Mystery of Chessboxing (1979)

Quick Kung-Fu Reviews Issue 01

Quick Kung-Fu Reviews explores the rich history of the martial arts film in the only way suitable for this era of cinema: haphazardly.

Mystery of Chessboxing gave a name to my favorite Wu-Tang track and my third favorite Wu-Tang member. Its legacy cannot be questioned. But is it something special? Is the mystery alive today?

In brief: Mystery of Chessboxing follows Ah Pao, an orphan whose father was murdered by Ghost Face Killer, an extraordinary man who has somehow mastered the unmasterable Five Elements style. Now a young man, Ah Pao wishes to learn kung fu so he can take revenge on Ghost Face Killer. He studies under a school cook and, eventually, a chess master. By the end, he pulls a Daniel-san and figures out his seemingly unrelated lessons have actually honed him into someone capable of countering Five Elements.

Good guy wants revenge on bad guy, blah blah blah. This is Quick Kung-Fu Reviews, not a term paper. Or maybe it is a term paper, judging from most term papers I’ve seen.

Look. Let’s talk about the key to this movie: Ghost Face Killer. This dude is exactly the kind of man you would want to see whipping ass in a dingy theater on 42nd Street, back when such a thing existed. He’s got big mean eyebrows and only enters scenes by jumping into them. Straight up, brother jumps into frame and the guy he is about to murder shouts “Ghost Face Killer!” and then they fight. He has no character trait other than being evil as shit and he loves that.

I only watch movies dubbed if I can help it and the dub for Mystery of Chessboxing is delightful. It feels like some actors were paid for a one-day contract gig and put their craft into it. Pretty sure I saw the dude who did Ah Pao’s voice in a community theater somewhere. And even if I didn’t, I might as well have.

Fight choreography, the key to any kung fu flick, is on point. Wire fu is here, but there’s also some remarkable human feats on display. I’m talking a dude back-flipping like six times in a row. The final fight between Ah Pao and Ghost Face Killer is probably the pinnacle of imported kung fu cinema. Also every movement in the dubbed version has a whoosh or bap sound effect over it, so it feels chunky and good to kick back and enjoy some violence. And there’s a lot of it. This movie is so badass that the opening credits are a fight scene that immediately lead into another fight scene.

FIGHT PER MINUTE RATIO: 1 fight every 5.6 minutes
BEST CONCEPT: Introducing the Ghost Face Killaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.
BEST LINE: “You know my style… Five Elements… which one do you think I’m gonna use?”

Final QKR Rating: 4/5

Ain’t a masterpiece, but it’s close. Mystery of Chessboxing is a must-watch for the kung fu connoisseur.

David Cole is an independent writer and media man from Wayne County, Kentucky. This has been a Coled One Media Venture.

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