19 March 2006 | Matti-Man
The best of the "old-school" kung fu films
Let's begin by saying that I consider Chia Hui Liu (Gordon Liu, to you KILL BILL fans) to be, pound-for-pound, the greatest movie martial artist of all. Before the Bruce Lee and Jet Li fans start baying for my blood, just read that phrase again. I said "movie martial artist" ... not "star" or "actor". But martial artist.
That's because Liu Chia-Hui (in China, you put your family name first) really is a martial artist. Bruce Lee was many things - actor, star and fighter - but never a martial artist in the traditional sense. And Jet Li is a wushu player, and wushu is a system of acrobatics, much like western gymnastics, never intended for combat.
And I consider ZHONG HUA ZHANG FU the best sustained martial arts performance in Liu's filmography, as much as I admire WU LANG BA GUA GUN (1983, aka EIGHT FIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER).
I won't elaborate on the plot of ZHONG HUA ZHANG FU here as many other commenters have already done that (but what *about* that wig, eh?), but simply observe that although, as many have stated, director Lui Chia-Liang appears to show Japanese martial arts in a sympathetic light, he does still take the position that Chinese martial arts are better, and that still amounts to a pretty damning criticism, no matter how polite he is about it.
Clearly the message of this film is that Japanese styles are direct, bombastic and chest-beating and Chinese styles are subtle, layered and adaptable. I'm not entirely disagreeing with that. I'm a 20-year student of Chinese kung fu myself. So perhaps my eye is better attuned to discern what's going on in the first battle between the Japanese Katana and the Chinese straight sword.
The katana is a weapon that is used for hacking and chopping and as such needs to have a hugely strong blade. Indeed, the manufacture of the Japanese katana is a long and arduous process in which the metal is folded and beaten many times to produce a blade that is made up of dozens of wafer-like layers of steel. This means that the weapon can take no end of punishment, even at the hands of the clumsiest or strongest swordsman.
In contrast, the Chinese sword is a far more delicate weapon and must be wielded with care and accuracy in order to be at its most effective. No hacking and chopping with a Chinese sword, then, as the blade would simply break.
So, the fight with Liu using a Chinese sword against a katana should have ended with the Chinese sword broken and Liu helpless. It's a testament to both Lius' understanding of martial arts and the limitations and advantages of both weapons that the fight is as realistic and believable as it is.
And each battle in ZHONG HUA ZHANG FU is treated with equal care (though I won't try everyone's patience by analysing each in detail)
It's well worth seeking out the Celestrial Pictures release of HEROES OF THE EAST which offers a Chinese soundtrack and English subtitles, rather than the awful Ground Zero release which is dubbed and looks like it was transferred from a full-screen VHS.
Definitely one of the best depictions of Chinese martial arts on film - ever!