Original Hong Kong release poster.
In many ways the perfect kung fu movie with which to indoctrinate the West thanks to it being a beautifully-realized goldmine of the genre's tropes, KING BOXER/FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH stars legendary HK cinema bad guy Lo Lieh in a rare good guy role as a kung fu student who suffers through all kinds of heinous martial treachery as he strives to improve his skills and come out on top in the regional kung fu championship, the winning of which will make him worthy enough in the eyes of his teacher/adoptive father to marry the teacher's sweet and demure daughter. There's a lot more going on here than just that, but let it suffice to say that for the first time American moviegoers got such tropes as:
- The master being cruelly murdered, thus necessitating heroic/audience catharsis payback
- The musical performer/whore with a heart of gold
- A musical score cribbed from other sources (whether legally or not is irrelevant), in this case Quincy Jones' IRONSIDE theme and some of the cues from John Barry's scores for either THUNDERBALL or DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER
- Bad guys who are so obviously, cartoonishly over-the-top evil that they may as well have flashing neon signs on their foreheads that read 'I AM EVIL AS FUCK"
- The presence of highly skilled and incredibly evil/ruthless foreign import antagonists, more often than not the Japanese, as is the case here
- An evil kung fu school whose leader seeks to gain control over the whole martial arts world in his region
- A do-or-die martial arts tournament toward which everything builds
- The hero learning a secret technique that either borders upon or crosses over into the realm of straight-up superpowers, in this case the devastatingly lethal "iron palm" technique
- Some memorably sadistic set pieces involving violence/mutilation/torture
It's a hell of a lot of fun and damned near the template for kung fu films of its era, and it was deservedly a smash hit at the box office. Success like that does not go unnoticed internationally, so someone at Warner Brothers had the good sense to import KING BOXER, dub it, make some minor edits, and release it in the U.S. under the more sensationalistic title of FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH, where it played first in inner cities to capacity crowds and lines around the block before settling in as a perennial on grindhouse double and triple bills for the rest of the decade and beyond. Its success ignited interest and opened the international doors to such greats as Bruce Lee, Sonny Chiba, Jackie Chan and Gordon Liu, so we fans of the genre owe this film no small debt of gratitude. (It also allowed for the importing of turds like STREET GANGS OF HONG KONG, 18 BRONZE GIRLS OF SHAOLIN and BRUCE LEE FIGHTS BACK FROM THE GRAVE, but you've gotta take the bad with the good.)
So well known was it during its era, even those who aren't into kung fu movies have heard of FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH and its title is now a part of our common pop culture lexicon. And as for my own personal estimation of the film, it's on my short list of martial arts films that I watch at least twice per year because sometimes I'm just compelled to do so, a task made that much easier thanks to Celestial Pictures' gorgeous remastered DVD of the film.
So I went to see the film at Lincoln Center and was delighted to discover that the director of the movie, Chung Chang-Wha, would be present for a post-screening moderated Q&A session and also to receive the festival's annual Star of Asia Lifetime Achievement Award. Needless to say, being the geek that I am, I immediately resolved to meet Chung after the show.
Chung graciously receives his lifetime achievement award, a rather minor accolade when one considers how his film almost singlehandedly changed action cinema in the West forever.
FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH played to an enthusiastic sold-out crowd — much to the overheard surprise of one of the theater's staff, who apparently only expected the films of more recent vintage to draw this kind of throng — and the print that we were treated to was a 35mm version with the original KING BOXER title and in Chinese with subtitles, thus avoiding the pitfall of awful dubbing that far too often turned the dire tales of martial heroism and tragedy into unintentional farces. At the end there was thunderous applause accompanied by whoopin' and hollerin', and then Chung sat down for the Q&A session, after which he signed autographs and kindly allowed photo-ops with his fans.
You knew I wasn't going to leave without meeting and getting photographed with Chung Chang-Wha, right?
Due to the harsh financial realities of unemployment, I rather doubt that I'll hit any of the other films in the festival this time around, but I could not be happier that I chose FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH as the one entry not to miss. If you've never seen the film, check out the DVD, available as KING BOXER, at once. I promise you won't be disappointed, provided old school kung fu flicks get you going.