Now this movie has an interesting concept behind it: "Heroes of the East" at first begins like a bad romantic comedy centering around an arranged marriage between two opposing cultures, and ends as a back-to-back, non-stop martial arts contest where more than honor is at stake. From the time it was made in 1978 and even up until now in 2019, that's what I call originality!
This overlooked Shaw Brothers classic, directed by the legendary Liu Chia-Liang (a.k.a., Lau Kar-Leung), is an interesting hybrid of romantic comedy and martial arts with underlying themes of honor, respect, and understanding between two clashing cultures. The film has the usual elaborately choreographed fighting sequences (by director Chia-Liang himself, who also appears in a small cameo role, with assistance from Wei-Cheng Tang), but it's also remarkable that there's virtually no bloodshed and nobody dies (in addition to also being quite humorous) - all points that were reportedly stressed quite firmly by Liu Chia-Liang during the making of the film and is something that separates it from many other martial arts movies produced during that era. Also worth mentioning is that the fights themselves are quite realistic (well, about as realistic as this sort of movie is ever likely to get), and the characters, for the most part, never perform stunts that are outside the realm of physical possibility.
In Hong Kong, China, in the early 20th century, Ah To (Gordon Liu, credited here by his birth-name Liu Chia-Hui) is a dedicated student of Chinese martial arts. At the beginning of the movie, he is forced into an arranged marriage with his childhood acquaintance Yumiko Koda (Yuka Mizuno), who is the daughter of his wealthy father's Japanese business partner. Although he is initially reluctant to marry Koda, he quickly changes his mind once he sees how beautiful she is and then they take that Walk Down The Aisle together.
But once the honeymoon phase is over and she's moved into Ah To's mansion in the city, that's when tensions start to mount as cultural differences and egos clash - and the pair come to blows, literally (and albeit quite comically), as he finds that she's every bit as dedicated to Japanese martial arts as he is to Chinese martial arts (though he makes it a point to mention Japanese martial arts' shared heritage with Chinese martial arts). After having their most heated argument yet, that's when Koda ups and leaves, and she then heads back to Japan.
Ah To then writes her a strongly-worded letter challenging Japanese martial arts in the hopes of getting her to come back to Hong Kong, but the letter is instead intercepted by her sensei Takeno (Yasuaki Kurata), a master of Ninjutsu, who is offended by his claim that Chinese martial arts are superior to Japanese martial arts. That is when Takeno, and six other Japanese martial arts masters - each skilled in different fighting styles including Karate, Judo, Nunchaku, Bojutsu (spear), Sai, and Kendo (Japanese sword-fighting) - journey to Hong Kong to accept Ah To's challenge, and this is what virtually dominates the film's second half, as Ah To meets each of his Japanese opponents and fights them using their all-too-similar fighting techniques (while also thinking of new and creative ways to beat them using strategies that they're unfamiliar with and which their training had not prepared them for).
Of the literally hundreds of Shaw Brothers-backed kung-fu craziness produced in the '60s, '70s and '80s, the first film to really strike a chord with me was "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin" (1978) - which I first saw when I was in college and also starred Gordon Liu and was directed by Liu Chia-Liang. In my opinion, that's the best Shaw Brothers kung-fu kick-'em-up ever made. (As an aside, my favorite martial arts movie of all time is 1973's "Enter the Dragon," which, of course, starred Bruce Lee, and is the movie that got me into martial arts and martial arts movies in the first place.) But "Heroes of the East" comes pretty close to being the other great kung-fu movie after "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin."
While "Heroes of the East" minces no words of the tensions that exist between Chinese and Japanese cultures and their associated martial arts systems, what is most remarkable is that each fighting style on display here - both Chinese and Japanese alike - is treated with dignity and respect; a lesser movie would have displayed the inferiority and ineffectiveness of Japanese fighting disciplines against Chinese fighting arts from the get-go, and all the Japanese characters would be seen as evil and plainly deserving of their inevitable humiliation or even death (as Bruce Lee's "Fist of Fury/The Chinese Connection" had done just six years before).
Thankfully that doesn't happen here. Each of the Japanese fighting systems (and their respective masters) are based on solid research and careful study of Japanese martial arts systems and their usefulness in battle. That also said, "Heroes of the East" ends on a note of mutual respect and understanding between the two opposing cultures, as well as a message that one's level of skill in a fighting discipline means nothing if it lacks basic morality - which lends the film a rare philosophical subtext not commonly seen in these sorts of movies, and is especially meaningful given the touchy subject matter revolving around the tensions between Chinese and Japanese people.
Of the performances, Gordon Liu is in his usual top form in one of his earliest starring roles; he remains the noble, steadfast hero, but is also surprisingly quite relatable. Also in fine form is the lovely Yuka Mizuno as his bride, whose character is not portrayed in a stereotypical light and who remains as dedicated to the martial arts as her husband, and gets some of the best one-liners in the whole movie. And each of the Japanese martial arts masters accept defeat with grace and humility during each of the film's epic duels - another rarity for this sort of film.
"Heroes of the East" is an overlooked Shaw Brothers gem. Its unique hybrid of romantic comedy, slapstick humor, and epic martial arts fighting sequences makes it stand out amongst many of the martial arts movies made during the 1970s. It should not be missed by anyone who truly enjoys these types of films.