Expect to see more Asian martial arts pictures in the Diary now that I've discovered El Rey, the new cable channel founded by Robert Rodriguez. It will make its first impression for many people later this month when the From Dusk Til Dawn TV series debuts, but I'm already impressed by its admittedly predictable selection of authentic grindhouse entertainment. Rodriguez has the rights to run Shaw Bros. movies, and while El Rey is a commercial channel, it's also an HD channel that runs movies letterboxed. While I watch Shaw films subtitled on DVD, I don't mind El Rey's understandable preference for English dubbing, since it reminds me of the good old days when your local independent station would run "Kung Fu Theater" on weekend afternoons. The dubbing doesn't often put the original actors in the best light, but that's okay for an essentially goofy, good-hearted picture like this comedy from the late Lau Kar Leung, whose more serious fare includes the classics Executioners From and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Heroes features Lau's favorite collaborator Gordon Liu, albeit uncharacteristically mop-topped and Nehru-jacketed as an amiably arrogant martial artist introduced on the verge of a long-arranged marriage. His father's an international businessman who years ago decided that his boy should marry the daughter of one of his Japanese colleagues. That was awfully cosmopolitan of both fathers, considering that Chinese and Japanese people are usually portrayed as sharing the sort of regard for each other that Ukrainians and Russians have. Actually this is pretty much a one-sided feud, since I've seen little evidence of Sinophobia in Japanese film, while in Chinese cinema Japan may as well be the Great Satan. Fortunately, Lau and his writers want to eat their (wedding) cake and have it too, both pandering to and sending up Chinese Japanophobia.
While our hero starts out a reluctant groom, his mood brightens when his wife (Yuka Mizuno) proves pretty. His mood darkens when she also proves to be a rival martial artist and a stereotypically arrogant proponent of Japanese fighting styles. Her karate practice damages walls and wrecks statuary, reflecting her contempt of all things Chinese, from food to fashion. The marriage turns into a running "anything you can do, I can do better" battle as husband and wife attempt to demonstrate the superiority of their respective martial arts. Inevitably, our hero usually prevails, though he's shaken by wifey's demonstration of ninjitsu and her gentle reminder that, had she not been playing, the scratch she inflicted on him from ambush would have proved fatal. At last their mutual chauvinism renders them incompatible and wifey flies back home to Nippon, where her old martial-arts instructor (authentic Japanese star Yasuaki Kurata) hopes to catch her on the rebound. Our hero hopes to win her back, but remains so buttheaded about martial arts that he opens his love letter with yet another assertion of Japanese martial inferiority. When the instructor intercepts the letter, he takes our hero's remarks as an insult to all Japanese martial arts and assembles a team of experts -- he is a ninja himself -- to avenge the slur. This team, now trailed by a repentant wife who wants to avoid bloodshed, heads to Hong Kong to challenge our hero to a series of duels, pitting his versatility against every Japanese fighting art except sumo and kamikaze flying.
Few in the audience, whether in Hong Kong or elsewhere, could be obtuse enough to miss the subtle ways in which Lau has Chinese hero exacerbate the cultural conflict with his own arrogant chauvinism. To drive the point home, he has the hero unwittingly snub a kendo specialist who, admitting defeat, offers him his sword. Given a huge opportunity to defuse the situation, our hero's ignorance exacerbates it instead. Meanwhile, Lau shows Chinese viewers something they apparently didn't see very often in movies: Japanese as honorable fighters. Appropriately for a comedy, they are not out to kill our hero. In keeping with their own cultural practice, they are as ready as chess masters to concede defeat when they realize they can't beat our hero. Some of the Japanese play dirtier than others; a hulking karate master abuses the stipulation that our hero fight one man a day by demanding to fight at the stroke of midnight, while the ninja is, of course, a ninja. But even the ninja, with perhaps the most selfish reason to destroy our hero, respects excellence and ends the film on friendly terms with him. I don't know how exceptional Lau's fantasy of reconciliation was in Hong Kong cinema, but it's definitely a good-hearted breath of fresh air compared to the virulent hate toward Japan in many movies. Gordon Liu makes a charming comic hero and, of course, a virtuoso martial artist, best demonstrating the combination in a sequence where he learns drunken boxing by having his flunkies provoke a genuinely drunken master and imitating the old man in parallel pantomime while he beats up the flunkies. Much of the comedy is less graceful, particularly the pratfalls and whining of the family servant, but the overall good nature of Heroes of the East helps you forget its flaws. It isn't really the funniest martial-arts movie, but it works as a comedy as long as you feel good by the end.