BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (aka KILLER FROM SHANTUNG, 1972) successfully combines gangster and kung fu genres to create a compelling two-hour rags-to-riches tale of a poor drifter in early 20th century Shanghai who rises up in the local mob by virtue of his kung fu skills. Ma Yung Chen (played by Chen Kuan-Tai) so impresses the local bosses that he is quickly given his own teahouse and protection racket, yet he remains loyal to his friends, including a hapless little sidekick, and friendly to the poor. He has a run-in with another local gangster, Tan (David Chiang in an extended cameo), but they soon develop mutual respect.
The kung fu comes in when Ma is confronted by rival gangster Yang, whose henchmen consist of the Four Champions. When Ma beats three of the Champions in their very first encounter, an enmity develops that finally culminates in a massive brawl at a neutral teahouse where Ma takes on dozens of Yang's thugs. In this remarkable fight scene, Ma is hit with an ax but continues to fight up and down the two stories of the building with the ax imbedded in his stomach. It's all shot in the Shaw Bros. studio and backlot in Hong Kong, with some additional work on HK locations familiar to kung fu fans.
Chen Kuan-Tai (EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN) was bigger and stronger-looking than most Shaw Bros. kung fu stars and carries the right air of brute force and intimidation in what is essentially the role of a petty gangster. Yet his broad smile, outgoing manner and protective nature give his rough-hewn character a likability that attracts audience sympathy. Ma is not just a standard vengeance-seeking kung fu student forced to learn new styles to beat a more powerful opponent. He is more at loose ends, trying to find his way in the world and not necessarily on the straight and narrow path.
Aside from Chen and David Chiang, the few familiar kung fu faces in the cast include Cheng Kay Yeh (as Chen's sidekick), Ku Feng (as one of the champions) and Wang Ching. Top-billed actress Ching Li co-stars as Chen's love interest, a singer in the restaurant he runs, although her role is less significant than the billing would indicate. The film was directed by kung fu specialist Chang Cheh, with Pao Hsueh Li given a co-directing credit. The action directors are an impressive lot and include Tang Chia, Liu Chia Liang (Lau Kar Leung), and Liu Chia Yung.
ADDENDUM: A follow-up of sorts is the similarly-styled MAN OF IRON (1972), also reviewed on this site, which also co-stars Chen Kuan Tai and Ching Li, but gives Ms. Ching a larger, more interesting role. QUEEN BOXER (1974), also reviewed on this site, is an unofficial non-Shaw sequel to SHANTUNG and focuses on the sister of Ma Yung Chen as she arrives in Shanghai and begins a quest for vengeance. She is played by the phenomenal kung fu diva, Chia Ling (billed as Judy Lee).
In December 2003, Celestial/IVL released a restored, remastered, letter-boxed, subtitled Region 3 DVD of BOXER FROM SHANTUNG. That's the one to see.