Before becoming one of the top fight choreographers for Shaw Brothers, Lau Kar Leung started out as an extra and also choreographed the black and white Wong Fei Hung series. He worked alongside fellow choreographer Tang Chia under director Chang Cheh for many years until a disagreement during the making of “Marco Polo.” As the martial arts film industry boomed in the 1970s, it was only natural for him to transition into directing. Even after Shaw Brothers stopped producing films, he continued to choreograph, direct, and act in movies such as “Drunken Master II” with Jackie Chan and “Seven Swords” directed by Tsui Hark in 2005.
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During Chang Cheh’s time in Taiwan, where he was making films for his Long Bow studio, “The Spiritual Boxer” was filmed. This comedy, featuring kung fu and starring Wong Yu, was also Lau’s directorial debut. The plot follows two conmen, Master Chi Chiang (Chiang Yang) and his bumbling apprentice Siu Chien (Wong Yu), as they pose as spiritual boxers and scam the superstitious villagers for a living.
One time, Chien was left to perform a scheduled ritual on his own because his master was too intoxicated. This gave him the chance to show off and resulted in some of the film’s most comedic moments. Despite his initial success, the arrogant hustler was eventually found out by some locals and forced to leave town while his master was arrested. Undeterred, he continues his business in a different small town and gains a strong reputation, allowing him to make a decent living. Along the way, he meets Jin Lian (Lin Chen Chi), a young girl from the village, and the two develop feelings for each other. Eventually, they become partners in their work.
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The locals, convinced of Chien’s supernatural abilities, begin to put their trust in him, leading to an increase in his business. As he grows closer to the residents, he starts to feel compassion for them. Moved by his experiences, Chien decides to use his true fighting abilities to protect the villagers from the cruel actions of loan shark Liu and his thugs. Initially impressed by Chien’s skills, Liu allows him to continue, but when his two associates reveal Chien’s tactics, Liu joins forces with them to seek revenge.
This production begins during the late Qing Dynasty, featuring two skilled practitioners, played by Ti Lung and Chen Kuan Tai, who demonstrate the abilities of spiritual boxers. These fighters believed that through religious beliefs, magic, and rigorous kung fu training, they could become immune to weapons and harness supernatural powers. They also claimed to be able to channel gods or spirits into their bodies. However, this is just a brief introduction to the capabilities of these boxers as the film then shifts focus to protagonist Siu Chien, a conman skilled in kung fu years later. This concept of using various animal styles in kung fu, performed by possessed boxers, becomes the central plot of the film.
Wong Yu, a young actor known for his comedic roles, made his mark in the first kung fu film with his lively and captivating performance as a mischievous conman. While he may not have the same physical prowess as other kung fu stars from Shaw Brothers, his agility and impeccable comic timing make him a delight to watch on screen. He also has a charming on-screen dynamic with co-star Lin Chen Chi, who adds to the film’s entertainment with her tomboyish appearance and short hair. Together, they bring both humor and romance to the film, making for a delightful pairing.
The remaining members of the supporting team are also notable, aside from the incredible appearances of Ti Lung and Chen Kuan Tai in the beginning scene. The consistently dependable Fung Hak On delivers an exceptional performance as the primary henchman for the village loan shark. Lee Hoi Sang and Wu Hang Sheng make an appearance as a troublesome duo of bandits towards the end, causing trouble for Chien. And, the cherry on top is the short but memorable cameo by master Lau himself.
Rarely depicted in martial arts movies prior, Lau’s first time directing is a fantastic blend of humor and impressively choreographed kung fu scenes, with a charismatic yet eccentric lead. The clever integration of spiritual and supernatural elements in the plot would go on to inspire future films. Despite the absence of a grand finale or traditional training montage, the end result is highly enjoyable and the comedy is cleverly crafted without becoming excessive. Additionally, Lau’s focus is clearly on delivering a heartfelt story with well-developed characters rather than just mindless action.