OUT OF THE BOX is both a declaration of intent and an admission of guilt. Whether it be for promotional purposes or my personal collection, I have acquired a number of box sets. Many I have spent money on, often with the intention of turning my viewing into content. The reality, though, is that each of these box sets ends up defeating. Covering an entire set in one go feels superficial, and I often give up on the entire endeavor before I can even begin. OUT OF THE BOX is, for me, an admission that I simply will not cover an entire box set in one go; instead, I have created a space where I can move through these collections one film at a time. Today’s journey begins with King Boxer from the Arrow Video Shawscope Collection.
When folks think about the explosion of the kung fu film into the American consciousness, they often focus on the phenomenon that was Bruce Lee (and with good reason). Enter the Dragon broke numerous records and was the film that catapulted Bruce Lee into the American consciousness. However, while it was undoubtedly Lee’s film that was a flagship for this trend, there were a number of films in the summer of ‘73 which burst onto the scene and ignited a hunger for these movies. One of them, re-titled for US audiences as Five Fingers of Death, was King Boxer. The film itself was a response to the intense success of Lee in the Asian market, and an attempt by the Shaw Brothers to pivot away from the more historical Wuxia films they had been producing. The genre was filled with films that were set in a fantastical past and focused on sword play, while King Boxer was a shift to a Bruce Lee-style, kung fu focused film, something with a more specific and grounded setting and a mostly unarmed style of martial arts. It came out before Lee’s Enter The Dragon, though, and actually made the first huge impact on the exploitation film scene.
This Arrow Video box set collecting 12 Shaw Brothers gems begins with King Boxer because it truly began their international reign over action cinema. Technically, the success of this film internationally would never be recreated by the studio, but it would be the opening shot to an entire volley of films ranging in quality from the brilliant to passable. King Boxer would be the last Shaw production for its Korean director, Jeong Chang-Hwa. There were changes to the command structure at Shaw that the director found intolerable and he would leave the studio to work at Golden Harvest (speaking of which, when do I get my Golden Harvest boxset?). However, none of the films he would make after King Boxer would reach the same heights as this film did, not just in box office and cultural cache, but artistically as well. In one of the interviews in the special features on this disc, he refers to this film as his magnum opus, and I must agree. The film did not do the same kind of numbers in Hong Kong, though it did do fairly well in other Asian markets. Though King Boxer was influenced by the insane popularity of Bruce Lee in Asia, it managed to be released in the US prior to Lee’s film Enter the Dragon.
I won’t bother giving too much of a history lesson on the film, its conception and eventual dominance of various international box office. It began what would be an intense hunger for Kung Fu in the exploitation market, along with movies like Deep Thrust, Fists of Fury, and Duel of the Iron Fist. There are tons of amazing books on the topic written by experts. My relationship with these kinds of films began with television, specifically the kung fu theater shows on UHF stations of my childhood. Like many folks my age, though, I had a ton of experience and little expertise. I had perhaps seen 40 or so Kung Fu films before I ever learned where they were made, by who, and in what context. As it stands, there are writers like Grady Hendrix and Esther Yau who have told this story and have deep historical knowledge of the studios and directors and I cannot recommend their work enough. I do, however, have a rather personal connection to this film.
In 2018, the American Genre Film Archive released a variety of restored Shaw Brothers classics to theaters, and as a member and founder of Cinepunx, I was asked to host a series of screenings at the Frank Banko Alehouse Cinemas at the ArtsQuest Center in Bethlehem, PA. In conjunction with those screenings, we decided to make limited edition t-shirts for each of the films we were showing, the first being King Boxer. I reached out to my friend and now business partner, Justin Miller (aka Hauntlove), and he designed shirts for each film that I sold at the screenings and online. This first collaboration would eventually lead to our project Rough/Cut Fan Club, and thus there is a deep love I have for this film and what it meant for our future.
