Tuesday, November 17, 2009

THE SHADOW BOXER (Tai Chi Chuan, 1974)

What's the use of kung fu? For Jin Dai Sing, son of the owner of a construction company, it's a decadent hobby. For Supervisor Tang, the overseer of a Jin road crew, it's a way to keep disgruntled workers in line. For Master Yang and his cronies, it's a living; Young Master Jin pays them to spar with him and to beat up people he doesn't like. For Master Yueng, an expert in tai chi chuan ("shadow boxing") it's a therapeutic spiritual discipline intended exclusively for self-defense, not to attack or hurt people. To his daughter Ah Jen that sounds a little silly, but his prize pupil Ku Ding is a true believer, if a slow learner. He's been training for ten years when his world starts falling apart.

A working class hero isn't necessarily something to be when management can fight better than you, as Wu Bien Ling learns in The Shadow Boxer.

Jin and Tang are putting the squeeze on their road workers, garnishing half their lousy monthly wages for some so-called "welfare fund." They keep workingmen of all ages sweltering under a hot sun, waiting for their wages to be handed out, in the hope that some will quit, saving them some money. Ku Ding is one of the workers, and when his pal Wu Bien Ling makes trouble, Ku Ding steps in and allows himself to be beaten up by Tang's goons to diffuse the situation. But peace won't last. Young Master Jin is too greedy and too arrogant. When Ku Ding's girlfriend goes to work for Jin's new wife, Jin rapes her. Learning of Master Yeung's reputation, Jin challenges him to a fight. Rebuffed, Jin sends Master Yang's gang to kill Ku Ding's mentor. Meanwhile, Tang tries to drive a wedge between Ku Ding and Wu Bien Ling by promising advancement to Ku Ding. That scheme goes by the wayside when Jin tries to blame Ku Ding for his girlfriend Ah Bao's "suicide." In the meantime, Yang's gang assassinates Wu Bien Ling, but this only alienates the best fighter in the gang, the drunkard Chan Tang. Through all this, Ku Ding refuses to take revenge on Jin or his clique, infuriating Ah Jen, who attacks Jin on her own. Drowning his own sorrows in wine, Ku Ding encounters a repentant Chan Tang, and together they invade Jin's compound. Only after Chan Tang dies in his arms, after they rescue Ah Jen, does Ku Ding decide that some people just need killing....

Jin Dai Sing likes it when women struggle like Ah Bao (above), but Ah Jen (below) probably struggles a little too much for his comfort.

Directed by Hsueh Li Pao, Tai Chi Chuan (a better title than the impotent sounding Shadow Boxer) is a socially conscious kung fu movie, and isn't particularly subtle about it. The moral of the story is that rich people are bastards. "To perform in public for a living is better than being a running dog of the rich," Master Yueng tells our hero. And this is a film from Hong Kong, from Shaw Bros., not from the Red mainland. But the target audience was almost certainly made up of working stiffs who could identify with the suffering of the road crew and of everyone in a town dominated by one rich family. This is grungy working-class kung fu, albeit apparently set in the 1930s. I often prefer modern-day stories to the more medieval sagas. Maybe that's because I prefer brutality over elegance and at least a pretence of social realism to the outright fantasies. I've seen many more fantastic films that I've liked, but I have a soft spot for the working-class stuff that somehow seems more appropriate to the Seventies.

Jin likes to beat men as well as women, but see how he likes being on the receiving end!

The fighting in Shadow Boxer is a mixed bag. The film opens with a prologue demonstrating the basics of tai chi, which endow a master with the ability to seriously bitch slap his antagonists. The director clearly wants to put over the mechanics of tai chi, and even films training sequences in slow motion, presumably to make some details more clear. Actual fight scenes are sometimes pretty awkward, with too much cutting from strike to victim falling to victim landing instead of fully choreographed movement and stuntwork. But at times the director gets some actual momentum and certain fights move along at an exciting clip.

The biggest weakness of the movie may be the star, Wo-fu Chen, for whom this was probably the highlight of a short-lived career. He's stuck with a role, like Jimmy Wang Yu's in Rage of the Master (see below), that requires him to be passive to the point of impotence for most of the picture. Like Wang Yu, Chen is under the spell of a slogan on a wall poster, though at least this DVD translates the motto as "Tolerance." Everyone but Master Yeung (and he gets killed for his trouble) berates him for wasting his training by refusing to fight, and look what it takes to get him going. His master, his girlfriend and his best friend are murdered, but it takes the death of a guy he got drunk with for one night to drive him over the edge. And here I thought the movie meant to endorse the non-violent principles of tai chi. But pacifism rarely fares well in Seventies cinema, which often seems to be all about refuting hippie idealism in favor of vicarious reprisal against The Man. If Shadow Boxer sends a mixed message, that's par for the course worldwide.

This movie was an impulse rental from the burgeoning shelves of the Albany Public Library. It's not a questionable enough acquisition to make the Library of Classics, as the library has been slowly building up a credible martial arts collection, but I've definitely seen better from its holdings. But if you like Seventies working-class kung fu like I do, and you can watch this for free, like I did, you might find it worth 87 minutes of your time.

Here's the Celestial Pictures video trailer for The Shadow Boxer, with somewhat different subtitling than on the Image DVD, uploaded by HKSBFan2:

1 comment:

Dave said...

I can't really add anything to a discussion of the film... just wanted to comment that I love making random rentals like this and then finding the occasional gem. Of getting a movie with the Netflix subscription just because they recommended it to you, even though know nothing else about it. It's an awesome feeling to luck into a good film.