Programmed by Ivan Albertson
Co-sponsored by the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, New York
This program is part of Envisioning China, a festival of art and culture presented by UChicago Arts. Learn more at envisioningchina.uchicago.edu
All prints (except Drunken Master) provided courtesy of the American Genre Film Archive
Essay by Ivan Albertson
"I make movies for one purpose only, and that is to exalt the martial arts." - Lau Kar-leung
From January 7 through March 11, Doc Films, in conjunction with the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in New York and UChicago Arts' Envisioning China: A Festival of Arts and Culture, presents a 01-film series highlighting the important contributions of the recently deceased Lau to the martial arts genre. With boundless ingenuity, Lau (aka Liu Chia-liang) elevated the presentation of kung fu onscreen, treating it as a highly specialized art form and not just a tool for exacting revenge. He brought a new authenticity to the form, which was only natural considering his pedigree. Lau's hung gar lineage reached all the way back to Wong Fei-hung, legendary folk hero and subject of several of his films.
Lau rose to prominence as an action choreographer for Chang Cheh in the '70s. The high demand for kung fu films loosened Shaw Brothers' tight grip on production, giving Lau and collaborator Tong Gai free reign to create elaborate fight scenes. As Lau graduated to director, he accentuated his focus on training and discipline over violence. In films like Challenge of the Masters and Martial Club, practice takes precedence over defeating one's enemy. As David Bordwell put it, "...instead of using kung-fu to keep local cinema going, [Lau] used cinema to document and preserve traditions he venerated." He was also able to locate the comedy of manners lurking inside the training film, a combination that may not seem intuitive until you've seen Dirty Ho or Return to the 36th Chamber.
Of all directors in the Shaw Brothers stable, he was the foremost innovator of the kung fu film, bringing out the humor latent in synchronized movement and filming action in wide shots that emphasized the actors' athleticism. This series represents a rare opportunity to appreciate his intricate, impeccably timed choreography as a body of work and largely on 35mm courtesy of the American Genre Film Archive.
In coordination with the series, we are pleased to be hosting the exhibition "My Way, Lau Kar-leung" in the cinema lobby. Curated by the Hong Kong Film Archive, the exhibit takes a closer look at Lau's background and career, featuring memorable stills from his films.
(Lau Kar-leung, 1979) · Perhaps no film better showcases Liu's mix of humor and martial arts than [this] sublimely cartoonish wuxia comedy," said Ignatiy Vishnevetsky upon Liu's passing. After being wounded, the titular rascal (Wong Yu) trains with his brothel rival, a slumming prince (Liu's frequent star and godbrother Gordon Liu). The graceful fight scenes expand traditional notions of what action can be, none more so than one which adheres to wine-tasting etiquette.
runtime: 97 min format: 35mm
(Lau Kar-leung, 1980) · How do you make a sequel to a film that ends with Gordon Liu's San Te becoming a master and defeating his enemies? Why, cast him as a San Te impersonator, of course! He's hired by exploited dye factory workers to intimidate the evil Manchu bosses, who quickly see through him. Humiliated, he undergoes training at the Shaolin Temple . . . erecting scaffolds. Not to be deterred, he uses manual labor to his tactical advantage. Behold scaffold fu!
runtime: 99 min format: 35mm
Introduction by Anita Chan, Director of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, New York
(Lau Kar-leung, 1994) · Though they clashed on set, this collaboration between Lau and Jackie Chan is just as inventive and exhilarating as one would expect. Chan's drunken antics get him in hot water, but he redeems himself when he uncovers a British smuggling ring of Chinese treasures. In most movies, Chan and Lau fighting underneath a moving train would be hard to top, but the finale pulls it off. It's no exaggeration to say the climax marks the pinnacle of the genre.
runtime: 80 min format: DVD
(Chang Cheh, Hsueh Li Pao, 1972) · Prior to directing, Lau made a name for himself choreographing dozens of Shaw Brothers films. After avenging his brother's death, Wu Song (Ti Lung) is sentenced to prison, but he's released to take back the titular restaurant from hooligans. Since he once killed a tiger with his bare hands, this is no big deal--at least, as long as he drinks three bowls of wine at each inn along the way. Full of righteous bloodshed and moral responsibility.
runtime: 94 min format: 35mm
(Lau Kar-leung, 1976) · As his direct forebear, Wong Fei-Hung's legend loomed large over Lau. After appearing in countless films about Wong in the '50s, Lau finally directed one of his own. Lau had the novel idea of presenting Wong (Gordon Liu) as a cocky upstart lacking the philosophy behind his great skill. By training with his father's teacher, he learns that respect for his opponent is more important than defeating him.
runtime: 93 min format: 35mm
(Lau Kar-leung, 1981) · The influence of Cantonese comedy permeates this story of a country servant who weds her dying employer to keep his fortune away from his evil brother. Complications begin to arise when she meets her westernized grandnephew, who finds himself attracted to his nubile "elder" yet appalled by her backward ways. Just when you begin to wonder where the Kung fu is amidst all the comedy, the film concludes with 40 minutes of exhilarating mayhem.
runtime: 121 min format: 35mm
(Lau Kar-leung, 1981) · Opening with a stunning demonstration of lion dancing reminiscent of Busbykeley, "Martial Club" observes the stiff competition between three rival kung-fu schools. Gordon Liu reprises his role as Wong Fei-Hung, and Kara Hui is Juying, whose beauty is matched by her martial arts skills. The film features one of the most astounding sequences in Liu's repertoire: a fight in an alleyway that gets progressively narrower.
runtime: 102 min format: 35mm
(Lau Kar-leung, 1982) · Lau embraced full-on slapstick in this hilarious, underseen farce. Alexander Fu Sheng and Adam Cheng have great chemistry as two spoiled brats locked in competition with each other. They are so busy quarreling and cutting their sleeping elders' beards that they unwittingly endanger an emperor in hiding. The duels are prime examples of what David Bordwell calls the "pause-burst-pause pattern," in which moments of stasis guide the action's rhythm.
runtime: 97 min format: 35mm
(Lau Kar-leung , 1985) · Gordon Liu is back as Monk San Te, providing reluctant refuge for Fong Sai-Yuk (Hsiao Ho) after a scuffle with the Manchu rulers. Fong is a difficult student averse to training, but he begins to take responsibility when he learns of the Manchu plot to defeat the outnumbered Shaolin brothers. Released only briefly during the decline of Shaw Brothers, this is as packed with jaw-dropping acrobatics as any of Liu's movies and deserves reconsideration.
runtime: 89 min format: 35mm
(Chang Cheh, 1974) · Lau's authentic choreography and a unique structure distinguish this entry in Cheh's renowned "Shaolin Cycle", which emphasized action over epic grandeur. The three heroic defenders of the Ming fight off the foreign, non-Han Manchus to protect their dynasty. Each Shaolin hero is introduced separately in 15-minute segments, offering different perspectives on the Manchu invasion. Eventually, they unite in an extended, gruesome battle.
runtime: 92 min format: 35mm