It helps, of course, that King Boxer is simply one of the best Kung Fu films ever made. If you are at all familiar with the genre, there is a lot here that feels similar. We have a story that mixes a righteous hero, revenge, a new style of fighting, and a bit of xenophobia via a trio of Japanese fighters. Still, the traditional elements are in no way limiting the accomplishment of this film. King Boxer does suffer from its portrayal of women as mostly passive while men are active, especially considering the relative popularity at the time of films featuring female fighters. This was such a common trope, the director claims he specifically chose to represent the women as more demure to represent what he saw as more traditional values. Still, the brilliance of the film manages to overcome its own regressive view of women and still features a compelling and engaging story, while also kicking ass. Lo Lei as Zhao Zhihao is a revelation, managing to take the stoic hero trope to new levels, inflecting it with emotion when needed and portraying what is, by comparison, a nuanced character for the genre. He is also believably powerful as a martial arts performer and really sells the iron fist technique as a potentially dangerous style.
The hero narrative which runs so deeply through this genre is perhaps perfected in King Boxer. There is that revenge element, as the rival school Zhao Zhihao opposes excels in treachery and villainy. However, there is also the personal journey aspect. He is believably pushed to the edge and only turns to unleashing unbelievably brutal violence when we, the audience, feel he has no other choice. The film looks stunning, with a real view not only for portraying the fighting in a compelling way, but adding visual drama to the character scenes. This is not just a film for Lo Lei, but works because he is surrounded by a cast of characters who feel real and are portrayed with their own passions and drama, and the visual style enhances that. There is an element of fantasy to the martial arts in the film, with the glowing red fury of the Iron Palm technique, but the fighting otherwise is almost realistic in its portrayal. This is not the kind of wire work often associated with Wuxia-style films, though some of the jumping attacks in the film are not so far from that. King Boxer is definitely a spectacle, an explosion of violence and honor, but is also beautiful and thoughtfully made. It is a reminder that a film built to exploit some of our desire to be entertained needn’t be cheap or sloppy, but can transcend into art.
This is one of the triumphs of this film. Shaw considered this little more than a B-film, hardly worth pushing hard into the international market. It was only seen so widely because people at Warner, like Terry Levene, saw it and believed it could break through, and they were right. Yes, it has the violence you want, from eye gouging and samurai swords, to fists that can break through wood beams. There is violence and honor, and star-crossed lovers, and of course, betrayal on betrayal. Too often something like this film, so obviously made with a mind to an audience excited by drama and violence, is written off. Yet King Boxer, if given a chance by the viewer, reaches a more epic height than all that. It is truly beautiful and compelling, while also satisfying in all the basest ways. It is not what I would call the greatest of all time, but it is worthy of being the film that opened the door. It is easy to miss the ways the film surpasses expectations, but it does.
This accomplishment feels like a kind of alchemy, using talent and skill to take something that is base — an attempt by a studio to build off of someone else’s success, what some might call a cash in — and make something outstanding. One element of that alchemy, of course, is the soundtrack. The most insane part of that is the music that plays every time Zhao is about to unleash the Iron Palm technique, but it is not just that iconic music. There is a ton here that works and makes the film flow. Of course, though, that iconic music (which some will recognize from its use in Kill Bill) is haunting as hell. Every time I hear it, I am ready for shit to go down, and it takes what could be a corny effect (they basically shine a red light on Lo Lei’s hands) and makes it feel menacing. For years after the film’s release, this moment lasted in the minds of audience for a reason. It is the moment the film flirts with the fantasy, the supernatural, the magical. All of these films tend to function on a cosmology that is perhaps still foreign to US audiences. These individuals train and practice and exert discipline unto their bodies, until, through almost a triumph of will as much as physicality, they reach something transcendent. Now, the ways there are all different. It might be a secret knowledge or a deep insight, or simply the strength of their convictions or honor. Still, often at least, the narrative is about taking what you have and making it something more, something mythical. King Boxer is almost too perfect an example of that, a film made by a B string director in an attempt to catch up with a coming wave and unleashed by (perhaps) cynical forces. Yet still, it stands and demands respect, even now.
This is just the beginning of this box set and just the beginning for this column! I will be continuing my journey through the various collections of films, ranging through horror, action, exploitation, and art house cinema. King Boxer alone is reason to acquire this amazing box set from Arrow Video, which you can purchase here. The disc has two shorts, three interviews, and a commentary track. It was informative and enlightening and I am thankful it exists.