In the early Seventies, the Shaw Brothers studio in Hong Kong were responsible for hundreds of films, many of them kung fu or martial arts based. The western world was largely oblivious to this burgeoning genre until Warner Bros picked up King Boxer (aka Five Fingers of Death) for release in 1973. This thrilling, dynamic film kick-started a craze for kung fu in the US, influencing directors to this day. Quentin Tarantino - one of the minds behind this release and, who, provides commentary - shot Kill Bill as a love letter to the genre, and martial arts based movies such as The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are still able to capture the cultural zeitgeist. King Boxer and Enter The Dragon (the Bruce Lee classic, released later the same year) were responsible for a wave of eastern high flying, furious fisting cinema that flooded the western grindhouses for years to come. But, almost thirty years later, does King Boxer still hold the power it once had?

To put it briefly, yes. Those only familiar with kung fu films through bad dubbing and thwap-bang sound effects will be pleasantly surprised to find such a nuanced plot with tinges of classic melodrama. Chi-Hao, a martial arts student, wants nothing more than to settle down with his teachers beautiful daughter, Yin-Yin. But before he can, he must win a regional kung fu tournament to ensure the martial arts world doesn’t fall under the tyranny of the evil Ming Dung-Shun.

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So far, so ordinary, but King Boxer is no mere sports flick. Characters double-cross and switch alliances and the structure of the plot never quite pans out as you as you’d expect it to, being one of the few tournament based films which doesn’t end with the final fight. The film also handles multiple characters masterfully, with several coming in and out of the story, but never being lost in the shuffle. No one is given much of a back story, but no one needs one. Their motives are all completely clear, and by the end everyone is given a full dramatic pay-off. Somehow, with all the characters, the twists, and the fight scenes, the film plays at a lean 98 minutes, without a single second wasted.

Realistically though, few watch these sorts of films for the plot, but for the fights. Fortunately King Boxer doesn’t disappoint here either. The action sequences are masterpieces of choreography, editing and staging. Parts of the film are shot almost like a 3D movie, with spears, knives and people flying right towards the screen, making for some very kinetic and dynamic fight scenes. The fighting becomes increasingly more brutal as the film progresses, giving the story a great feeling of progression through gore. Although tame by today’s standards, the splatter effects on display will still delight fans of ultra violence. On top of everything else, King Boxer is simply stunning to look at. Director Jeong Chang-hwa uses the widescreen to its full-effect, with countless beautifully composed shots and scenes.

Back in ’73, Warner Bros saw King Boxer as a perfect introduction for western audiences to martial arts cinema, and it remains one today. If you’ve never seen a proper kung fu film, this is great place to start, and if you’re already a fan you have no excuse not to seek this one out. A fully-fledged classic.

Reviewed on: 27 Mar 2009
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To win the hand of his beloved, Chi-Hao must enter and triumph in a regional martial arts tournament.
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Director: Jeong Chang-hwa

Writer: Chiang Yang

Starring: Lo Lieh, Wang Ping, Tien Feng, Chiao Hsiung, James Nam

Year: 1972

Runtime: 104 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Hong Kong

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