Lau Kar-leung Could Kick Your Favorite Director’s Ass

by Patrick McInerney

Key Movies:

Kung fu is a weird one. Usually isolated by a cultural and language barrier (subtitles), a heyday thirty plus years ago (“old”), and crappy transfers, it’s pretty easy to see why kung fu movies have never been at home with western audiences.The martial arts movie has also historically been, according to David Bordwell, a “genre long despised by upscale cinephiles” as well, and I tend to agree with the argument, if not the sentiment. It’s entirely possible that the reason why kung fu movies don’t get much critical love is because they’re judged mainly by western critics using western standards. Tanqueray makes for a shit wine, but it’s a delicious gin, even while evaluating the same criteria (odor, flavor, texture…). And Bordwell’s upscale cinephiles don’t despise martial arts movies by constantly trashing them. They seal the genre to a far scarier fate by simply not talking about them a lot. As an example: who do you know from the Golden Age of kung fu? Jackie Chan, Bruce, who else? Unless you’re specifically a kung fu fan, probably not a lot of others. Which is perfect,because today we’ll be dissecting a) one of the most gifted movie makers ever, who b) made fun action movies. Lau Kar-leung. And, while this won’t be a discussion on the merits of kung fu, the underdog genre, it is worth noting that more people are familiar with Martin Campbell’s work (a good director) than are Lau Kar-leung’s (a great director). With only a few paragraphs to describe a man who’s had books’ worth of essays written about him by by the scholars who do care, we’ll only cover a few broad points: there’s a complex history behind Lau Kar-leung which he preserved/revived/added to, he had an eye for both both the camera and the ass kicking, both the history and and the eye were intertwined, and he created/invented/perfected/introduced/sparked just about everything great there is in kung fu movies. Let’s get to it.

So dominating was the people of China’s desire to consume the culture of kung fu in the 60s and 70s, that this fighting style became became a worldwide movie genre. The Shaw Brothers studio were able to crank out so many movies to satiate that appetite, that they had the wiggle room to experiment. In comes youngster Lau Kar Leung. He had been steeped in both martial arts and movie making since birth; Lau’s father worked on the early Wong Fei-Hung movie series, and was a student of the real Wong Fei-Hung’s disciple. If you don’t know who that is, there’s another sign; he is the most portrayed character in movie history. One of China’s most cherished folk heroes, and a renowned martial artist. And Lau was taught by his disciple’s student, and grew up on the sets of countless movies about him. Lau had a deep connection to martial arts history and movie making by the time he got behind a camera, two assets that set him apart from almost everyone else. He knew how to choreograph real martial arts to look good on camera, and knew how to use the camera to make martial arts look good.

Comparing Lau’s movies to those of his peers at the time is a revelation, immediately recalling the impact Birth of a Nation must must have had on its first viewers. In a sea of motionless, flat cameras using shot reverse shot and unimaginative choreography comes Lau’s Dirty Ho, Spiritual Boxer, 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Heroes of the East, Legendary Weapons of China, Eight Diagram Pole Fighter and more. Dynamic camera placement and movement, using depth of field to his advantage (especially with weapons), creative editing techniques. His narratives were not just tolerable, they were fantastic stories! Hell, Eight Diagram Pole Fighter has been compared with The Searchers, and for good reason (its ending is a direct reference to The Searchers ending, and provides contrast between the two heroes). Lau introduced realism into swordplay movies (wu xia pian) in the 60s. He was also possibly the first director to make a comedic kung fu (Spiritual Boxer), which inspired Jackie Chan to create the persona we know him for.

While working as a fight choreographer for legendary director Chang Cheh, Lau convinced him to start making movies with shaolin narratives, now synonymous with the kung fu movie. In fact, in addition to claiming lineage to Wong Fei-hung, Lau also claimed his lineage reached as far back as the Shaolin themselves, whose temples were destroyed by the Qing dynasty, and who took to the streets to spread kung fu to the laypeople. One such monk was Luk Ah Choi, Wong’s teacher. Luk’s teacher, Hung Hei-gun, founded Hung Gar, Lau Kar-leung’s fighting style, and the style he preferred to film (combined with a little salt & pepper from his mom’s style and the Peking opera schools). In The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, we see Luk and Hung as young rebels learning under San Te (the main character), who had just completed his studies under monk Chi San. Eight Diagram Pole fighter depicts a tenth century pole fighting technique that served as the foundation for Hung Gar. He embodied with this almost mythical lineage the tone of defiance that was the DNA of the Hong Kong kung fu culture. His movies, then, can be seen as more than fun ass-kickers, though they absolutely are that; they are Lau Kar-leung’s, and by extension China’s, very history (even to today. Ever heard of the triads? They trace their lineage back to the Hung rebels,too). And it is this history he is a part of that he literally told on screen.

