Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Shadow Boxer (1974), starring Chen Wo-fu, Shih Szu and Frankie Wei. Directed by Pao Hsueh-li.

ON January 1, 1974, Chen Wo-fu killed himself on his 24th birthday. Why he did is yet unknown thirty-seven years after the fact. Since what biography there is of him is limited in scope (for those fluent only in English), any speculation the reason he did it because he was unhappy with his personal life or with making motion pictures is pointless. It's safe to say his act was one of a desperate person crying out in pain, but if he was hoping to be saved, only a "higher authority" knows for sure.

 Cheng Tien-Hsuing, Tai chi co-ordinator for the
movie, does a demonstration with Chen Wo-fu.
He had joined Shaw Brothers a mere two years prior, and of the five films he had worked on before his passing, The Shadow Boxer would not only be the first one to get released, it would be the sole one where he had the starring role. It was also unique by virtue of its subject matter; coming out two months after the movie showcase of Hung Fist martial arts in Heroes Two (1974), TSB spotlighted the rarely seen form of Tai chi chuan (a.k.a. shadow boxing, which is from where the film gets its title). Wo-fu knew it inside and out (in addition to having won the title of SE Asian Chinese Boxing Champ in 1971), and it's possible TSB was written for him. Even if it wasn't, writer Ni Kuang, by adhering to many of the basics of Tai chi and the philosophy behind it, crafted a piece of "old school" HK action cinema like no other.

It's sometime in the 1930's, and when the laborers of a road construction crew are forced to roast in the hot summer sun while waiting to collect their lousy monthly wages, worker Wu Bing Lien (Chung Gam Gwai) raises a protest as their de facto representative. This is fine for crooked supervisor Tang Hoi Hay (Yeung Chak-Lam), who'll use any excuse to screw them out of their pay (after taking half for himself) for his employer, Master Jin (Cheng Miu); when he tries to punish Wu for striking him, Wu's friend Ku Ding (Chen Wo-fu) takes the beating for him as a way to keep the situation from becoming chaotic.

His rationale for doing this is because he's been a student of Tai chi for ten years under his sifu Yeung (Yeung Chi Hing); the general idea is for him to "practice martial arts for health and defence, not for bullying others", and he "has to be tolerant". As far as Yeung's daughter, Ah Jen (Shih Szu), is concerned, she's not sold on this and feels Ku is a sap for being smacked around without retaliating. She's content to use only the basic martial arts she's skilled in.

Times are so tough in the town where the workers live, people are desperate to get money anyway they can, so Ku's sweetheart, Ah Bao (Chan Mei Hua), seeks employment at the house of Jin's son, Dai Sing (Frankie Wei), as a servant for his girlfriend. He's a bastard who enjoys all the benefits of his father's dirty money and standing in society. One day, after another boring sparring session with some of his associates, one of them, the be-sotted Chan Tung (Wong Kuong Yue), tells him his kung fu would definitely be tested if he dealt with sifu Yeung's Tai chi. Dai's interested; he sends the four men off to bring Yeung back and challenge him. Yeung declines the invitation, so the spoiled brat orders them to kill the old man.

In the meantime, Wu is still championing his fellow worker's rights (as is Ku Ding, in a more mannered way), and Supervisor Tang feels he's stirred enough trouble that he must be gotten rid of; with Dai's blessing, he hires thugs to murder him.

As for Ah Bao, Dai's been ogling her from day one, and once the moment arrives she's alone and vulnerable, he wantonly ravishes her in the ugliest scene of the whole film. Traumatized, she commits suicide by drowning herself in a river.

As each ghastly death comes to light, the weight grows heavier on Ku's shoulders to exercise the option of revenge; initially, he keeps to his Tai chi training of tolerance as he needs to be sure of Dai's responsibility for all of it; an attempt to make Dai confess only gets Ku roughed up, but his training enables him to endure the blows Dai and his men bring upon him. Ah Jen is (justifiably) too full of anger to wait for help from Ku, so she plots to stab Dai one morning. The night before, as luck would have it, when Ku goes off to drown his sorrows over these three losses, he gains as a drinking buddy Chan Tung, who eventually helps to confirm for Ku the guilt of Dai. With this knowledge, Ku now is free to help Ah Jen to properly deal with the privileged scum Dai, Supervisor Tang, and the assorted henchmen.

With TSB, writer Kuang mirrors the Three Styles of Hung Fist featurette that got released before Heroes Two (also shown before the feature in early engagements) and begins the movie with a demonstration by Cheng Tien-Hsuing, who choreographed the Tai chi action; along with a sampling of the techniques, plus the aesthetics behind the training throughout the feature, we get a decent overview of Tai chi and what makes it stand out from other martial arts.

The expertise of Tien-Hsuing helps sell the proceedings notably with the time he spent with Shaw character actor Yeung Chi Hing; his effort on the physical aspect in conjunction with Chi Hing's impeccable acting makes the part of sifu Yeung fully realized. The elderly man with the pock-marked face who interacts with Wo-fu and Szu looks more like what we think a master of Tai chi should look like than the sweaty, stout man at the film's beginning!

As director Pao Hsueh-li once did cinematography for Chang Cheh, we're given an approximation of what TSB would be like if Cheh had directed it, but more than that, he adds his eye as a former cameraman to the visual experience. Yeung Teng Bong is behind the camera here, but Hsueh-li brings a lot of the style he brought to Cheh's movies. He keeps the somber thread running through the film with little relief, the roadworkers in the heat looking miserable, Dai's raping feeling like the dirty, despicable act it is, and the murderers killing in a relentless, callous fashion; only in the Tai chi training sequences is there some peace, dashes of slow motion used to catch some of the movements, all accompanied with appropiate music cues.

As the villainy goes, they are all of the "one note" variety, but the most sour note of them all is Frankie Wei. (Yeung Chak-Lam is a worthy second.) When he smiles, it's never for a nice reason, and it has the same impact on me fingernails being dragged across a chalkboard does. As Dai, he plays a even more repulsive type than his roles in some Shaw exploitation pictures, which makes this statement the highest of compliments to his craft! As leader of the bad guys, he pulls off the "regular" (non-Tai chi) fight choreography by Yeun Woo-ping very well for an actor, too. His last confrontation with Wo-fu makes for a suitably apt ending.

In keeping with a story where the combat is earthbound, Shih Szu doesn't come on like the upstoppable hurricane she was in The Thunderbolt Fist, but she manages to hold her own in what feels more like life-or-death situations than in the previous movie. She gets the one funny scene in the whole production where the lovely Ah Jen gets thrown like a sack of potatoes by her father when she shows skepticism over the practicality of Tai chi; only when Ku Ding rescues her from Dai Sing near the end does she finally begin to realize kung fu isn't the only game in town. As always, she's also agile in the dramatics department, and her reaction over her father's slaying grabs at your heart. Her naturalistic work on this picture can be all too easily overlooked by the flash and color of the wuxia films she did, and this movie needs to rediscovered by more of her fans.

As Ku Ding, Chen Wo-fu is likeable and has charisma to spare, which makes his abrupt exit from the world all the more saddening because TSB convincingly conveys the "spark" behind this gifted athlete and budding actor. (For all their brevity, his bit roles in posthumous releases like Friends and All Men are Brothers confirm his work in TSB was no fluke.) Knowing Tai chi certainly helped him get the job; he was fortunate nobody considered taking another Shaw player and teaching them some basics, because more than a few actors could've done this part. (What those results would've been, I cannot guess, which suits me fine.)

Going beyond the off-screen tragedy, TSB is a very watchable diversion in which the plot is the "ying" to Tai chi's "yang". The fact Tai chi never figured again in other Shaws makes it a special novelty worth looking at, whether you know anything about Tai chi or not. Most of all, watch out for the ending, one of the better surprises I've seen in a long time; regardless if you can predict what happens or not, you'll (at least) agree it's... different.

The Image DVD has adequate picture, audio and your choice of English or Spanish subtitles; there are no noteworthy "extras". (I haven't seen the IVL DVD, but I'll bet the picture on it is superior.)

In the end, let this reissue stand as the best Chen Wo-fu testimonial to what might have been. May he continue resting in peace.

Recommended by Brother Fang!

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple

P.S. - Purchase it from PlayAsia by clicking here.


  1. Great review, Fang! Very insightful. The movie is pretty decent, too. If you check the photo gallery on the HK DVD, there's some nice behind the scenes stills showing the choreographer teaching Shih Szu the style maneuvers.

  2. Thank you, venoms5! The film has grown on me with each replay! Compared to Jet Li's Tai Chi Master (directed by Yeun Woo-ping, of course), TSB is like a Frank Capra movie, HK style!

    I was on the fence in regards to getting the HK DVD, and now that you've let me know Shih Szu figures in the stills gallery, this is one to definitely buy!

    I'm hoping Funimation's reissue of The Lady Hermit keeps on schedule; barring certain circumstances, that will be my next Shih Szu movie to review!

    Regarding your magazine archives, if you ever decide to get the Chen Wo-fu article translated, let me know; I'm interested in any new info that turns up on him!

  3. Sure thing. Also, the DVD info on Chen Wo Fu gives about the same information as the magazine article.

  4. Really? That's amazing....

    You'd think with the reissue of TSB in HK, there would be some renewed interest in Wo-fu's short life. Maybe his family is behind keeping things quiet, in which case they do have their right to privacy.

    This guy's a bigger question mark than James Dean!

  5. As I look at the snow beginning to come down outside where I am, your compliment warms me, achillesgirl!

    Thank you!

  6. Shadowbox is one of my favorite old movies, you can buy much more great movies at Japan Best

  7. As a Taiji practitioner (Yang style), I still wonder of what might have been for Chen Wo-Fu.