King Boxer – The First International Kung Fu Movie

Feature by   |  Nov 18, 2001

This is the story of how one modest Hong Kong action film became an International success and spawned a World-wide fascination for the Martial Arts film. This film had a cast of unknown Chinese actors, was dubbed by voice artists speaking in “strangled mid-Atlantic accents” and had a music soundtrack that was best described as eclectic. Audiences ate it up! So what was the hidden ingredient that made this chop suey snack so appetising?  Kung Fu!!!

The movie going public in the US and Europe had never seen anything like it before. Here in this (relatively) simple tale of revenge were sights and sounds that dazzled the senses. People leapt into the air to deliver bone-crushing kicks with deadly accuracy, coupled with whooshes and cracks as the blows sought out their targets. In the short time of 105 minutes a new cult had been born, the cult of the Kung Fu movie.

So sit back and unleash your Five Fingers Of Death because the ‘King Boxer’ is here!

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The Background

Back in early 1972 the giant Warner Bros movie giant had been keeping more than a sneaky eye on the box office receipts of several Hong Kong made films that had started to penetrate western countries. Some of these films were gaining great box-office receipts wherever they played. From Caracas to Tehran, to Beirut and Buenos Aires the story was the same…box-office gold. They decided to take a chance in importing a couple of these films from their counterparts in the far-east film business, the Shaw Bros. company. They were also keeping an option open on a young Chinese actor who had experience of American film-making and who was currently blowing far-east film records apart. A young man by the name of Bruce Lee.

And so the first of the films arrived in the US under it’s original title of ‘King Boxer’. The story revolved around the ancient art of Chinese Boxing that would become more well known as the art of Kung Fu. In fact Warner’s had already commissioned a TV pilot based around a wandering Kung Fu master in the old west that was cruelly snatched from under Bruce Lee’s nose. When this pilot debuted in August 1972 it created a stir in the industry. The pilot entitled ‘Kung Fu’ and starring American David Carradine got massive ratings and healthy reviews. Not only did it lead to the green light for the TV series, it prompted Warners to cash-in on the success of the show by releasing this strange Chinese movie. Suddenly things Chinese were en-vogue, why, even President Richard Nixon was suddenly touring China and indulging in more detante than his previous “commie-bashing”. Sensing this new wave of fascination Warners decided to literally sneak the film into some small “action-track” cinemas to test the waters. Re-titling the film ‘Five Fingers Of Death’ to emphasise the exploitation element, the film just took off.

Firstly by word of mouth from the shell-shocked audiences that witnessed the early screenings and then later by increased publicity, the film climbed to the top of “film bible” Variety’s box-office grosser chart very quickly. The film had only cost $300,000 to make but had recouped $3.8 million in US rentals as well as $1.5 million in Italy before going on to more success in the west end of London and the rest of the UK. What were those early adrenalin packed screenings like? Serafim Karelexis an independent movie producer attended an early morning screening that was packed with excited and noisy fans. He later said “My god the film will make millions (sic)”, after which he flew to Hong Kong to purchase another Shaw Bros. film ‘The Duel’ (AKA ‘Duel Of The Iron Fist’) which he distributed with equally good results. Within months the first of the Bruce Lee movies debuted and Warner Bros went on to release the other film they had secured rights to, namely ‘The Killer’ re-titled as ‘The Sacred Knives Of Vengeance’, before unleashing the undisputed genre hit ‘Enter The Dragon‘. The Kung Fu Movie craze had well and truly arrived.

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The Story

After a rousing theme tune that pulsates with brass and drums, the film begins with a night-time atack on an old Chinese who happens to be Teacher Wu, a respected Kung Fu Sifu. He’s handily dealing with the attackers until one of them manages to cut his arm. A friend witnesses the attack and runs to the old Sifu’s house to get help. Coming to his aid are his daughter Yin Yin (Wang Ping) and the film’s hero; his disciple Chao Chi Hao (played by Lo Lieh). Once rescued and patched up Teacher Wu greets his former student Ta Ming and suggests he has a sparring match with Chao. Ta Ming has gone on to train with another famous teacher Shen Shin Pei and agrees to the match. Chao is defeated by his friend and realises that he needs to improve if he were to compete in the upcoming Boxing Tournament. Sifu Wu, (who realises that his skills are diminishing) accepts that Chao should train with Ta Ming’s teacher if he is to reach his potential and so he leaves Wu and and his lover Yin Yin to head for Shen Shin Pei’s Chang Wu School.

