1982’s Legendary Weapons of China feels like one of the last films you should watch in a Shaw Brothers marathon.
By the time of its release, the studio’s martial arts genre wave of international popularity had started to wane. Several dozen had been produced throughout the 1970s, a majority directed by Chang Cheh and Chia-liang Liu (many of which are available stateside in new restorations by 88 Films and Arrow this year, in fact). By the time of Weapons, directed by and starring Liu, it was time for the men who popularized the studio’s output to look inward and make movies that recognize and subvert their usual tricks of the trade. Even having seen a half-dozen Shaw films in the past month, Weapons is a bewildering experience — filled with tongue-in-cheek callbacks, actors playing against type, political commentary and an emphasis on non-violence that sets it apart from the rest of the canon.
Weapons itself is concerned greatly with the ending of martial arts as a way of life and what that means for its practitioners. Unlike many of the timeless wuxia films that made Shaw famous, this story is set in a concrete era — the turn of the 20th century during the Boxer Rebellion, when a segment of the Chinese population supported by the Qing dynasty rebelled against Western influence on the country. That’s a vast oversimplification of the historical context, but what is relevant to this film is that many of the Boxers had to fight against Western weaponry. That is particularly problematic if you’re using traditional weaponry or martial arts, and it’s where our story begins: Lei Kung (Liu) is a martial arts master and leader of a Boxer clan who dissolves his school rather than send his students to needless death. Other clan leaders are spending their time searching for ways to resist bullets, costing them their students’ lives. Lei Kung is declared a traitor, and the story follows attempts to find him and kill him.
There are, of course, the titular 18 weapons, too. These are the main weapons used in Chinese martial arts, and the film cycles through all of them at one point as Lei Kung defends himself from a cadre of assassins. Each weapon is introduced and named onscreen, and most play a role in the dazzling final fight between Lei Kung and his estranged brother and primary pursuer, Lei Ying (Lau Kar-wing). That last fight is the highlight of the film. Not to minimize the rest of it, which features fun turns by Shaw stalwarts Gordon Liu Chia-Hui as another clan master and Alexander Fu Sheng as a con artist.
In fact, Fu Sheng’s story arc in the film is a large part of the comedic meta-commentary for which Legendary Weapons of China is known. His con artist character attempts to drag Lei Kung out of hiding through various schemes and public performances, the latter of which ape the conventions of past Shaw films — including heroic final stands and spiritual combat (taking on the abilities of past warriors). Fu Sheng appeared in many essential martial arts films, but he’s never funnier or looser in his physicality and performance than he was here.
For all its reflexivity and meta-gags, the greatest “end of an era” aspect of Weapons is the level of non-violence practiced by Lei Kung. He fights with skill but never kills any of his opponents, even in his final conflict. As a character, he walked away from that life. Nearing the end of this era of filmmaking, the studio and filmmakers known for their stylized depictions of violence and death recognize something has changed, and it’s time for something different.
As with all of 88 Films’ Shaw releases, this set comes with an incredible amount of special features and physical pack-ins that make it a very valuable addition to your collection. The slipcover features all-new artwork for the film, and the booklet contains an informative essay by Andrew Graves. There are two audio commentary tracks; I listened to the one featuring critic Frank Djeng and actor / martial artist Michael Worth, and it really added a lot of background I missed as a relative Shaw novice. These are essential commentaries for anyone hoping to enter into the world of Shaw Brothers martial arts cinema. There are several small documentaries as well, including an interview with Gordon Liu Chia-Hui. It’s a phenomenal package.