Challenge of the Master: Lau Kar-leung at MoMA

MoMA's retrospective is devoted to the choreographer, actor & director who was the central figure in the Golden Age of martial arts cinema.
Sean Gilman

Continuing a summer of extraordinary Asian cinema programming in New York City, which has seen over the past two months retrospectives on Sylvia Chang and Chang Cheh, the New York Asian Film Festival and the upcoming Japan Cuts, comes a retrospective starting July 5th at the Museum of Modern Art on the films of Lau Kar-leung. A choreographer, actor, and director, Lau was the central figure in the Golden Age of martial arts cinema, a period which began in 1967 with the break-out success of The One-Armed Swordsman, reached its classical perfection with 1978’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and came to an end in 1994 with Drunken Master II. That Lau choreographed the former and directed the latter two is no coincidence. It was his commitment to verisimilitude in stunt choreography, in training the actors under his command, from the biggest stars to the most minor extras, in traditional kung fu fighting styles, and then integrating those techniques with the showmanship of popular opera acrobatics, that made the Shaw Brothers films of the late 60s and 1970s the most extraordinary action films in the world. Filming in relatively long takes, framing to best display the athletic skills of his performers, rather than obscure their movements, eschewing all but the most basic of special effects (a trampoline-aided leap here or there), Lau’s films form the Platonic ideal of fight cinema. They are to the blurry, hyperactively-cut, CGI-enhanced action films of today what the musicals of Fred Astaire are to the abominations of Rob Marshall. MoMA is playing ten of his films over the next two weeks: two stories about folk hero Wong Fei-hung, three legends of the fabled Shaolin Temple, three films in which Lau himself plays a starring role, and two unclassifiable films, one dark, one light, that rank among the greatest kung fu films ever made.

Lau Kar-leung was born in 1934 in Guangzhou. His father, Lau Cham, was a kung fu master, a student of Lam Sai-wing, who was in turn the pupil of Wong Fei-hung himself.1 As such, Lau Cham was a proponent of the Hung Gar style of kung fu, which he taught to his sons (Kar-leung and Kar-wing, his third and fourth sons, would join him in the movie business) and other students, including a young man named Xian Jinxi, who would later adopt his master’s surname (part of a godfather-type relationship that has lead to the mistaken assumption that he was adopted into the Lau family) and become Lau Kar-fai, or as he was known when he became one of Shaw Brothers’ biggest stars, Gordon Liu.2 In addition to his father’s Hung Gar, Lau also learned the Wing Chun fighting style from his mother, though this style would be less integral to his films, the balance between two opposing styles would become one of his favorite themes, especially well-explored in 1977’s Executioners from Shaolin. In the 1950s, the Lau family was in Hong Kong, where Lau Cham worked as a stunt coordinator and choreographer on a highly successful series of films about Wong Fei-hung starring Kwan Tak-hing. Both Kar-leung and Kar-wing would eventually work on the films as well, of which there were some 60 or so between 1949 and the mid-1960s.3 In 1966, Lau Kar-leung and Tong Kai, who had also worked on the Wong films, choreographed The Jade Bow for Shaw Brothers. On the strength of their work there, they began a long collaboration with Shaws director Chang Cheh, churning out an amazing quantity of work over the next eight years, including several undeniable classics (The One-Armed Swordsman, Golden Swallow, The Heroic Ones, et cetera). As the impact of Bruce Lee in the early 70s encouraged a switch in martial arts cinema from wuxia, driven by swordplay and special effects, to kung fu, based more on hand-to-hand fighting and an actor’s physicality, Lau became a dominant force in the industry, with his pupils (Alexander Fu Sheng in particular) leading the new generation of Shaws stars. Lau became a director in his own right in 1975 with The Spiritual Boxer, which, with its story of a young man learning to rely on true kung fu skills rather than conman-type trickery and magical effects, forms a kind of statement of intent for Lau’s subsequent career: his films will be concerned above all with the truth of martial arts, both physically and spiritually.

