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Lau Kar Leung: from Brave Lad of Canton to Hero of the East

Written by Justin Viiret Tell a Friend

Lau Kar Leung is one of the most incredibly talented and pervasively influential action directors of Hong Kong cinema history. Most known for his films with Shaw Brothers from the late sixties to the mid-eighties, he made several of the most iconic films of the martial arts genre, first as an action choreographer and later on as a director.

He began to learn martial arts at the age of seven in Canton, where he was born, under the tutelage of his father, Lau Cham. Lau Cham was a student of Lam Sai Wing, himself a student of Wong Fei Hung, the Chinese folk hero immortalised in so many martial arts films. Friends of theirs in the Cantonese opera industry suggested that the Lau family enter the movie business, which they did - most famously in the Wong Fei Hung series, still the longest series of films ever made at 99 films. The series chronicled the exploits of its title character (played by Kwan Tak Hing) and had Lau Cham play his real-life master, Lam Sai Wing. Lau Kar Leung's first film was The Brave Lad of Canton, made in 1950.

Later, Lau Kar Leung entered the world of the Mandarin-speaking cinema, which generally had larger budgets and more lush productions. His first major film was The Jade Bow, a swordplay drama produced by Great Wall, starring Fu Qi and Chan Si Si. Seeing how impressive the fight sequences were, the Shaw Brothers studio sought out the action choreographer and hired Lau on the spot.

Initially, Lau Kar Leung worked primarily with director Chang Cheh and another choreographer, Tang Chia. Chang Cheh's swordplay films were popular and often exalted heroism and masculinity, a theme adapted somewhat from Japanese samurai films of the time. Lau Kar Leung's influence as a fight choreographer is immediately apparent - from the mid 60's, Chang Cheh's films began to have more intricate, powerful fight scenes. Later on, as Shaw Brothers' productions shifted from swordplay films to kung fu films, Lau Kar Leung was primarily responsible for giving these their powerful, authentic look, working with stars like Ti Lung, David Chiang, and Chen Kuan Tai.

Some examples of Lau's work with Chang Cheh include One-Armed Swordsman (1967), in which Jimmy Wang Yu plays the adopted student of a martial arts master, whose right arm is angrily chopped off by the master's daughter in a fit of pique. Now handicapped, he is rescued by a young girl who nurses him back to health, and provides him with a kung fu manual. Training himself in a new form of one-handed swordplay with his father's broken sword in his left hand, he returns to save his master's household when it's threatened. The film was remade with considerable style by Tsui Hark as The Blade in 1995, but the original is still a landmark film in Hong Kong's history. In 1968, Chang Cheh made Golden Swallow, the sequel to King Hu's Come Drink With Me, also with Cheng Pei Pei. The film was very different from its predecessor, with Chang's darker and more violent storytelling on full display. Wang Yu's flawed antihero became a stock character in many of the dark, serious swordplay films to come.

In the early seventies, Chang Cheh went to Taiwan to make movies there for Shaw Brothers without Tang Chia, who was unwilling to go - so Lau Kar Leung came along as the sole action choreographer. The swordplay genre which Chang had specialised in was declining, and Lau suggested that they rescue the martial arts genre by portraying heroes that really had existed and making the fight scenes more authentic. This is the primary legacy that Bruce Lee left to the Hong Kong film industry - his realistic, powerful fight scenes made many of the elaborate, fantastical swordplay movies look thoroughly old-fashioned and unbelievable.

Thus began Chang Cheh's films centred on the Shaolin stories and the history of martial arts - Shaolin Temple, Shaolin Martial Arts, Men from the Monastery, Five Shaolin Masters, Heroes Two and others. Most of these starred established leading Shaws actors like Ti Lung and Chen Kuan Tai, although they also introduced a young actor and student of Lau's named Alexander Fu Sheng in his signature role of the young trickster. These films all contain the themes that Lau Kar Leung would later develop in films he himself directed: the traditions of martial arts, the relationship between sifu (teacher) and student, the complexities of family relationships. In addition, we see Chang Cheh's standard formula, too - masculine heroism, bloodshed on a grand scale and the call of duty and honour overriding all other concerns.

In these movies we see the introduction of some of the actors and actresses that would form Lau's standard team of players in his films. His brother, Lau Kar Wing, entered the business at roughly the same time as Lau Kar Leung, working also on the Wong Fei Hung series. He acted in Shaw Brothers films from the late sixties, and did a lot of action direction and stunt work, notably on Cheng Chang-Ho's King Boxer. Later in his career he worked often with Sammo Hung (The Odd Couple, Knockabout, Warriors Two) and in many of his brother's films. The other Lau to feature prominently in Lau Kar Leung's films is Gordon Lau Kar Fai, his adopted brother. He's recognisable to most fans of martial arts cinema in his role of San Te, the monk from 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Modern fans might remember him from Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, in the dual roles of the leader of the Crazy 88s and Pai Mei. Lau Kar Fai had roles in most of his brother's later films for Shaw Brothers, and many of them are venerated as classics of the genre. The youngest Lau, Lau Kar Yung, entered the business after the Shaw Brothers era, working as a stuntman and playing supporting roles. Later in his career, Lau Kar Leung worked with other lead actors as well: Wong Yu, Kara Hui, Hsiao Hou, Alexander Fu Sheng; and in the 80s and 90s, Jet Li, Jackie Chan and Chin Kar Lok.

