Jimmy Wang Yu is probably the most underrated master of martial arts cinema in proportion to his contributions to the genre. Personal problems and business conflicts have kept him from being recognized as a peer to Bruce Lee, though at age 70 Wang Yu appears to be enjoying a late-career renaissance, having received Best Actor nominations for his latest film, Soul. He beat Lee to the punch, so to speak, in several respects. The Chinese Boxer, for instance, was Wang Yu's debut as writer-director as well as star, setting him on a course that led to the epic Beach of the War Gods and the cult milestone Master of the Flying Guillotine. More importantly, Chinese Boxer is credited with establishing the kung fu film -- though the magic words are never used in the English dub shown on the El Rey channel -- as something distinct from the weapons-oriented wuxia pictures Wang Yu had starred in since his breakthrough in One-Armed Swordsman. A sense of novelty pervades the project, as for the benefit of a Chinese audience the auteur has a doomed teacher explain what Chinese boxing is -- and, for that matter, what karate is. Wang Yu was thus self-consciously blazing a new trail, but the funny thing is, while he's credited with practically inventing a new style of movie, he may have thought he was making a western.
There's no doubt that he was influenced by westerns. He stages one fight, his own character with throwing knives in his shirt pocket against a shuriken-tossing Japanese, exactly in the manner of a gunfight in the middle of a street, down to his "holstering" of his knives as a challenge to his enemy's "fast draw" with the throwing stars. Chinese Boxer is also thematically reminiscent of westerns. Wang Yu's character becomes a sort of town tamer, driving evil gamblers from his home. The initial villain is a crooked Chinese fighter (Chao Hsiung) who wants to destroy the local martial-arts school so he can make the town wide-open for gambling. The linkage between martial arts and gambling -- it isn't entirely clear whether our hero's master forbids gambling in town or controls it himself -- puts me in mind of Wyatt Earp, though who exactly the Earp figure is in Chinese Boxer depends on what you think of Earp. In any event, the master deals with Diao Erh fairly easily, but makes the mistake of letting him limp away to fight another day. Instead, he calls in a contingent of Japanese fighters -- Diao Erh is a karate enthusiast himself -- led by the glowering Kitashima (Lo Lieh). Establishing a Wang Yu motif we'll see again in Master of the Flying Guillotine, Kitashima demonstrates his ferocity by launching himself through the roof of a building, though in this early case he only goes partway through. He wants to stay inside to watch his minions kill one of the master's students who was spying on Diao Erh. Kitashima has a habit of demonstrating his ferocity and then ordering a minion to fight for him. But when it counts, Kitashima is a beast, killing the old master in a mid-air collision, kicking him through a wall. That climaxes a massacre of the old school, during which Wang Yu himself is clobbered and taken out early. We know he's not dead, however, because we don't see him cough up blood; our auteur presumably gets credit for establishing this method to sell death by punch.
Writer-director Wang Yu does more to embed his fight story in a social setting than many subsequent kung fu filmmakers. Before the action begins, he treats us to slices of life in his little town to illustrate its traditional normalcy. After the master's school is destroyed, he shows how Diao Erh and Kitashima have turned it into a Pottersville of vice. While our hero recuperates, we get a tragic tale of a man whose lucky night turns sour when the casino management accuses him of cheating. The man's wife pleads for his life and gets raped for her trouble. In his sickbed, our hero learns that husband and wife have killed themselves from shame. Gamblers as the serpents in Eden are a familiar motif in U.S. westerns, but I suppose Wang Yu is also protesting against perceived Japanese economic and cultural hegemony over Asia, their revenge for losing the war. That this film is Nippophobic goes without saying, from the master's condemnation of karate as inherently aggressive and destructive to the identification of Japanese with social or cultural corruption.
This news about the suicidal couple is the last straw for our hero, who finally rises from his sickbed to train for revenge. For the first time, presumably, we get the training montage characteristic of kung fu cinema, as our man toughens his fists and forearms in a cauldron of iron filings and jogs and jumps with iron weights on his legs. Ready at last, he adopts a costume, going into battle wearing a surgical mask and oven mitts. Japanese are the disease, and he's the cure.
As a director, Wang Yu falls somewhere between the visual poetry of King Hu and the kinetic efficiency of Chang Cheh. He indulges in self-consciously artistic compositions that have nothing to do with fight choreography. He shoots from the ceiling as the master lectures his seated students about comparative martial arts, because it's a nice-looking shot. He establishes the moral delirium of gambling by opening the casino scene with the action as seen and distorted in a high mirror. Wang Yu was an ambitious director who readily acknowledges stylistic and genre influences while striving to film fighting in exciting new ways. He's fond of long horizontal tracking shots with extended group choreography. He uses physical destruction as punctuation, whether the Japanese are punching holes in the school walls or Wang Yu and Lo Lieh are breaking trees in the final fight in a wintry forest. And there's the coughing up of blood, of course. He also has the advantage of a charismatic hero in himself and a classic villain in Lo Lieh -- that man's face was a national cultural treasure. As an overall auteur, circumstances kept Wang Yu from being as prolific as Chang Cheh or as popular as Bruce Lee. But there's something persistently unorthodox in his direction that keeps his work fresh, based on the few films of his I've seen. Despite his reputed innovations he was eclipsed by many other figures, but when all is said and done, given his multiple skills, Jimmy Wang Yu may well go down as the greatest creative talent in kung fu cinema.