With his second film, Lau tackled the story of Wong Fei-hung, the real-life kung fu master and herbalist from the late 19th and early 20th Century. But unlike later versions of the Wong story, for example Yuen Woo-ping and Jackie Chan’s irreverent Drunken Master (1978) or Tsui Hark and Jet Li’s politically-focused Once Upon a Time in China series (1991-1994), Lau’s take on the character is firmly within the tradition of the Kwan Tak-hing series, where Wong is seen as an embodiment of Confucian virtues, the ideal kung fu hero. Challenge of the Masters (1976) is a Wong origin story. Gordon Liu plays him as a young man who desperately wants to learn to fight but whose father, Wong Kei-ying, won’t let him. Eventually, Lu Acai (Chen Kuan-tai), Kei-ying’s master, agrees to take Fei-hung on, taking him to the woods for a couple of years to train. Upon the completion of his training, Wong will challenge an escaped fugitive who has murdered a policeman friend of his family. But, in an expression of how well he has learned the lessons of true kung fu, Wong seeks not bloody revenge, but to save and reform the villain with the example of his own moral goodness. That the cop and the robber are played by Lau Kar-wing and Lau Kar-leung himself, respectively, is no coincidence: Lau’s films will continually rework these familial relationships, with one brother topping the other in an endless cycle of friendly filmic competition.4

1981’s Martial Club continues the Wong Fei-hung story, using the now accomplished but still youthful Wong as a vehicle to explore the intricacies of the rivalries among the many, many kung fu schools of Guangzhou. The film is preceded by a brief prologue in which Lau himself directly addresses the audience on the nature of lion dances, specifically on the three things that will surely cause a brawl if one lion does them to another. The film proper then begins with a lengthy lion dance performance, interrupted by a rival school which proceeds to do each of the three things Lau warned against. This pattern, explanation followed by demonstration, is one of the key structuring elements of Lau’s films, most famously in his opening credit sequences, which usually involve one of his stars demonstrating the proper forms of the fighting techniques his character will be using5, theory followed by practice. Martial Club is driven by young Wong’s need to compete with his best friend, and their contests are ultimately misinterpreted by a traveller from the North, played by Johnny Wang Lung-wei. Wang was one of the great villains of the 1970s, and this may be his finest performance. A man of honor who finds himself by accident on the wrong side of a school conflict, he maneuvers between competing claims with wisdom and dignity. His final fight with Liu is spectacular, both in the two actors’ equally-matched skills, but in Lau’s inventive, purposeful staging. It’s set in “Zig-Zag Alley” a narrowing series of streets which force the fighters to adjust their stances and movements to accommodate the environment, a nifty demonstration of the ways in which Cantonese fist-fighting styles developed to adapt to the city’s congested spaces.

Wong Fei-hung ultimately traced his fighting style back to the Shaolin Temple, the legendary source of all Southern Chinese martial arts. There are many folk tales about the Temple, and Lau’s Shaolin films are a kind of continuation of the ones he made in the early 70s with Chang Cheh (Heroes Two, Five Shaolin Masters, Shaolin Martial Arts, Men from the Monastery, et cetera), in which the Temple becomes a site of resistance against the Qing Dynasty, of attempts by pro-Ming Han Chinese to overthrow their new Manchurian overlords. The timelines don’t really add up, but Lu Acai (who trained Wong’s father) was possibly one of the survivors of the destruction of the Temple, or the student of one of the survivors, Hong Hsi-kuan. Both men feature in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978), as the first students of San-Te, the monk credited with bringing Shaolin style martial arts out of the Temple and into the world. Arguably the greatest of all martial arts films, 36th Chamber is concerned first and foremost with the education San-Te, as he first flees to the Temple after his friends and family are murdered by the Manchurians in response to their political activism. His hope is to learn to fight in order to take his revenge, but that motivation is forgotten as Lau spends the next hour tracking San-Te’s training, his progression through one “chamber” after another of the Temple, each ingeniously designed to impart some essential skill to a would-be fighting monk. First he learns lightness and agility by having to leap across a pond using a flimsy bundle of sticks as stepping stone. Then months spent carrying water strengthen his arms. He learns to move his eyes without turning his head to pick up the lightest glimmer of light, and to use his head to butt sandbags out of his way. Physically strengthened, he learns various punching and kicking skills, along with a wide variety of weapon techniques. Ultimately he’ll have to design his own weapon, in a trial and error struggle with a skeptical instructor. Given less emphasis, but ultimately decisive, is his moral education, specifically the admonition that he must withdraw from worldly concerns. This necessarily conflicts with his political aims. Resolving the contradiction by stepping around it, San-Te will be forced to leave the Temple for his impiety, there to establish the 36th Chamber, from which he will train a generation of fighters to oppose the Qing and defend the causes of justice and righteousness.

