My first FantAsia film was a trip down nostalgia lane to memories of renting random Kung Fu VHS tapes with my friend Josh as a kid in New York City, by way of the iconic Shaw Bothers film, “The Five Fingers of Death”, also known as “King Boxer”. This film is famously the first major kung fu film to hit the USA, predating Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon by several months. (It is widely considered something of a test run for Dragon.) Martial arts content had been gaining popularity throughout the late 60s, culminating in the TV series Kung Fu, but no one had brought a wall-to-wall martial arts flick to the big screen yet. Would it have any appeal outside the grindcore set?
The film was a huge hit, only to be dwarfed later in ’73 by the even bigger hit that was Lee’s film. But Five Fingers of Death came first, a grand guignol pile up of martial arts movie tropes that is still influential today. The opening credits give us a screeching wail which Tarantino used liberally in Kill Bill. The name gave us the band name of “Five Finger Death Punch”. The screeching wail is actually the power up sound of the hero’s secret “Iron Palm technique”, in which his hands glow and he delivers supernaturally powerful blows.
The film itself, at least this edit and translation of it, is a bit of a mess. The basic story is clear enough, Chih-Hao (Lo Lieh) is a martial arts student and in love with his Master’s daughter Ying-Ying (Wang Ping). When thugs attack the master, he is sent to study under a new teacher, and win a tournament to prevent evil martial arts schools from taking over the northern provinces and justify his marriage to Ying-Ying. He goes north, gets trained and struggles with the evil martial arts school led by Meng Tung-Shan (Tien Feng) and his son Meng Tien-Hsiung (Tung Lam looking like a cross between Elvis and Queeg from the Caine Mutiny Trial). How long things take is very unclear (it could be over a year, it could be a couple of months), the character beats are oddly messy at times, with the movie cutting away before anything can land. At times it feels like an ensemble piece that needs another half hour to fill out properly, but they had to cut tot he fights.
And fights there are. There are bar fights, street ambushes, there is a tournament, there is murder, people get their eyes plucked out, bright red blood spews everywhere, the hero has glowing hands. It’s like a distilled concentrate of the whole style of that era of movies.
This is far from my favourite Shaw Brothers film, it lacks a lot of the operatic quality and innovative weirdness that they brought to the table for their best work. But it does have a bit of everything, and for a North American audience that had never seen anything like it, I can see why it took off.
Poking around the internet, it seems that there has been talk of a remake since 2016 (sadly, the name attached it Brett Ratner) and I would love to see a remake that takes some time to breathe and let all the various subplots boil properly and get their moments in. The side characters all have potential to be even better with a little love.
Was it as awesome as it was to an underage me? Not really. But a bit like Casablanca, it is amazing to go back and see something that has been so copied and referenced that it takes you a moment to realize this is the source, and marvel at how mind blowing it must have been.