Last week I talked about ENTER THE DRAGON, possibly the most beloved and influential kung-fu movie in North American history. Following its release in 1973, the youth of America went kung-fu crazy, and – along with the popularity of the television show KUNG-FU (which ran from 1972-1975) – gave the martial arts genre unprecedented exposure. But, while ENTER THE DRAGON hit hardest, it wasn’t the first major kung-fu release to find success in the United States. In fact, earlier in 1973 Warner Brothers released the very first widely distributed kung-fu movie into theaters, and unsuspecting audiences were blown away. FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH (also known under the much less lurid/interesting title KING BOXER) was a revolutionary statement, an opening shot across the bow that would set the stage for ENTER THE DRAGON’S eventual success. And it’s a heck of a movie, too!
In fact, this Shaw Brothers production was a huge influence on an entire generation of pop culture addicted kids, and you can still see the far-reaching effect it had. From comic book characters (Iron Fist, Shang-Chi) to films (many, but most notably KILL BILL), this was a film that lingered in the consciousness of those who saw it at an impressionable age. But what makes it so notable? Well aside from being the first of many, it also has many of the elements that would define the genre for Western audiences: a serene, highly skilled protagonist, massive amounts of training; a secret (and deadly) technique that he must practice, kung-fu tournaments, devious Japanese assassins, treachery.. it really has it all. Combine that with some shocking violence and you a sharp edged and timely piece of entertainment that still has the power to enthrall.
You can’t really write about FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH/KING BOXER without mentioning the music. The main theme is shamelessly stolen from the TV show IRONSIDE (starring Raymond Burr), which must have been awfully amusing for audiences when this was first released. The main synth piece (by Quincy Jones) reappears every time Lieh Lo uses the Iron Palm/Fist technique, and is a reminder to the audience that something powerfully bad-ass is about to occur. Quentin Tarantino, a huge fan of FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH, took the piece of music for KILL BILL in a similar context. The rest of the soundtrack seems to be pulled from various places – a mix of screaming horns, more sedate pieces and even an almost Spaghetti Western-ish turn at the end – but somehow always manages to feel appropriate.
The late, great Lo Lieh stars as Chao Chih-Hao, a young kung-fu student studying under master Sung Wu Yang (Wen Chung Ku) who is pushed to leave his home (and girlfriend/Sung Wu Yang’s daughter Ying Ying) after Yang is attacked by a group of thugs. Realizing that Chih-Hao deserves a superior teacher, he’s sent to study with Shen Chin-Pei in the hopes that he can defeat the evil Ming Dung-Shun (the gloriously evil Feng Tien) and his men (including his son) in a martial arts tournament. Got that? Yeah, there’s a lot of characters in play, but it’s presented in a fairly straightforward way.
And there’s more characters to come. We’re introduced to thug-for-hire Chen Lang, who is hired by Dung-Shun’s son after showing prowess against a Mongolian strongman (played by Bolo Yeung). Meanwhile, Chih-Hao saves singer Meng Tien-hsiun from an attack, and she immediately falls in love with him. How complicated! Thankfully, things start to settle down once Chih-Hao arrives at the school and is belittled by his new master and fellow students. You know the drill. They tell him that his kung-fu is weak, and make him work in the kitchen until he proves himself. He’s especially ridiculed by Shen’s star student Han Lung (the awesome James Nam), but he’ll soon get his revenge. Seriously. Just keep reading.
Much later, Chen Lang shows up at the school, destroys their sign (of course) and demolishes most of the students. Shen Chin-Pei arrives and starts kicking Chen’s ass all over the place, before Chen Lang dickishly cheap shots him and walks out. Earlier Chen Lang had bullied Chih-Hao at a local bar (which led to more classic Han Lung ridicule when he returned to the school) but this time he’s pissed as hell, and isn’t going to take it anymore. He heads to the bar and kicks everyone’s ass, getting some much needed revenge and breaking a bunch of furniture in the process. Shen, badly wounded, decides to give Chih-Hao a manual explaining all the secrets of the Iron Palm/Fist, a powerful fighting technique that make his hands glow red while the squeaky IRONSIDE theme plays.
Han Lung is jealous as shit, but has trouble finding an outlet for his frustrations. Realizing his men are not up to the task of finishing off Shen, Ming Dung-Shun hires Mr. Okada (and his two Samurai pals) from Japan to track down Shen Chin-Pei’s best students and finish them off. You might think that Han Lung will put aside his differences with Chih-Hao and work together to defeat this new threat, but instead Lung discovers that Meng Tien-hsiun (the singer from earlier, and his former beau) has fallen for Chih-Hao, and he decides to go insane. How insane? Well, he joins up with Dung-Shun and his men to betray Chih-Hao, watching from a distance as they beat him senseless, tie him to a tree, and break his hands. Oh, and the Japanese thugs also visit Chih-Hao’s original master Sung Wu Yang and kills him for good measure. Broken hands and a dead master? Definitely a rough few days for Chih-Hao – though Yin Yin actually hides the death of his master from him once she arrives.
As in the original ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN, Chih-Hao is initially distraught, believing that without kung-fu he’ll have to find a real job. Meng Tien-hsiun begins helping him recuperate, and with intense training he soon begins to heal. In fact, he heals quickly enough that he’s able to participate in the pre-tournament tournament to crown a representative from his school to take part in the big (big) tournament. He, of course, demolishes everyone. Han Lung, still dickish and pissed off, goes to Dung-Shun to tell him what happened, but his men decide to beat the living hell out of him before PULLING HIS EYEBALLS OUT. It’s all very Shakespearean, and contributes greatly to Han Lung being the film’s most interesting character. Dung-Shun is a magnificent bastard in this scene, proving himself to be completely irredeemable.