1980’s Return to the 36th Chamber reconfigures the original on a smaller, more comic scale. Gordon Liu plays a conman whose brother convinces him to impersonate San-Te in order to scare the new Manchurian bosses at his dye factory and stop them from cutting the workers’ pay. After initial success, he is found out and beaten up by Wang Lung-wei, whereupon he flees to the 36th Chamber and tries to get San-Te to instruct him. Initially trying to use trickery to fool the monks into accepting him, Liu eventually is forced to perform manual labor, building massive scaffolding for the Temple’s refurbishment. But this gives him an ideal vantage point from which to watch the monks’ training, and this, with the addition of the strength and skills he picks up in his work, is enough for him to master a new style of kung fu, which he then uses to benefit the workers. The goofy comedy of the film doesn’t really work, Liu is charming enough but he isn’t the comic genius of his contemporaries Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. But the semi-serious tone of the film is a perfect fit for Lau, who is at his best somewhere in-between the gothic seriousness of Chang Cheh and the anarchic lunacy of Hung, Chan, and Yuen Woo-ping.

Martial Arts of Shaolin from 1986, was Lau’s first film to be shot in Mainland China and his only collaboration with Jet Li. It was part of a series of Shaolin films built around Li, all of which are unrelated to each other and unrelated to either Lau or Chang’s Shaolin stories. Li plays a monk who secretly harbors plans for revenge against the Manchu minister who killed his family. He sneaks away to the capital and fails in his assassination attempt, but hooks up with two other young people who had much the same plan. Li comes from the Northern Shaolin Temple, while the other two come from the Southern one, which accounts for the fact that Li, trained in a very different style from Lau’s Cantonese martial arts, moves completely unlike Gordon Liu. The primary draw of the film is the location shooting. While Lau was much more particular and inventive in his use of locations than Chang Cheh, rarely reusing the same locations in multiple films and forever finding new spaces for his complex fight scenes, he was always somewhat limited by Shaws’ studio-bound production standards. Filming on the Mainland afforded him vistas unlike anything available in the colony, from the vast courtyards of the capitol to gorgeous green mountains and rivers to the Great Wall itself. Lau pulls his camera back even further than usual to incorporate these features into his shots, giving us both the natural beauty of the environments as well as a more holistic view of the intricate choreography and skills of his highly-talented lead actors, like Jet Li (and later Donnie Yen and Wu Jing), members of the Beijing Wushu team.

Lau Kar-leung himself, though he appeared in more than a hundred films as an actor, was never really a star performer. He played bit parts in the Kwan Tak-hing movies, and continued to do so in the Chang Cheh films.6 He would take on bigger roles in several of his own productions though, beginning with the starring role in 1979’s Mad Monkey Kung Fu, in which he showcases the eponymous style with astonishing speed and dexterity. He plays an opera star and kung fu master who is tricked by a devious rich guy (Lo Lieh, another of the great Shaws villains) into getting extremely drunk, where he is then made to believe that he raped Lo’s wife. In order to save Lau’s wife, his sister, played by Kara Hui, agrees to become Lo’s concubine, while Lau’s hands are smashed to prevent his ever performing again. Some years later, Lau is barely making a living as a street performer, where he befriends a young man (Hsiao Ho) who will eventually become his student. Together, they will use monkey-style kung fu to fight against a local gang of extortionists and eventually Lo himself. The long middle section of the film overdoes the pathos, with Lau moping and refusing to fight, recalling one of the lesser late Rocky films, but the training sequences are terrific and the pas de deux with Lau and Hsiao before their final showdown with Lo, scored with the stirring Wong Fei-hung theme song, is one of the finest pure performance pieces of Lau’s career, Hsiao watching and slowly picking up on Lau’s movements until the two are perfectly in sync.

Lau, Hsiao, and Hui star together again in 1980’s My Young Auntie. A showcase for Hui, after Gordon Liu the most-frequent and most-important of Lau’s on-screen collaborators, she won the inaugural Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actress for her performance as a young woman from the country who, on his deathbed, agrees to marry her master so that his nefarious younger brother (Wang Lung-wei, naturally) can’t inherit his estate. She is tasked with bringing the deed to the estate to the master’s nephew (Lau) so that he can inherit it instead. The film’s comedy is built not around the fact that Hui is an exceptional fighter, that’s to be expected, but rather that in being married to his uncle, Lau must give to her all the privileges of seniority, despite the fact that she’s the same age as his son (Hsiao Ho). This is compounded by the relationship between the two young people, with Hui as the traditional country girl while Hsiao is ultra-modern, having picked up on the latest fads and styles7 while studying English in Hong Kong. Out of these basic conflicts, old-young, modern-traditional, comes the best comedy of Lau’s career, with some outstanding group fights, in particular one at a costume ball where Hui, dressed as a blonde princess, and Hsiao and his friends (as Robin Hood and his Merry Men) take on a gang of thugs disguised as Musketeers. Hui is as at home in the comic and dramatic scenes as she is in the fights8, and her distress at the modern world, her contradictory desires to fit in (and look amazing in modern dress) and retreat into her bumpkin shell are both funny and poignant.