When we think of flashy choreography in kung fu movies, we may not realize what a perfect a union we’re seeing. In the Boxer Rebellion at at the turn of the twentieth century, public fighting displays by Hung fighters were purposefully flamboyant to garner interest and recruitment in the larger fight at hand (flamboyant to the point of becoming something akin to street acts). Lau, a practitioner of Hung Fist, used this style in his movies precisely because of its flashy nature, even making its theatricality the subject of his movies (Legendary Weapons of China’s depiction of Hung Gar’s historical relationship with entertainment). If this sounds like the Drotse effect, I’m with you on that. Lau seems to be a bookmark somewhere in the middle of this endless cycle of history/martial arts/entertainment. And, just as his lineage of grandmasters were concerned with spreading kung fu, we get the very real sense that Lau is doing the same thing with his on-screen encyclopedia of fighting. Entertainment via street performances was a way of disseminating kung fu before movies; why would one of its practitioners with access to movie making treat it any different? One look at Heroes of the East, where the protagonist mimics his master’s style in public and goes home to essentially practice in front of a mirror, or 36th Chamber of Shaolin’s inventive and original extended training montage, and we realize something pretty powerful; he wants us to kick some ass, too. He knew that we all project ourselves onscreen as the hero. He knew we got the adrenaline rush. His movies are absolutely as much text books as they are flicks. Any connections between that and the response to the Soviet Montage? We’ll let you decide.

But the answer is yes.

As his increased involvement in the making of these movies led to clashes with his director Chang Cheh, he branched off and started doing them himself. Lau’s contemporaries also made great, though one-sided, movies. Sammo Hung was a better star and choreographer than he was a director. Chang Cheh was a director, not an actor or choreographer (his movies are great, but fall prey to that disjointed feeling when switching between action and plot-driving sequences), and Yuen Woo-ping was (is) an infinitely better choreographer than director. As a director, Lau made epic tales of Shakespearean grandeur (when he started working in movies, the going rate was to make movies like the Japanese samurai movies of the previous decade, for example Kurosawa’s, who did many Shakespeare adaptations. So that’s actually not too far off). As a choreographer, he blended historically accurate styles into fights that the director in him could turn into a brand new way of portraying action (punches would actually land on their targets. Editing and depth of field would get the realistic feel.) As an actor, well… He was a martial arts expert, and could more than competently handle what he felt was too important for anyone else.

So, Lau was in a league of his own already. But, if you were to call him an auteur, it’s what he had to say about kung fu that really makes his filmography special. His movies always said something, whether it be to simply catalogue historical weapons used in martial arts, compare the strengths and weaknesses of real styles from China and Japan, ponder the philosophies and paradoxes of combining Buddhism and murder, or show kung fu’s place in the real world. Lau Kar-leung was able to transcend cultures by beating us at our own game, and we didn’t even know it. Chaplin’s greatest accomplishment could have been getting the entire world to laugh. It’s a tough thing to universally elicit an involuntary reaction, but he did it. Lau Kar-leung manages to elicit the corresponding emotions from us in his own genre. All it would take for me to say “universally” with any confidence is if the world better knew this director.

Further Reading:

  • Lau Kar-leung’s very extensive filmography.
  • David Bordwell’s blog. Easy to digest, and informative article on Lau.
  • Podcast. Pretty good episode on Lau, if a bit meandering at times.
  • A nice essay by Luke White on Lau’s movies as pedagogy.
  • Interview with Lau from Cahiers in the 80s. I love this interview, as it’s directly from the source, and provides great insight into how the man felt about his own work, the society in which he did it, and the people he worked with.
  • Gina Marchetti’s essay on Lau’s movie making through the lense of Chinese history and modernization. Wonderful read.
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