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  • THE SPIRITUAL BOXER (1975) marks the film directing debut of Lau Kar Leung who had directed action scenes for most of Chang Cheh's martial arts epics up to that point. Fans should not expect from this film a kung fu extravaganza along the lines of Lau's later films, CHALLENGE OF THE MASTERS, EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN, THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN, DIRTY HO, LEGENDARY WEAPONS OF KUNG FU and 8-DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER. This one differs not only from Lau's other films but from the standard Shaw Bros. martial arts adventure in general. I would almost hesitate to even call it a kung fu film since it is less about martial arts and more about the kind of Chinese folk superstitions that enabled the ill-fated Boxer Rebellion to gain so many followers at the turn of the last century. It's all about a con artist, Siu Chien (Wang Yu) who pretends to be a master of "spiritual boxing" and invoke gods in elaborate performance routines that fool townspeople in his travels to shower him with gifts, free food and money. When real martial artists see through his tricks, he is generally forced to flee.

    The film opens with an elaborate prologue showing off the original Boxers as they demonstrate their powers to the Empress Dowager. Shaw Bros. kung fu stars Chen Kuan Tai and Ti Lung appear in cameos as the Boxers here. The action then shifts to a series of vignettes showing "Master Siu" and his varied encounters with merchants, police, wealthy nobles and assorted villagers before he settles in a town suffering from the harsh rule of a local crime boss whose loansharking activities have put a lot of farmers in his debt. Along the way, Siu has picked up a female sidekick, Jin Lian, who dresses as a man and helps him out with his tricks. Eventually, Master Siu becomes so confident of his own powers that he stands up to the loanshark and his gang and teaches the people kung fu to defend themselves. When a pair of wanted outlaws, both kung fu experts in their own right, come to town to help the crime boss, they expose Siu's trickery and put him in a real bind.

    There are few genuine martial arts thrills in the film. Instead, the fun is in watching Siu interact with ordinary villagers, particularly children and the various farmers and merchants he helps. The film captures numerous details of everyday life in small-town China 100 years ago and appears to have been shot in Taiwan, far from the familiar backlot of the Shaw Bros. Hong Kong studio where Lau shot most of his films. If anything, the elaborate kung fu finale makes for a curiously unsatisfying ending, partly because it is somewhat unconvincing given everything that's come before it.

    The lead actor is Wang Yu (aka Wong Yu, star of DIRTY HO, YOUNG AVENGER, HE HAS NOTHING BUT KUNG FU and many others and not to be confused with Jimmy Wang Yu, star of ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN, Chinese BOXER, et al). There are a few familiar Shaw Bros. regulars, but not as many as normal for a high-profile Shaw film. The lead actress, Lin Chen Chi, is spunky, funny and quite beautiful, even when dressed as a man, but she's someone I've never seen before and apparently left the film business after a handful of films. Perennial kung fu villains Fung Hak On and Lee Hoi San, more familiar to viewers of Sammo Hung's films, are on hand to provide formidable opposition to the hero.

    Lau Kar Leung's later films would focus more on genuine martial arts styles and skills and elaborate training scenes. This one is simply a treatise on how a skilled and clever trickster could exploit villagers' superstitions and profit from it but, in a strategy common even in Hollywood, eventually turn his con artist skills to the public good. A follow-up film by Lau, THE SHADOW BOXING (aka SPIRITUAL BOXER 2, 1979, also reviewed on this site), is not a sequel but deals with a similar theme, although much less effectively.
  • phillip-585 October 2007
    Warning: Spoilers
    Brian Camp, as usual, reviews this film very well but it is more fun than he makes it sound. Wang (Wong) Yu is very likable and the storyline is strong and interesting. I found the final fight against the robbers more convincing than he did, with Wang's original master urging him on to use the correct counter style from the side lines. He is actually saved in the end by the police and unusually he doesn't fight the main villains including the versatile Fung Hak On (who doesn't really get to show his fighting skills). I also want to mention the humour which apart from the usual unbelievable not recognising the beautiful girl as man joke, is quite good and well handled - particularly in the funny exorcism scene. I really enjoyed this film and though it's not a classic, as Lau Kar Leung's directorial debut it showed real promise.
  • THE SPIRITUAL BOXER is as handsomely mounted as many a Shaw Brothers production, but the plot lacks a certain something. The hero of the piece is Wong Yue, playing a confidence trickster who employs various methods to convince audiences that he's possessed by the spirits of various gods, thus making a living from people's gullibility. After a while, he makes enemies of a gang of thugs while at the same time being asked to investigate a haunted temple.

    The film is notable for being one of the first examples of the knockabout comedy genre later popularised by Jackie Chan. Wong Yue gets up to all manner of mischief with his tricks, but he lacks the genuine charisma of many of his peers. Still, there's much fun to be had with burning coals, red hot pokers and the like, although my favourite segment is the pure horror scene in a haunted building which is up there with the best of Hong Kong's black magic movies.

