pretty great at throwing fireballs when the situation calls for it. They are also training to become nigh invulnerable, and are already nearly entirely resistant against weapons. Yeah, these are tough dudes. And loyal! However, even the most highly trained body is susceptible to bullets, and Yi Ho students are getting slaughtered in their attempts to harden themselves against the weapons of foreigners.
So the story is that Lei Kung, a former martial arts master in the society, was to have left and formed a new faction in Yunan, where he would grow their influence and continue to develop his students’ skills. However, the leader of the society has learned that Lei Kung has instead disbanded his faction entirely, which is an offense punishable by death. Chief Li assigns his first in command Lord Tieh to choose representatives to track down Lei Kung and kill him. As a display of their loyalty, Tieh chooses two men to commit suicide in front of the chief: one gouges his own eyes out (ouch!) while the other simply rips off his own testicles. Yeah. Another man is chosen – Ti Hau (Hsiao Ho) – but is stopped before killing himself and given the task of tracking down Lei Kung.
But the Yi Ho society are not putting all of their eggs in one basket. We’re also introduced to the Shaolin Monk Ti Tan (Gordon Liu), a trainer for the society who has promised to deliver students who can withstand bullets, but his attempts to prove their worth ends up creating only a pile of dead bodies. He’s about to sacrifice more of his students before his niece Fang Shao Ching (Hui Ying Hung) begs him to stop. We also get a. brief display of students entirely controlled by voodoo dolls wielded by Lei Ying (Lau Kar Wing), who combines martial arts skill with magic. Ti Hau, Fang Shao Ching (dressed as a man), Ti Tan and Lei Ying will all be seeking out Lei Kung. That’s all you really need to know.
Oh! I almost forgot about the title! Yeah, Lei Kung is an expert at wielding the LEGENDARY WEAPONS OF CHINA, and we’re going to see them ALL. Even better? In the final two battles they are actually identified by name on the screen, making the whole thing quite educational. These 18 weapons are also known as the Eighteen Arms of Wushu, and compose the 18 main weapons of Chinese martial arts. If you’ve watched your share of Kung-Fu movies, then most of these will likely seem very familiar to you. I’ll actually identify them once we hit our climax. Stay tuned.
Things start to come together in Guangdong inside – as always – an Inn. Ti Hau is monitoring a man who he believes to be Lei Kung, while Fang Shao Ching – dressed unconvincingly as a man, just like Cheng Pei-pei in COME DRINK WITH ME – monitors the two of them from afar. The man who they believe to be Lei Kung is actually voodoo master Lei Ying, but that will come into play later. First we get an interlude from my favorite character in the film, Master Mo (played by Alexander Fu-Sheng). The late actor plays the part with incredible charisma, humor and physicality, and distracts everyone long enough to let Lei Ying get away. At least for now.
Ti Hau and Fang Shao Ching meet again that evening in the crawlspace above Lei Ying’s room at the Inn, having an amazing crouched over fight as they both compete to kill the possible traitor. Perhaps not surprisingly, it brings to mind the fight between Jackie Chan and Lau Kar Leung in DRUNKEN MASTER II, though with a lot more hidden blades and darts. Suddenly the monk Ti Tan (Gordon Liu, remember?) bursts in and attacks what he thinks is the sleeping Lei Kung, but reveals only an empty bed – though he adds to the overhead crawlspace fight by shoving a spear randomly into the tight area. It’s awesome.
The next day we’re introduced to local woodcutter, Uncle Yu, who shows surprising strength as he lugs around huge stacks of firewood for sale. Friendly and popular in the city, Uncle Yu occasionally slips up and reveals some suspicious skills. Yeah, Uncle Yu is actually Lei Kung (Lau Kar Leung), though he’s desperate to live an ordinary life, as he hasn’t practiced Kung-Fu in many years. Ti Hao and Fang Shao Ching run into each other once again in the city, and Fang Shao Ching reveals that she’s also from the Yi Ho society, though doesn’t reveal her gender to the indoctrinated, somewhat dim Ti Hao. As we’ll soon discover, while they are both looking for Lei Kung, they both have very different motivations. Meanwhile, they also have to avoid Ti Tan, who has decided to take his mission very personally.
Now comes my favorite part of the film. In order to lure Lei Kung out of hiding, Lei Ying hires con-man Master Mo to pretend to be Lei Kung and demonstrate his magical Kung-Fu skill in the town square. This demonstration, using trickery, blood packs, and – memorably – intestines, is both a commentary on and parody of the conventions of Kung-Fu cinema, but is performed with a knowing smirk and wink to the audience. Fu-Sheng really brings it here, and manages to convince the entire town that he’s invulnerable before escaping (with his collection of subordinates) to a nearby public outhouse to meet with Lei Ying. Ti Hao follows, and we soon get another awesome, original fight between Ti Hao and a voodoo controlled Master Mo which eventually ends with the entire crew being dumped into sewage. Classic.
Our plot strands start to come together as Fang Shao Ching, who has begun to suspect Uncle Yu is more than he appears, travels to his house and discovers that the LEGENDARY WEAPONS OF CHINA have all been hidden on his property. She confronts the woodcutter, who reluctantly reveals his true identity. However, Fang Shao Ching is not there to assassinate him, as she believes that the Yi Ho society’s belief that they can make themselves bulletproof is an impossible dream, and will end up killing all of their loyal students. She’s especially upset at her Uncle, who is steadfast in his belief that with enough training his students will be able to withstand the firearms of foreigners. She also helps him fend off Ti Hao, who has become incredibly ill from his bath in the sewage (and doesn’t realize that Uncle Yu and Lei Kung are one and the same).