In the city, spoilt rich kid Chen Sung and his gang stagger around bullying the market folk. Meanwhile a Mongolian prize fighter (Bolo Yeung) offers all-comers $100 if they can defeat him. A skinny fella tries but is busted up good. Suddenly a mysterious stranger wearing a coolie hat steps forward with the next challenge. When he is accepted he removes the hat to reveal a smooth bald head and dramatic Spock-like eyebrows. He beats up the Mongolian with a combination of high (Taekwondo?) kicks and his speciality- repeated full-on head butts! Chen Sung decides to try his luck with the stranger but is prevented by the arrival of his father Meng Dung Shan (‘Fist of Fury‘s Tien Feng). He’s impressed with the stranger; Chen Lang and adds him to his retinue of bodyguards/all round bad guys. Meanwhile some more of his men (who attacked Teacher Wu at the start of the film) led by Wan Hung (no pun intended!) hassle a travelling singer one Meng Ju Hung and decide to kidnap her and take her home to their boss as a “gift”.

She does a runner and happens on Chao Chi Hao (en route to the Chang Wu school) in a teahouse. Being a noble and heroic kind of chap, he dispatches the gang and in a humorous finish leaves Wan Hung with his face covered in globs of wet bread-dough (doh!). After his rescue Meng Ju Hung offers Chao a lift in her cart to the city. He accepts and they stay the night at an old temple. When she tries it on though our hero reacts like he’s just received a huge tax demand! Arriving at the Chang Wu school he is immediately “tried out” by the school’s top student Han Lung where he is beaten soundly. Unimpressed with Chao’s Kung Fu, Sifu Shen Shin Pei sets him to work in the kitchen.

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The work is hard and the Sifu surprises Chao when he pops up out of nowhere to regularly throw red-tassled spears at him. After a while Chao is able to avoid the attacks and impresses the Sifu with his diligence and hard work. He’s allowed to join the classes. This doesn’t go down too well with Han Lung who belittles him at every opportunity and basically uses him as a “go for”. During one such errand he is sent for wine and encounters Chen Sung and Chen Lang in a local inn. The bad guys taunt him and his school and pour wine over his clothes. This is witnessed by another of the school’s students, Du Wei who tells Han Lung of his “cowardice” during training. Suddenly Chen Lang and the goons burst in and start to thrash everyone. Shen Shin Pei intervenes and duels the bald fighter. He’s defeating him until one of Langs sneaky full-on head-butts puts him in a sick bed. Racked with conscience Chao decides to return to the inn and proceeds to turn the tables on Chen Lang by pouring wine over him. They fight and Chao gets the upper hand and dispatches Lang with a superb jumping head-butt captured lovingly in slow-motion and a terrific triple kick combination. The school’s cook sees all this and rushes back to tell Chao’s Sifu the good news.

Meng Dung Shan is now well and truly pissed off. He wants his son Chen Sung to win the upcoming tournament and he knows now that Chao Chi Hao stands in his way. He decides to import some Japanese mercenary fighters to put Chao and the Chang Wu school down for good. At the school Shen Shin Pei who is not recovering well, decides to hand over his secret “Iron Fist” manual to Chao as a reward for his loyalty. This sends Han Lung over the edge as he always thought he’d become Shen’s successor. Chao writes to Yin Yin and her father telling them of his progress then begins the arduous Iron Fist training, plunging his hands in to iron bowls of burning hot sand to toughen them. Seeing this Han Lung attacks in a fit of jealousy but is stopped by Teacher Shen (looking better!).