Less successful is 1982’s Legendary Weapons of China, which tackles the story of the Boxers, gangs of martial artists in the late 19th Century who believed (maybe) that they could stop Western bullets with their kung fu skills. Dismayed at pointless deaths of his students as they put themselves to the gun test, Lau plays the leader of a Boxer cell who disbands his group and goes into hiding. Various assassins are sent after him from magical martial arts schools: Gordon Liu as a Spiritual Boxer in Shaolin robes, Hsiao Ho as a Magic Fighter, and Lau Kar-wing as a Maoshan expert (a kind of Taoist voodoo). Kara Hui is also searching for Lau, but her motives are unclear. All that’s known about Lau is that he’s a master of the eponymous 18 Legendary Weapons, each of which will ultimately be introduced and demonstrated (with helpful on-screen titles naming them) in the film’s final showdown. What plot there is is stretched extremely thin (though bolstered by an appearance by Alexander Fu Sheng, who becomes one of Kar-wing’s puppets), and the whole production feels a bit tired, not unlike the films Chang Cheh was making at this time in the early 80s, the final stage of the Shaws era. It lacks both the joy and the vitality of My Young Auntie or Lau’s other Kara Hui showcase, the modern day The Lady is the Boss, from 1983.

If Legendary Weapons is the end of something, the last gasp from a burnt-out Shaw studios style, then 1984’s 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is what comes after the end, a post-apocalyptic vision of of the martial arts world as a literal hell from which there is no escape. It begins in a fog-enshrouded wasteland in the late Song Dynasty as the seven sons of the Yang Clan, famously honorable supporters of the Emperor, are betrayed and defeated by a traitorous general during a battle with a Mongol army. Only two of the Yang sons survive. The Sixth (Alexander Fu Sheng, in a performance truncated by the actor’s tragic death in a car accident during production) makes his way home to his mother and sisters but his brain is shattered by what he’s seen. He spends the rest of the film in a howling post-traumatic rage, punctuated only by brief moments of quiet. The Fifth Yang (Gordon Liu) makes his way to a remote Temple, where he begs to be initiated but, his mind overflowing with anger and lust for vengeance, he is turned away. Refusing to be denied, he shaves and scars his own head in a violent parody of the tonsure ceremony. Eventually, he is allowed to hang around the Temple, and he integrates the monks’ pole-fighting technique with his own family’s well-known spear-fighting style, inventing the new, Eight Diagram style.9 A drastic break with his usual semi-comic tone, 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is the bleakest of any of Lau’s works. It’s also the most unnatural in language and performance, perhaps because of its older setting (almost all his other films are set during the Qing Dynasty), or the heightened nature of its story. The actor’s lines, shouted more than spoken, resound off the walls of the vast studio sets, like an echo from a long-distant age. It quite consciously recalls the films of Chang Cheh with its gruesome violence (multiple Yangs die standing up) and nihilistic setting. But crucially Lau pulls back from Chang’s sense of inevitable doom. Fifth Yang doesn’t sacrifice himself in an orgy of bloody glory, nor does he renounce the blasted outside world and retreat into the seclusion of the monastery. Instead, at the end of the film, he walks away from it all. First towards us, and then, in the only final shot of Lau’s Shaws career that doesn’t end in a freeze frame10, into the unknown. The film ends, but he is still walking.

If The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is Lau’s Stagecoach, the ultimate, if somewhat schematic expression of the genre in its purest form, and 8 Diagram Pole Fighter his The Searchers, an excoriating but ultimately regenerative look into the madness at the heart of the genre, then 1979’s Dirty Ho is his Wagon Master, the unassuming masterpiece that nonetheless represents the purest essence of the director’s work. Gordon Liu plays a high class visitor to Guangzhou who is only interested in wine-tasting and antiquing. Throwing money around at the local floating brothel (a series of interlocked boats that is one of Lau’s finest sets), he runs afoul of a young huckster named Ho (Wang Yue) as the two compete to draw the attention of the girls. Taking a liking to the young man, Liu decides to morally reform him without letting on that he is, in fact, one of the nation’s foremost kung fu experts and a prince in disguise. When Ho is wounded in the head in a fight by a poisoned blade (the film’s title translates more literally as “Bad Head Ho”), Liu is the only man who can fix it, and trades the antidote for Ho’s service. At the same time, one of Liu’s brothers has dispatched assassins after him, hoping to clear his own ascension to the throne. So Liu spends the first half of the film defending himself, and instructing Ho, without revealing his martial skills.