    THE SPIRITUAL BOXER lacks the kind of well-choreographed action that we know so well from the studio's classics, but that's not to say that it's without incident. Scenes of Wong Yue getting possessed by the monkey god and the like are a lot of fun and neatly prefigure later movies like KNOCKABOUT or ENCOUNTERS OF THE SPOOKY KIND. Fung Hark-On has a meaty role as an antagonist and there's an odd opening sequence featuring Ti Lung and Chen Kuan Tai which has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. In the end, this is a watchable movie but it's not as funny as others and doesn't have the great action of others, so it's rather an odd, middling combo.
  • I thought that was excellent for the Shaw films I have seen so far.

    This film is excellent because it looks great. The cinematography was really nice for one of these films, framed with thought. The zooming in this film was not bad and there weren't any reaction capturing close up zooms that these films are littered with.

    One specific moment that I found questionable was using light for a useless little scare on the audience. Making a character lit bright green. It worked in that characters opening shot, but some later shots specifically looked not real and extra light hit the clothing they were wearing rather than just the face, which works something special.

    There was a nice story here. A conman's travels and eventual settling in a certain village he has fooled for a long time. He was a good hearted defend the poor and treat the bourgeoisie like arse, but he puts his own self before the poor.

    The main actor Yue Wong is great. A real special character and performance. His kung fu was excellent, I love that animal style stuff specifically when Jackie Chan in 'Around the World in 80 Days,' one of my childhood films, does the demonstration of the different styles, so I was very impressed and surprised when this was a part of the plot. The kung fu all round, in fact, is incredible, it was probably the better of the chopsocky Shaw films I have seen so far. 'The Brave Archer' had some excellent kung fu but it was not raw, it was supernatural stuff which has a different spellbounding affect on the audience.

    The action comedy preceding 'Drunken Master' demonstrates action scenes with comedic moments and then brutality which is exactly what Jackie Chan did with his movies, and it is done competitively so here.

    The opening scene has the opening titles freeze framing a demonstration to the audience of some true spiritual boxing which is just so magnificent. It sets a wonderful scene for a great kung fu movie and a well done story, foreshadowing and pay off. Well done.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    THE SPIRITUAL BOXER opens with a brief cameo by two Shaw Brothers superstars, Ti Lung and Kuan Chen Tai: they demonstrate their invincibility to weapons like swords and guns by hacking at themselves, repelling spear thrusts and- a la the misguided Martial Artists who led The Boxer Rebellion- a firing squad. When the firing squad levels both men and their Master, it looks like director Liu Chia-Liang is once again belaboring the obvious- but then the three men spring to their feet, unhurt. It's an odd scene not only because it's so misleading (suggesting that Kung Fu IS a good defense against firearms), but because it also has nothing whatsoever to do with anything that follows (and, in fact, contradicts the entire premise of the movie). Neither Ti Lung nor Chen Kuan Tai are seen again in the movie. While it's superbly directed (and the production values most impressive), THE SPIRITUAL BOXER is uneven, although Wong Yu is good as the con artist who uses "magic" to assume the guise of various Kung Fu gods throughout.
  • The movie opens with a demonstration culminating in martial artists being bullet proof. Everything in the demonstration is phony. Wong Yu enters as a martial artist who makes a living doing phony things associated with martial arts. The crowd wants to believe what he does is real and it puts food on the table. Is there a right or wrong here? This is probably the first time such a complex moral dilemma was ever put in a martial arts movie.

    Wong Yu continues to create his own problems through the movie by embracing the phony and using it to get out of each situation but that only leads to the next situation. His master passed out drunk in the first scene but he returns in the final scene. Wong Yu cannot escape from his phony machinations but his master saves the day by yelling out to him the names of real kung fu styles that he has practiced. Wong Yu then overcomes the bad guys by discarding the phony and using real kung fu fighting.

    The action is lacking in the whole first half of the movie. At about the 80 minute mark the grandmaster of all martial arts movies, Liu Chia-Liang, steps in front of the camera for a terrific fight sequence. Despite the lack of action in the first half, the movie has other interesting features. Liu Chia-Liang presents a preview of things to come. He uses hard core practical effects that the Yuen clan will use in their early 1980s movies. There is also the occult link to martial arts that will be done by Sammo Hung and Lam Ching-Ying in his vampire movies at about the same time. Both of these details will peak a bit later with such movies as the Chinese ghost stories and the bride with white hair movies.

    This is Wong Yu's first lead and much more can be said about him. For now I will only add that his story is the rags to riches and back to rags story.

    I rate this movie above average and consider it mandatory for fans of the genre.