If you don't know that much about the history of Hong Kong cinema or kung fu films, it would be easy to dismiss the importance of King Boxer (also known in the states as Five Fingers of Death). Sadly, there's an entire generation of film enthusiasts who think that martial arts films started with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which only goes to prove their illiteracy. The fact of the matter is that when it comes to kung fu films in the United States, none, if any, have had the incredible impact of King Boxer.
Produced by the legendary Shaw Brothers studio in Hong Kong, and released in the U.S. as Five Fingers of Death by Warner Brothers, King Boxer is a film of tremendous historical significance. While the television series Kung Fu had already begun, the martial arts craze that kicked, chopped and punched its way through America had not yet started when King Boxer was released. If Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon was the film that exploded martial arts in America, then King Boxer was the fuse that set of the explosion. When it was released in the spring of 1973--several months before Enter the Dragon--King Boxer was a huge hit. This was the film that established kung fu flicks as a genuine genre in the United States.
The plot, while deceptively simple, is also brimming with so many characters and betrayals that it can seem more confusing than it really is. Lo Lieh stars as Chao Chi-Hao, a martial arts student sent by his master to study with another instructor in preparation for a huge tournament. But the problem is that the film is such a maze of supporting characters and under-handed duplicity it can become a bit confusing. The plot revolves around two rival kung fu schools--a genre standard--with the nefarious Meng Dung-shun willing to do anything to ensure his school's supremacy. With his dastardly son Meng Chen-sun (Tung Lam) and the master of the Iron Head technique Pei Chen-lang (Gam Kei Chu) doing his bidding, Dung-shun is seemingly unstoppable. The only thing standing in his way is Chi-Hao, who fights for love, honor and righteousness, and is empowered with the might Iron Palm.
No doubt there are diehard fans of King Boxer that are likely to be put off by my rather brief and flippant synopsis, but truth be told, this one of those films that has never completely stuck with me. There are some incredible characters, and some outrageously over-the-top moments of violence--the most memorable of which involves Chen-sun ripping another man's eyeballs out of his head. But for the most part King Boxer has always been one of those films I watch for a few key moments, but never for the whole picture.
While this particular film has never ranked among my all-time favorite kung fu flicks--perhaps because I saw it well after I had fallen in love with the genre--there is no denying the merit or historical importance of King Boxer. The film is beautifully directed by Chang-hwa Jeong (a.k.a. Chang Chang Ho), a Korean filmmaker working in Hong Kong, who brought a dynamic sense of style to the film. When it was produced there was a sort of renaissance of filmmaking as far as martial arts in Hong Kong cinema was concerned, as the genre itself was still being defined. Jeong's style of direction brought a grittiness to the action and fight sequences that marked a move towards hand-to-hand combat, as opposed to the swordplay that had been the standard convention in most Hong Kong action films.
The graphic violence and gritty action of King Boxer was a major part of what distinguished it from so many other films--not to mention a key element in capturing the imagination of American audiences. Fight choreographer by Liu Chia-Liang (a.k.a. Lau Kar-Leung) had already been building a reputation for himself with such classic films as Golden Swallow and One-Armed Swordsman, but King Boxer is where he really came into his own, as did the genre itself.