The Shaw Brothers 1974 Tai Chi martial arts film The Shadow Boxer lifts its plot, like so many post-Bruce Lee films, from The Big Boss. Star Chen Wo Fu is a low level laborer named Ku Ding, who has taken a vow to not use his considerable martial skills against anyone. The unscrupulous bosses try to short change the road crew any way they can, evidenced in the films opening scene where they arrange to pay the men on their only day off and make them sweat it out in the hot sun for hours before giving them a fraction of what they are actually owed. While Ku Ding refuses to fight back, his buddy is not so passive and begins to voice his disgust and give the men a leader to rally behind. Compounding matters, the snobby boss of the cruel overseer's has an eye on Ku Ding's girl and wants to challenge Ku Ding's master to a fight and he'll get both by whatever means necessary.
Genres always have their own, often multiple, subgenres within genres. The chick flick drama with reunited family members where someone has a terminal disease. Martial films also cop to this. The animal style kung fu revenge film where the hero must train/create a new style. The Shadow Boxer exhibits one of the trickier kung fu plot motifs: the guy who refuses to fight martial film. In these films, our hero is on perpetual simmer, usually due to a promise and/or some tragedy that keeps his fisticuffs in check. It is essentially the martial version of Shane or High Noon with fists in pockets instead of dusty guns in a holster.
Of course, being an action film, you then need to make up for an actionless hero in two ways, provide some tussle with secondary characters and really play off how badass your hero is and make the audience salivate over the eventual payoff of your protagonist finally letting loose. The Shadow Boxer mainly does the former with Ku Ding's friend, martial mentor, and a change of heart bad guy providing a few scraps. Where it fails is with the latter. Its a shame that the plot device doesn't work better as it provides a moral scaffolding rarely present in martial arts films. Unfortunately, lead actor Chen Wo Fu is not Bruce Lee, lacks that onscreen presence, and doesn't convey a just under the surface rage waiting to erupt. As a result, Chen Wo Fu's Ku Ding just gets beat up a lot and by the time he fights back with five to eight minutes left of screentime, it feels like too little too late.
Chen Wo Fu is a tragic case. Appearing in only a handful of films with Shadow Boxer being his only lead, he committed suicide at the age of twenty-four. A real life Tai Chi champion, Shadow Boxer was tailored around him with his true life mentor serving as an action adviser to fight choreographer Yuen Woo Ping and director Baau Hok-lai. I hate to say this but based on Shadow Boxer his death was no James Deanish loss to the martial film world. This isn't even a matter of development. While he's fine in the fight scenes, his look is simply lacking and he doesn't have a top shelf leading man mug. At the risk of sounding superficial, he has, while not Rocky Dennis or Robert Z'Dar proportioned, a big head/jaw and severe underbite that makes his mouth an inexpressive hyphen. He could have maybe carved out a career in the co-starring fringes but, like so many actors who gave it a try, just wasnt going to be the next Bruce Lee.
The action is pretty standard stuff in terms of its staging. The fights all take place on the familiar Shaw exterior/outdoor sets with all the obvious seams of the fake backdrops. The choregraphy and direction for the Tai Chi sequences is a bit more unique as Baau Hok-lai chose to convey Tai Chi's use of gentle force and violent grace through super slow motion where every flowing move comes across with great detail. Again, its just a shame there wasn't a stronger lead and a better method to dole out the action.
The DVD: Image.
Presented in an unfortunate blurry Anamorphic Widescreen. The print is fine, decent details in terms of contrast, sharpness, color rendering, and grain/blemish levels. The blurriness comes form the transfer which results in quite a bit of motion blur- a common problems with the Image Shaws. In a weird bit of serendipty, a lot of the action is in slow motion, so the blurring issue isn't too bad in the action, however Baau Hok-lai is also in love with the ol' PAN! ZOOM! camerawork so it is quite noticeable in standard scenes.
I believe this is another Celestial remixed fx track. Presented in 2.0 Mandarin with optional English subtitles with one instance of background "bird/cricket chirping" that leads me to believe it could be a lightly tinkered track. Otherwise typical stuff limited by the era and production. Subtitles are a tad spotty with the translation ("You dare deny?") and timing.
Nothin' except for a bunch of Shaw remixed trailers.
I am of two minds when it comes to recommending The Shadow Boxer. If you are a hardcore martial film fan, particularly one who leans towards the old school, the film is a must have curio purely for its Tai Chi emphasis. There are so few Tai Chi films, so by default it is of interest for martial enthusiasts. For the overwhelming majority, it is a definite skip it, just not compelling enough in all the key areas to recommend and the basic, glitchy transfer doesn't help matters.