Lei Ying, however, is regularly being mistaken for Lei Kung, which makes a lot of sense when we discover that the two are brothers. In fact, Lei Ying is played by Lau Kar Wing, making him Lau Kar Leung’s real-life brother as well, which makes for some fun exchanges between the two. Like Fang Shao Ching, he confronts Lei Kung to warn him, and suggests that he practice his Kung-Fu skills to prepare for future attacks. Fang Shao Ching (still dressed as a male) helps get Lei Kung back into fighting shape, while the two tend to the deathly ill Ti Hao. Eventually a recovered Ti Hao sees a demonstration of Uncle Yu’s returning fighting skills, but is told he’s just practicing in case he has to defend himself due to how much he looks like Lei Kung. Sure. That makes sense. Eventually Fang Shao Ching also reveals herself to be female, which throws the virginal Ti Hao for a loop, turning him into a sputtering, awkward idiot.
Want to see some fights? Here they come. Ti Tan shows up, aware of Uncle Yu’s identity, and we get an awesome fight between Lau Kar Leung and Gordon Liu where the two prove to be very equally matched. During the fight Yu not only reveals to everyone (including Ti Hao) that he IS Lei Kung, but also explains that he abandoned Kung-Fu to save the lives of his students. Ti Tan is resilient to this logic, believing himself to be invincible until Lei Kung deafens him permanently by attacking his eardrums. After a thwarted attempt at suicide, Ti Tan admits defeat and decides to return to Shaolin temple. Ti Hao, however, feels betrayed and runs off. That spells trouble.
But it’s not Ti Hao who comes back for redemption, but instead his master from the Yi Ho society, who confronts Lei Kung immediately. A visibly conflicted Ti Hao eventually arrives as well, and ducks in and out of the weapon-filled battle, which is our first extended look at some of the titular weapons of China. As I mentioned before, the weapons are actually identified on-screen when used, which is terrific. In this fight alone they use:
1. Rope Dart
2. Double Tiger Hook Swords
3. Double Hammers
4. Battle Axe/Double Axe
5. Snake Halberd
That’s five of the eighteen already. It’s a close fight, and Ti Hao almost gets hypnotized into committing suicide, but eventually the Master admits defeat. He leaves, suggesting that Ti Hao stay with Lei Kung.
Oddly, Lei Kung doesn’t seem particularly concerned about the Yi Ho society sending more assassins to kill him. Instead, he reveals that the earlier visit from his brother Lei Ying was all a bunch of bullshit, and that his brother has used this opportunity to rise in rank within the clan. Lei Kung decides a final confrontation is necessary, and even shaves off his facial hair to symbolize a break from his familial relationship. The two meet at a temple, where it’s revealed that Lei Ying’s earlier concern was simply meant to motivate Lei Kung to dispatch the other assassins, leaving only him to finally finish off his own brother. What a dick.
But, dick or not, they have to fight. As Ti Hau and Fang Shao Ching look on, the two siblings go at it with every weapon at their disposable. It’s a lengthy, impressive fight full of intense, interesting weapon work. And we also get to see the final 13 Weapons of China finally be used:
6. Kwan Dao
7. Twin broadswords
8. Double-edged sword
9. Tassle Spear
10. Three-section chain whip
11. Double Daggers
12. Double Crutches
13. Monk’s Spade
15. Three Prong Fork
16. Rattan shield
17. Single butterfly sword
18. Three-section staff
Before finally resorting to straight sparring. Don’t just read about it! Let’s watch it:
I know. It’s awesome. So, Lei Kung eventually bests Lei Ying, but instead of killing him he tells him to report back to Yi Ho that Lei Kung is dead. The three walk away, finally leaving Lei Ying to his disgrace. And, as is typical in almost all Kung-Fu films, everything ends IMMEDIATELY.
The early 80s were an interesting period for the Shaw Brothers studio, as the continued success of Golden Harvest – and their rapidly increasing budgets – made the Shaw’s more traditional Kung-Fu stylings looks positively ancient. But with Jackie Chan trying to find fame in the U.S., the Shaw productions got more elaborate and stylized to try and capture the attention of the viewing public. LEGENDARY WEAPONS OF CHINA still has the stage-bound feel of most Shaw Brothers’ productions, but features surprisingly high production value and a plethora of special effects. Lau Kar Leung makes the most of these increased resources by staging the action perfectly, and also handling more subdued scenes with great confidence. The use of color, particularly in the early sections, is quite impressive, and the cinematography is noticeably improved and three dimensional compared to many of the 70s films from the studio.
But Jackie was soon to return from his sojourn in the States, and with the release of PROJECT A (in 1983), Kung-Fu movies were about to reach a scope never before imagined. LEGENDARY WEAPONS OF CHINA was a box-office success making HK$9,913,000 in 1982, but PROJECT A would more than double that amount and show that the audience at the time were hungry for the mix of high action and Cantonese comedy that Golden Harvest specialized in. Only three years later in 1985 the Shaw Brothers studio would cease producing films, instead focusing their efforts entirely on television productions. An unfortunate end for a studio that once set the mold for the modern martial arts film.
NEXT WEEK: THE MAGNIFICENT BUTCHER (1979)