As kung fu movies in turn were dropping in popularity in the mid-seventies, Lau Kar Leung intended to leave Shaw Brothers. When he tried, though, he was offered a chance to direct his own films - provided he would stay and try to revive the flagging genre. He accepted this proposal and set out to make a different kung fu film, straying from the formulas that audiences had lost interest in. The result was 1975's The Spiritual Boxer, credited as the first "kung fu comedy", blazing a trail followed by many action filmmakers after him - Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung, for example. This film has Wong Yu playing the disciple of a master of "spiritual boxing", a ritualistic martial arts form in which deities are invoked to possess the master. Unfortunately, Wong Yu's master is often too inebriated to perform, so his student takes over, faking these abilities in order to make money from easily-duped townsfolk. The film showcases Lau's talent for elaborate choreography and mixes in a great deal of slapstick and acrobatics - a far cry from Chang Cheh's serious, bloodthirsty films.

The 36th Chamber series (36th Chamber of Shaolin, Return to the 36th Chamber of Shaolin, and Disciples of the 36th Chamber of Shaolin) are Lau Kar Leung's interpretations of several of the Shaolin stories - the first, lauded by many as the best "pure" kung fu film ever made, tells the story of the monk San Te (Lau Kar Fai), his entrance to the Shaolin Temple and his eventual creation of the 36th Chamber for the training of laymen. The second has Lau Kar Fai return to the Shaolin Temple; not as San Te, but instead as a young conman who's determined to learn martial arts in order to protect his village from thugs that have taken over the local dye mill. It turns the serious, traditional tone of the first film around completely, presenting an action comedy with some superlative fight scenes and training in kung fu through the techniques of bamboo scaffolding. The third film (made much later) stars Hsiao Hou as Chinese folk hero Fong Sai Yuk, a lad made practically invulnerable through martial arts lessons from his mother at an early age. Hsiao Hou bounces around the screen, an impressive acrobat, and Disciples is much more of a light-hearted, entertaining movie than both preceding instalments.

1978's Heroes of the East stars Lau Kar Fai and Mizuno Yuko as newlyweds, a Chinese kung fu expert married to a Japanese woman who's trained in her native country's martial arts. They bicker and fight all the time, arguing over whose country's arts and skills are superior. Often these arguments escalate into fights, which Lau Kar Fai invariably wins. Eventually, seven Japanese masters travel to China and challenge Lau, resulting in a series of beautifully orchestrated comparisons between Chinese and Japanese martial arts styles and weaponry. Lau Kar Leung himself plays a master of drunken boxing in the film. This theme of conflict between styles (as well as the scepticism Lau had for "mystical" forms of martial arts) is treated again in Legendary Weapons of China (1982), a film famous for its final reel. Here, Lau Kar Leung stars as well as directs, and the fight scenes match him up against Lau Kar Fai and Lau Kar Wing in a series of duels that feature all eighteen classical weapons of Chinese kung fu.

Lau's films are often marked by broad comedy, which he developed further after The Spiritual Boxer. Mad Monkey Kung Fu (1979) and My Young Auntie (1980) both feature two of Lau's later proteges, Hsiao Hou and Kara Hui. In Mad Monkey Kung Fu, we see Lau play a Chinese opera performer and expert in Monkey Fist who is crippled by a devious villain. He meets a young, mischievous thief (played by Hsiao Hou) and trains him in Monkey Fist so that he can defend himself against local thugs. Later they seek revenge against the local gang - unsurprisingly led by the villain who'd crippled our hero in the opening scene. Hsiao Hou's acrobatics and playful physical comedy are a delight to watch, and this film contains some of Lau's best choreography. My Young Auntie stars Kara Hui as a young woman who (through marriage) has become an aunt to Lau Kar Leung and his Westernised son, played by Hsiao Hou. All this was to prevent a large inheritance from falling into the scheming hands of Third Uncle, played by the almost-always-villainous Wang Lung Wei. The film deals with family relationships and the generational gap in Hong Kong society of the time, while also mixing in a couple of intricate fight scenes, including a weapons duel with Western rapiers and Chinese swords.

The infamous Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1983) is a very different film, however, devoid of the physical comedy that laced the majority of Lau's films. Written to star rising star Alexander Fu Sheng and Lau Kar Fai, it deals with the story of the Yang family, sworn to protect the Sung Dynasty against invading Mongols. Tragically, Fu Sheng was killed in a car accident while the film was in production. Work continued without him after a rewrite that placed Lau Kar Fai in the lead, and the result is Lau's darkest and most serious film. Bleak and intense, it contains several intricate, violent fight scenes and some excellent pole work from Lau Kar Fai. Fu Sheng's tragic death was a blow to the industry - he had a great deal of charisma and physical ability, and was fast becoming a leading action star.

Shaw Brothers closed their doors for film production in the mid-eighties, but that was by no means the end of the road for Lau Kar Leung. He went on to famously direct and appear in Jackie Chan's Drunken Master II in 1994, widely hailed as Jackie's best martial arts film. In 1992, he made The Scorpion King, with Chin Kar Lok, Frankie Chan and high-kicking Kim Won Jin from Korea. More recently he directed Drunken Monkey for Shaw Brothers as an entry back into traditional martial arts films, with Lau Kar Fai, Lau Kar Wing, Wu Jing and Shannon Yao Yao. Finally, he is acting in, and doing action choreography for, Tsui Hark's epic The Seven Swords, at the age of 68.

Lau Kar Leung is an enormous talent, and this article only mentions a small number of his many films. His intricately choreographed fight scenes, authentic stories and talent for comic action raised the bar for martial arts filmmaking, and his influence will be felt for many years to come.

Published September 30, 2005

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