The Japanese arrive to suspicious stares, wearing wooden geta clogs and carrying training gi suits slung over their long katana swords. They soon get to work; firstly killing Du Wei in a forest before delivering his body back to the Chang Wu school ! Meanwhile Meng Ju Hung’s tour has hit town. Han Lung spots her singing at a club. It seems that they have a past. When she asks about Chao Han Lung goes ballistic and offers his allegiance to Meng Dung Shan, hoping he’ll get rid of Chao (who has his Teacher’s secret manual and the affection of his former lover!!).

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The villains decide to ambush Chao with the help of Han Lung. At first he cuts through Meng’s men like a hot knife through butter. His Iron Fist (complete with palms that glow red and Ironside’s electronic lead-in intro music ) despatches some of the bad guys, however he’s heavily outnumbered and succumbs to the Japanese who in turn tie his hands to a tree and give them a severe and Django-esque bloody beating with heavy sticks. Crawling away from the carnage he is discovered by Meng Ju Hung who tends his wounds at a secret location. Back at the Chang Wu school Teacher Shen is growing impatient at Chao’s absence, with the tournament only days away. By chance Han Lung bumps into Meng Ju Hung returning to Chao with more medicine. He demands to know Chao’s whereabouts. Watching them is Chao’s friend Ta Ming who throws eggs at Han to ward him off as Meng gets away. Ta Ming follows her back to Chao who is obviously depressed at the loss of his hands as weapons. Meng tells him to forget fighting and asks him to “settle down” with her, his heart though still belongs to Yin Yin. At this point Ta Ming enters and persuades Chao to return to the school and promises him that his hands can be healed again with his Iron Fist training. Chao goes and leaves a saddened and slightly bitter Meng.

To bring Chao into the open  the Japanese kill Yin Yin’s father, slicing and dicing him with their swords before the leader-Okada (Chiu Hung) kills him with a knife-hand blow that leaves a deep and bloody gouge in his head. Chao is unaware though as he returns to training his Iron Fists in readiness for the selection bouts for the tournament. Inevitably Chao is paired with Han Lung who he beats and becomes Chang Wu’s selection for the big tournament. This prompts Han to report to Meng Dung Shan, warning him of Chao’s Iron Fist. With no further use for him the villain turns him over to the Japanese who beat him up good before Okada gouges out both of his eyes! There’s gratitude for you! Seeing this deliberate cruelty, Chen Lang is appalled.

Meanwhile Ta Ming visits Yin Yin to ask her to come to see Chao compete and finds out about her father’s death. Chao on the other hand is travelling to the tournament when he is ambushed by Okada and his two side-men. Suddenly Chen Lang appears and offers help. Chao is suspicious until Chen tells him that he is finished with the gang. He offers Chao two daggers to help counter the Japanese’ swords. He need’nt have bothered as Chao kills the two thugs with Iron Fist blows to the face (this leaves bloody red hand prints on their faces), next Okada enters the fray. Chen Lang steps in between them to help Chao get to the tournament. A fierce duel ensues that includes Chen Lang being thrown head-first through a tree!

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At the tournament Meng Dung Shan’s son is easily beating his opponents while Chao is nearly disqualified for turning up late. When he finally gets to show his stuff he easily breezes into the final along with the son Chang Sung. The fight is a fore-gone conclusion as Chao blitzes the guy and becomes the Chinese Boxing Champion! During the celebration the dastardly Meng Dung Shang stabs Chao’s teacher Shen Shin Pei and escapes. Yin Yin catches up with the champ and relates to him the fate of her dad. Now filled with rage he heads off to Meng’s residence.

Meng quickly posts guards outside his room. What he doesn’t know is that Han Lung aided by Meng Ju Hung lie in wait for father and son. Having already removed the light bulb the odds are now even, Han Lung may be blind but his two enemies can’t see either. Slashing a dagger at both of them (with Meng’s directions) Han takes revenge by blinding the son and then Meng Dung Shang pays for his evil by mistakenly killing his own son in the darkness. Han and Meng try to escape into the corridor but are slain by the evil bastard’s blows just as Chao turns up. The guards attack but are no match for his Iron Fists, but before he can achieve his revenge Meng Dung Shang commits suicide by plunging a long dagger into his abdomen spraying the room in blood. Shocked and exhausted Chao goes outside to meet Yin Yin and Ta Ming only to find Okada carrying Cheng Lang’s severed head. Chao realises that he must kill Okada to survive and they engage in furious combat during which Chao uses his Iron Hands to catch and trap Okada’s sword. Smashing the sword in two Chao proves his skill by dispatching Okada with several Iron Fist blows that eventually kill him as he is driven into a wall. Yin Yin and Ta Ming help Chao to limp away as the sun rises on the scene of the slaughter…