Realizing that he’s perhaps working for the wrong team – possibly from anti-Japanese sentiment, though that’s thankfully kept to a minimum here – Chen Lang decides to warn Chih-Hao about an imminent attack by Mr. Okada and his men immediately before the tournament. I’ll admit to initially thinking that Chen Lang was actually trying to lure Chih-Hao into a trap, but he proves his new loyalties by fighting off the Japanese, giving Chih-Hao just enough time to get to the tournament. Yeah, Chih-Hao has to (briefly) fight off the Japanese, and then run all the way to the tournament location, and THEN immediately fight Dung-Shun’s son. I hope he gets to have a nap afterward. (Spoiler: He doesn’t.)
He does, however, quite handily beat the son using the iron palm technique. It’s a completely fair fight, and Chih-Hao wipes the floor with him. I think that settles the whole issue of who is the better fighter, and I’m sure that Dung-Shun will face his defeat with humility and good humor. Wrong! No, Dung-Shun responds to this humiliating defeat by stabbing the attending Shen Chin-Pei to death and then running off. What treachery! Chih-Hao’s initial celebration turns into despair, and it looks like it’s time for a little revenge. And it is, but not initially from who you might think.
Dung-Shun and son return to their house, but are locked in a pitch black room containing the blinded Han Lung and (his new helper) Meng Tien-hsiun. Everything from here until the end is just constant awesome, as the two baddies flounder in the dark while Han Lung gets his shots in. Eventually, the darkness leads to Dung-Shun stabbing his son to death, which really makes him angry. How angry? He breaks out of the room, before violently killing both Han Lung and Meng Tien-hsiun. At exactly this moment, Chih-Hao arrives and he’s in total Iron Fist mode. He uses his five fingers of death to easily dispatch with all of Dung-Shun’s guards, before having his climactic face-off with the man himself. Dung-Shun’s response? Suicide! Realizing he’s licked, he stabs himself to death while Chih-Hao watches.
For those of you concerned that the movie isn’t going to end with a big fight, you can calm down. Lead Japanese thug Mr. Okada confronts Chih-Hao as he’s walking away (showing off Chen Lang’s severed head in the process) and the two have a battle which shows off just how powerful Chih-Hao has become. He leaves palm shaped holes in wood, breaks swords, and eventually slams the samurai against the wall so hard that it crumbles. It’s hard to explain. Just watch.
Isn’t that awesome? A battered and bruised (but not beaten) Chih-Hao walks off into the sunset with Yin-Yin. I think that’s enough tragedy for one day. The End!
The choice to release FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH to US audiences was almost certainly influenced by the popularity of the David Carradine starring TV show KUNG-FU (produced by Warner Brothers), but it’s still fun to ponder why KING BOXER was chosen compared to some of the equally palatable films being produced by the Shaw Brothers studio at the time. Perhaps it was a question of pace, or of a lack of “foreign” elements which might have confused Western audiences. More likely it was because the central conflicts and relationships – particularly the obsession with revenge – is something that US audiences were already familiar with, and that there are a few enjoyably exploitative elements is just icing on the cake. More surprising is that Warner Brothers didn’t get more intimately involved with releasing kung-fu films after the success of this film and ENTER THE DRAGON. While they would release the Shaw Brothers film SACRED KNIVES OF VEGEANCE in 1974, for most of the 70s their martial arts releases would be American variations on the Hong Kong formula (like BLACK BELT JONES) as opposed to porting over the real deal.
Lo Lieh found great success after the film’s release, even co-starring with Lee Van Cleef in the spaghetti western THE STRANGER AND THE GUNFIGHTER in 1974, before settling into a long career in kung-fu films as both a reliable villain (as in THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN) and as elderly kung-fu master Pai Mei. Oddly, despite this early success as a clean-cut good guy, he always seemed much more comfortable in villain roles. He would also go on to direct some notable martial arts films, including the classic FISTS OF THE WHITE LOTUS, before his death from a heart attack in 2002.
Much credit for the success of FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH has to go to its Korean director Chang-wha Chung, who brings a kinetic, nearly 3D quality to much of the action. Fists and swords come flying directly at the screen, and various punches, kicks and flips appear to have serious impact due to impressive editing along with some well placed powder on floors and bodies to give everything extra “oomph”. Choreography was done by Lau Kar-wing, brother of Lau Kar Leung and god-brother of Gordon Liu, and while it relies more on impact than the complicated movements which would become the genre’s trademarks, every fight scene brings with it something original and exciting to watch.
FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH never got a direct sequel, though the unrelated film THE AVENGER (starring Chia Ling) would later be released in the US as QUEEN BOXER. It’s influence, however, cannot be overstated. While ENTER THE DRAGON struck a harder chord, FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH was the real deal – and it showed that an enthusiastic audience existed for not only Hong Kong action films, but also foreign action as a whole. Productions from Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest would be a regular fixture in smaller theaters and drive-ins for the remainder of the decade. While there were superior productions to come, FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH remains a wonderfully entertaining, hard-hitting yarn which revels in its characters and (surprising) violence. An absolute must for all kung-fu fans.
NEXT WEEK: Police Story (1985)
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