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THE SPIRITUAL BOXER (1975) marks the film directing debut of Lau Kar Leung who had directed action scenes for most of Chang Cheh's martial arts epics up to that point. Fans should not expect from this film a kung fu extravaganza along the lines of Lau's later films, CHALLENGE OF THE MASTERS, EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN, THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN, DIRTY HO, LEGENDARY WEAPONS OF KUNG FU and 8-DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER. This one differs not only from Lau's other films but from the standard Shaw Bros. martial arts adventure in general. I would almost hesitate to even call it a kung fu film since it is less about martial arts and more about the kind of Chinese folk superstitions that enabled the ill-fated Boxer Rebellion to gain so many followers at the turn of the last century. It's all about a con artist, Siu Chien (Wang Yu) who pretends to be a master of "spiritual boxing" and invoke gods in elaborate performance routines that fool townspeople in his travels to shower him with gifts, free food and money. When real martial artists see through his tricks, he is generally forced to flee.
The film opens with an elaborate prologue showing off the original Boxers as they demonstrate their powers to the Empress Dowager. Shaw Bros. kung fu stars Chen Kuan Tai and Ti Lung appear in cameos as the Boxers here. The action then shifts to a series of vignettes showing "Master Siu" and his varied encounters with merchants, police, wealthy nobles and assorted villagers before he settles in a town suffering from the harsh rule of a local crime boss whose loansharking activities have put a lot of farmers in his debt. Along the way, Siu has picked up a female sidekick, Jin Lian, who dresses as a man and helps him out with his tricks. Eventually, Master Siu becomes so confident of his own powers that he stands up to the loanshark and his gang and teaches the people kung fu to defend themselves. When a pair of wanted outlaws, both kung fu experts in their own right, come to town to help the crime boss, they expose Siu's trickery and put him in a real bind.
There are few genuine martial arts thrills in the film. Instead, the fun is in watching Siu interact with ordinary villagers, particularly children and the various farmers and merchants he helps. The film captures numerous details of everyday life in small-town China 100 years ago and appears to have been shot in Taiwan, far from the familiar backlot of the Shaw Bros. Hong Kong studio where Lau shot most of his films. If anything, the elaborate kung fu finale makes for a curiously unsatisfying ending, partly because it is somewhat unconvincing given everything that's come before it.
The lead actor is Wang Yu (aka Wong Yu, star of DIRTY HO, YOUNG AVENGER, HE HAS NOTHING BUT KUNG FU and many others and not to be confused with Jimmy Wang Yu, star of ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN, Chinese BOXER, et al). There are a few familiar Shaw Bros. regulars, but not as many as normal for a high-profile Shaw film. The lead actress, Lin Chen Chi, is spunky, funny and quite beautiful, even when dressed as a man, but she's someone I've never seen before and apparently left the film business after a handful of films. Perennial kung fu villains Fung Hak On and Lee Hoi San, more familiar to viewers of Sammo Hung's films, are on hand to provide formidable opposition to the hero.
Lau Kar Leung's later films would focus more on genuine martial arts styles and skills and elaborate training scenes. This one is simply a treatise on how a skilled and clever trickster could exploit villagers' superstitions and profit from it but, in a strategy common even in Hollywood, eventually turn his con artist skills to the public good. A follow-up film by Lau, THE SHADOW BOXING (aka SPIRITUAL BOXER 2, 1979, also reviewed on this site), is not a sequel but deals with a similar theme, although much less effectively.
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