Over the course of its lifespan, Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers studio released hundreds of high-quality action films performed by some of the most accomplished martial artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Among its many talented stars, none perhaps shined as brightly as Liu Chia Liang, the veteran martial artist, choreographer, and cinematographer who made films like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, some of Shaw's finest. The Spiritual Boxer, released in HD from 88 Films, is Liang's debut feature film as director, thus a bit of a treasure in the Shaw Brothers' repertoire.
Opening with a guest appearance from Shaw regulars, Chen Kuan-Tai and Ti Lung, The Spiritual Boxer reveals the roots of its title in a period flashback. The pair are possessed by ancient spirits then subjected to a stream of brutal bladed attacks, which they miraculously survive. Finally, a firing squad turns up and proves equally useless at keeping them down. It's a jubilant sequence with its tongue in its cheek, the exuberance of the fighting ring and costumes is a nice bit of flashback flare for the opening act. After that, the film is a lot more naturalistic because it focuses on the impact of the ‘spiritual boxer’ legend years later.
Cue the introduction of Hsiao Chien (Yue Wong), a mischievous anti-hero who seemingly channels the spirits of gods to teach special kung fu and is rewarded handsomely for doing so. Of course, it's a sham exploiting the legend of the spiritual boxer, and Chien is never too far ahead of trouble.
There’s a farcical quality to The Spiritual Boxer often seen in Shaw releases. It’s light, comic and a far cry from the grim gritty approach of Shaw royalty Chang Cheh, and no doubt one of the reasons Liu Chia Liang would go on to become the star director of Shaw's Golden Age. Comedy, slapstick, and absolutely pitch-perfect kung fu can be found abundantly on Liang's CV, but they all found their first iterations here. Granted, the story isn’t as interesting or consistent as the revenge-fuelled trips which made him famous, but The Spiritual Boxer's episodic nature isn’t a turn off either. If anything, it matches the slice-of-life approach.
As with all Shaw films, the production values are superb. Like the best of their releases, it has the off-hand ability to capture perfect one-on-one duels or pull out the stops for a huge gang fight. The locations are beautiful too, fully exploiting the natural beauty of the Chinese countryside whilst bobbing from village to village. In that way, Shaw films often double-up as historic slice of life flicks, casually but succinctly encapsulating multiple ways of rural and village life. Even though the action is great, there's surprisingly little if you come to this film after having checked out Liang's more famous works. But that's OK, because it’s not an action film per say, at least not in the same way it’s a comedy-drama.
A film like The Spiritual Boxer, though not as instantly recognisable as Five Deadly Venoms or Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, is still well worth checking out. It's a film about faith and the construction of legends, but also how those legends factor into modern everyday life. On a wider level, it’s a film about misdirection and action cinema itself: Liang appears to be starting out his career with a reality check for the audience. Strip away the myth or the filmmaking, and what you're left with is a collection of incredibly focused martial artists working to build a light-hearted fantasy. And what a charming fantasy.
THE SPIRITUAL BOXER (1975) / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR: CHAI-LAING LIU / SCREENPLAY: KUANG NI / STARRING: YUE WONG, CHEN CHI LIN, LUNG TI, KUAN TAI CHAN / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW