When discussing the classic Kung-Fu films of Shaw Brothers studios, two directors always come to the forefront; Chang Cheh and Liu Chia-Lang. Both filmmakers are prolific and highly influential, both have their own distinct sensibility and both have made at least one film that connessieurs have dubbed “The best kung fu film of all time”. Chang, of 5 Deadly Venoms fame, saw the martial arts film as a means to an end, an instrument for telling intense tales of brotherhood and virtue. For Liu Chia-Lang, however, the glorification of the martial arts was the end in and of itself. Basically, while Chang used martial arts as a tool to make a point, for Liu, martial arts were the point.
Liu, a supremely talented martial artist and performer himself, seems to believe the philosophy of martial arts can solve just about any problem. It could save your marriage (Heroes of the East), it could help the elderly regain their lost youth (My Young Auntie), It could even turn your debilitating alcohol addiction into a formidable fighting style (Drunken Master 2). Although Liu is always serious about the power of the martial arts in his films, he also knows Kung-Fu movies should be a lot of fun. Liu’s films have a playfulness and sense of humor that Chang’s often lacked. Even in a relatively sober film like Liu’s The 36th chamber of Shaolin, a film regarded by many, as the greatest martial arts film ever made, there’s a lot of intentional humor. Liu’s films always establish actual martial arts at the center of the narrative, but Liu always realizes you have to stretch the truth a bit to make a kung-fu movie work. This ethic has resulted in a body of films that perfectly blend legend with technical attention, whimsy with sincerity, all anchored by a solid foundation of butt-kicking.
Legendary Weapons of China may be the best all-around example of Liu’s aesthetic. Like 36 Chambers, Weapons is about defining the soul of martial arts, but its also about martial arts movies themselves. Look at it with your amateur-film-student goggles on and, the film seems downright self-reflexive: a Godardian commentary on the nature of Kung-Fu film itself, a martial arts meta-text.
Or, maybe its just a really cool movie where people have ridiculously complicated fights with lots of ingenious Chinese weapons. Your mileage may vary.
Weapons takes place around the time of the boxer rebellion, an era when western influences were threatening to overtake the culture and government of China. To combat whitey, the Emperor orders his kung-fu militias to develop qi powers that will make soldiers immune to bullets. Needless to say, the effort is somewhat less than successful, and one militia leader Lei Kung (Liu Chia-lang) gets so tired of wasting the young lives of his kung-fu guinea pigs that he disbands his organization. The emperor is, of course, displeased, so he charges the other militias with finding the traitor and assassinating him.
Lei Kung happens to be the undisputed master of the 18 legendary weapons of China, so taking him out won’t be easy. He’s also played by the film’s director. One thing hundreds of kung-fu films have taught me is that you never pick a fight with the character played by a film’s director, especially in a Liu Chia-Lang film.
Of course, the militia representatives sent to kill him aren’t exactly pantywaists either. The “Maoshan Magic Fighters”, a sect that practices mystical martial arts that seem to combine voodoo, ninja hi-jinks, and Las Vegas stage magic, send their best student, Ti Hau (Hsiao Ho) after Lei Kung, The head monk of the qi-powered Spiritual Boxers (Gordon Liu) volunteers to represent his own faction in the manhunt, And just to make things confusing, the master of the Maoshan fighters is clandestinely seeking Lei Kung for his own shadowy purposes. There’s also a young female acolyte of the spiritual boxers on the lookout for Kung, who believes there may be a more peaceful solution to the problem. Each of these warriors, instead of cooperating, is working independently, giving the whole tangled setup an element of competition.
For a genre primarily concerned with showing people beating the snot out of each other, kung-fu films tend to very convoluted plots and Weapons is an especially flagrant example.The important thing, though, is that the setup provides reasons for every main character to have a fight with every other main character, and Liu joyfully obliges the audience by milking his premise.