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Lo Lieh

Lo Lieh was born in Malaysia and entered the Shaw Brothers studio system in 1964. Out of hundreds of applications to become trainee actors, Lo was one of four to be chosen along with future Hong Kong star Wang Yu. They went on to appear in several films including the swordplay film ‘Golden Swallow’ (AKA ‘The Girl with the Thunderbolt Kick’ – 1969) and Wang’s directorial debut ‘The Chinese Boxer‘ (AKA ‘Hammer of God’ – 1969) in which Lo played a villainous Japanese Karate killer who battles Wang at the climax. It’s widely acknowledged that the film started the modern “Kung Fu” film cycle.

‘King Boxer’ expanded on Wang’s film by introducing the tournament as a backdrop which became a staple theme in these films. After the worldwide success of the film, Italian mega- producer Carl Ponti signed Lo to appear with American star Lee Van Cleef to appear in the Spaghetti Western ‘Blood Money’ (AKA ‘The Stranger and the Gunfighter’ – 1974) where he put in an accomplished performance leaning towards comedy and delivered English dialogue with ease. When the west’s initial flirtation with Hong Kong cinema dwindled Lo continued to appear in local productions in many roles eventually moving on to directorial duties with ‘Clan Of The White Lotus‘ (1980).

Some of Lo Lieh’s more accessible films include:

The Chinese Boxer (1969)
• Golden Swallow (1969)
• The Bamboo House of Dolls (1973)
• Supermen Agaist the Orient (1973)
Fist of Fury II (1976)
• The Return of Bruce (1977)

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Some Trivia

Jeong Chang-Hwa, the director of  ‘King Boxer’, made only a few more Hong Kong films before returning to his native Korea to work. The film is interesting as it doesn’t seem to have a “foreigner’s” take on things, it looks exactly like any other Shaw Bros. film of the same period. A lot of supposed outdoor sets are obviously indoor re-creations such as the forest where Du Wei is killed and Chao Chi Hao gets his hands broken. If you notice the lighting in these scenes, you will see a lovely autumn-ish glow that once again features in other Shaws films from that time. The Tournament arena is another indoor set that looks like a re-dressed version of the “Dock” in ‘The Killer’ (aka ‘Sacred Knives of Vengeance’) and probably all the better for it.

The combat choreography, though not ground-breaking has some fine moments including the now famous slo-mo head butt and the climactic duel between Chao and Okada. The music soundtrack is once again typical of it’s time, with it’s shameless stealing of  music cues from ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ (also heard in many other 70’s HK movies) and ‘Ironside’. The theme itself is a rousing blood-stirring piece, that is repeated as Chao Chi Hao strides to the inn to get revenge on Cheng Lang. Another stand-out piece almost sounds like an intro to a South American National anthem.

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Tien Feng (main villain Meng Dung Shan in ‘King Boxer’) is on the other side of the fence in ‘Fist Of Fury II’. Lo Lieh is the main villain and he is the tragic inheritor of the Ching Wu school subjugated by Lo’s Japanese bad guys. While Chiu Hung (Japanese leader Okada in ‘King Boxer’) plays virtually the same role in Wang Yu’s ‘Chinese Boxer’ along with Japanese Karate killer Lo!

When ‘King Boxer’ debuted in the US a certain ten year old Tatum O’Neal (fresh from her success in ‘Paper Moon’) cited ‘King Boxer’ (retitled as ‘Five Fingers Of Death’) as her favourite film. With ‘King Boxer’ a huge hit in the UK, British based South African Karateka Steve Arniel wowed crowds with his show-stopping demonstrations which included the famous “sword catching” as shown in the film.

‘King Boxer’ is available to buy from YesAsia.com

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