To this end Lau choreographs the finest, most intricate sequences of his career. The first, wherein Ho is wounded, is ostensibly between Ho and one of the prostitutes (Kara Hui), but visible only to us is the fact that Liu is manipulating the girl’s every movement. Two assassination attempts follow with Liu and his opponents (including Wang Lung-wei) using the flourishes of courtesy and protocol to disguise their quick kicks and punches. Eventually Ho learns the truth and begins training with Liu, who has injured his leg. This leads to the film’s two final group fights. The first is set in a hellish, wind-swept ghost town as Ho and a wheelchair-bound Liu are beset by a horde of black-clad assassins. The second is the film’s glorious finale, a five-way duel with the ultimate villain (Lo Lieh) and two of his minions, a mass of choreography that in any other hands would be an incoherent rush of nonsense but which Lau turns into a thing of unsurpassed beauty.

The film ends on a pointed note of social commentary. While perfectly synchronized as fighters, sharing a master-student relationship that is at heart closer than the one Liu has with his own (royal) family, there is an unbridgeable class divide between the prince and the thief, with Ho ultimately cast aside after repeatedly being scolded for overstepping his bounds as a “slave” in daring to speak to and accuse the villainous prince. Neither politically radical, nor truly conservative, balance is instead the guiding principle of Lau Kar-leung’s work. Balance between young and old, men and women, rich and poor, Chinese and Japanese11. Balance between the need for social justice and respect for social order and the spiritual demands to let go of worldly things. Balance as an ideal, one not achieved by any of his heroes or heroines, but one toward which they will never stop training to achieve.

The Grandmaster: Lau Kar-leung runs July 5-17, 2018 at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

1. Lam Sai-wing is a frequent side character in Wong Fei-hung films, he was memorably played by Sammo Hung in Yuen Woo-ping’s 1982 film The Magnificent Butcher.

2. “Liu” being the Mandarin form of “Lau.” Shaws films were in Mandarin, despite being made in a primarily Cantonese-speaking colony with Cantonese casts and crews. Lau Kar-leung is thus usually billed on-screen as: ”Liu Chia-liang.” For similar reasons, Kara Hui is also sometimes called "Kara Wai", or Wong Fei-hung "Huang Fei-hong". For these and other names, I simply use the spelling that seems most correct to my eye.

3. Also working on the Kwan Tak-hing films were Yuen Siu-tien and his sons, many of whom would end up in bigger roles in the film industry, most notably Yuen Woo-ping. Yuen Siu-tien, a practitioner in the acrobatic Peking Opera tradition, was also Tong Kai’s teacher.

4. Lau Kar-wing would have a long and fruitful career as an actor, choreographer, and director in his own right, including at least one truly great film: 1979’s The Odd Couple in which he also stars with Sammo Hung.

5. An outgrowth of a short film Lau put together called Three Styles of Hung School’s Kung Fu which played along with 1972’s Heroes Two, in which Alexander Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-chun, and Chen Kuan-tai demonstrate the fighting styles which will be used in the film to come.

6. One of the fun things to do when watching these films is trying to pick out the famous faces from among the extras and stunt crew. For example, Challenge of the Masters features small roles for future stars Kara Hui, Eric Tsang, Yuen Biao, Ricky Hui, and Lam Ching-ying.

7. The film is difficult to date, it might take place in the 1920s or pre-war 30s, or maybe as late as the 50s or 60s.

8. Like many women kung fu stars (Michelle Yeoh, Cheng Pei-pei, Zhang Ziyi) she trained initially not as a fighter but as a dancer.

9. Or "eight trigram." The phrase comes, as I understand it, from bagua, shown by the arrangement of the trigrams each representing a fundamental principle of reality, around a yin-yang symbol, which is the design Liu forms out of candlesticks and pillows in his duel with the abbot near the climax of the film.

10. At least, I can’t think of any others.

11. As in his excellent 1978 comedy of remarriage Heroes of the East (a.k.a. Shaolin vs. Ninja), one of the best Lau Shaw Brothers film that is not a part of the MoMa series.

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