Liu’s gifts for clarity in framing, editing, and conceptualizing fight choregraphy is unparalleled in martial arts cinema. Liu doesn’t want camera tricks or elaborate editing gimmicks to get in the way of the artistry and expressiveness of the fighting on screen. As such, a Liu fight scene plays out with all the clarity, care and craft of a Fred Astaire dance routine. This doesn’t mean that Liu shys away from wild, fantastical set pieces and fighting styles though. Weapons features things like a voodoo fighter who puppeteers an unwitting surrogate through an elaborately stilted battle, and a wonderfully creative, silent duel in a cramped attic, where the fighters must not only keep completely quiet while fighting, but also must strike and block without room to even stand up. There is “iron Shirt” hard qi-gong, ninja-style hijinks involving fireworks, hidden darts, and dummies, and a climactic battle, where two adversaries engage in a marathon fight that integrates a seemingly endless arsenal of wicked weapons, from tridents to 3-sectioned staffs. In every fight, Liu’s camera work really puts across the intricacies of the styles of each character, yet still maintains a brisk pace and sense of impact that avoids over-stylization.
The theme that runs through all these fights is that, in a world of martial-arts gimmicks, magic fighting, qi-powers and the like, what ultimately wins the day will always be good old-fashioned Kung-Fu. Masters of hypnotism, sleight of hand deception, and spiritual invulnerability all come to fight Lei Kung and all get taken down by his old school skills and arsenal of traditional weapons. Lei Kung’s dedication to a mainline flavor of kung Fu and his refusal to send his students to their death in an attempt to develop some sort of magical invincibility makes him virtuous, eventually revealing him as the hero.
With Weapons Liu was making an oblique criticism of the wires-flying wu-xia fantasies that were coming t to the fore in the martial arts genre in the 1980’s. The style that would eventually monopolize the genre in the 90’s. Liu’s critique is especially entertaining because Liu proves in Weapons that he actually has the skill to create wild, fantasy choreography with the best of them. Like Godard or Fellini, Liu has made a movie about Kung Fu movies, or, even more accurately, a movie about Kung-Fu stories in general, be they films, dime novels or comic books.
If you think comparing Liu to the likes of Jean Luc Godard is a stretch, look no further than the elaborate “fake” fight scene, in Weapons’ middle act for refutation. It’s a sequence where a buffoonish bandit uses misdirection, trick weapons, and bladders of fake blood to stage an epic “battle” and pass himself off as a martial arts master. On the surface it’s just an overly broad, slapstick comedy scene, but if you put it in context, it can be interpreted as just the kind of self-referential intra-movie critique that sends film scholars swooning. The various tricks the bandit employs are exaggerated versions of the real special effects filmmakers use to portray outlandish kung-fu skills on screen, and the ridiculously overblown splatters of fake blood that gush throughout the scene make one wonder if the sequence isn’t a direct dig at fellow director Chang Cheh, whose bloody melodramas indulged in many of the conventions Liu pokes fun at. The whole sequence is Liu “pulling back the curtain”, so to speak, with wonderful satiric effect.
Of course, you don’t have to be into this pedantic film-school hogwash to appreciate the unhinged martial arts extravaganza that is Legendary Weapons of China. This is a movie about dudes throwing down with every weapon in the Dungeons And Dragons Oriental Adventures weapons tables. It ends with quite possibly the greatest weapons battle in martial-arts cinema, an extended straight-up man on man battle that delivers on th etitles promise of seeing scores of weapons in action. Liu even uses on-screen captions to help the audience keep up with what weapon is which, simultaneously letting the audience know, in nouncertain terms that they have seen every legendary weapon in action.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is Liu Chia Liang’s undisputed masterwork, but for my money, Weapons gives a broader picture of what Sifu Liu is all about. Legendary Weapons of China gives the Viewer just about everything one could ask for in a Kung-Fu film, and does it with style, craft, and old-school Shaw Brothers verve.