Lei Ming (Jimmy Wang Yu) is a student in the art of Chinese boxing. A band of Japanese Karate experts pillages his temple, murders his master and rapes his girlfriend, Li Shao-ling (Wong Ping). Naturally, he sets out to get revenge and, in a remarkably painful and novel way, prepares his hands for combat. Karate in this story, you see, is strong but not graceful. Only a Chinese boxer with “hands of iron” could hope to defeat a Karate expert one-on-one. So that’s what Lei Ming does. Literally.
Like Hammer films in England, the Shaw Brothers name is synonymous with martial-arts action spectacle despite being a long-running presence in the 20th century Hong Kong entertainment industry.
The Chinese Boxer (1970) marked the famed studio’s shift toward the grittier, violent kung-fu films for which they would become most greatly known. This bridged the gap between the more romantic, wuxia-style fantasy of Come Drink With Me (1966) or Golden Swallow (1968) and the subsequent emergence of Bruce Lee, who would take the genre overseas in a major way.
The Chinese Boxer is ridiculously violent, fast-paced and an absolute delight. It holds up to the films that followed its design. Jimmy Wang Yu is one of the most genre’s most recognizable faces, and he’s great here as the hero who goes through the traditional arc: the young and cocky man who loses everything, trains hard and fights back. The fights are joyful, particularly when the Karate experts led by Kitashima (Lo Lieh, another iconic face in the genre) raze the Chinese boxing temple and it’s a fight between a dozen students and just four bandits. Walls are shattered, bodies are ruptured. It’s a mess of bright-red blood and, weirdly, constant eye mutilation.
88 Films, a UK-based distributor that has long restored and released classic Shaw films in Region B form, is bringing The Chinese Boxer to American and Canadian fans as part of their new initiative on this side of the Atlantic. The first release, Gestapo’s Last Orgy, was a stellar package of a difficult film to recommend. On the other hand, The Chinese Boxer is a great restoration and production that I can’t recommend highly enough, especially in light of American culture getting a tiny taste of kung-fu in this year’s most overrated Marvel film.
I’ve watched many classic Hong Kong martial-arts films, but the new wave of HD restorations give them a whole new feel and texture. The colors, particularly here, are vivid and bright. The blood is practically pastel. Does it look real? No. But it looks expressive, gorgeous. The best scene in this restoration, though, is the big fight in a snowy field full of tall grass where Lei Ming fights off the bandits and their two sword-expert mercenaries. Its soundstage setting is immaculate in this restoration, the vividness of its painted blue backdrop just unreal. The setting heightens the moment in a way location shooting would not, although the film is full of those such moments as well. When Lei Ming enters into a Western-style standoff with his throwing knives versus his attacker’s ninja shuriken? Breathtaking.
The release includes brand-new artwork, a double-sided poster and a great booklet that provides context for the film. There are also interviews and an audio commentary with film journalist Samm Deighan. There are quite a few cool Hong Kong classics scheduled for big ticket releases in 2021 and early 2022, and this one is essential.