Legendary Weapons of China (1982)
Tai-Heng Li and Liu Chia-Liang
Tiet Wo Chu, Fu Sheng, Liu Chia-Liang and Hou Hsiao
||The Plot: In China there is a special form of martial arts simply referred to as pugilism, an art that focuses on strengthening the skin to become invulnerable to any weapon or attack: including firearms. Looking to fight the foreign invaders who are moving into China and have brought their firearms, one particular school of pugilism has tried incredibly hard to overcome the firearm but with little success. However, they do know of one man who is known to be able to block any and all attacks and he is Lei Kung (Liu Chia-Liang). Their group then sends out Ti Tan (Gordon Liu) to find the man, but unknown to him there are several others currently searching out Lei Kung. Who will find this hidden martial artist first, and who will he inevitably align himself with?
Within the old school realm of martial arts cinema, where the films were almost always period pieces, there was rarely ever discussion of the inevitable incorporation of Western concepts into the plight of the Chinese. Always these films were nestled in the distant past, before the firearm came along and compromised the tenants of battle and brought about new questions over just what defined honorable combat. Many later films would deal with this confrontational issue in varied ways, but Legendary Weapons of China
certainly marks one of the earliest examples that I personally have come across. I’m not Hong Kong cinema historian, so take that factoid with a grain of salt. Filmed in 1982, the Shaw studios were still going strong but as the decade rolled on times changed, production slowed down and the Shaw Brothers powerhouse as we all knew it would cease to exist. Although there were many notable films to come out of the studio in this time period (House of Traps
, Chinese Super Ninjas
and Eight Diagram Pole Fighter
to name a few), the glory days seemed to be all but over. Legendary Weapons of China
marks a pivotal moment in Hong Kong cinema history and is itself an entirely interesting film, both for its themes and context as well as the action and pure entertainment factor. Although Liu Chia-Liang (AKA: Lau Kar-Leung) may have made better films, this one certainly ranks up there with his most entertaining work.
Although that first paragraph no doubt makes this seem like a very serious and thought provoking piece of martial arts cinema, I don’t want to leave you with the wrong impression: Legendary Weapons of China
is all about its entertainment value. There is a great deal of comedy thrown in the midst of the film and Liu Chia-Liang isn’t afraid to mix his serious cinema in with some rather cartoonish qualities as well. There are moments throughout where the movie truly does become like that of a cartoon. Alexander Fu Sheng gets to star in the role of a lifetime here, as he perfectly demonstrates the silly animated flavor in which Liu Chia-Liang incorporates his comedy. There is a brilliant bit in the middle of the movie that sees Fu Sheng’s character being controlled by what can only be described as the Chinese version of a Voo Doo doll. When Fu Sheng is commanded to throw a punch, via the doll, he awkwardly throws out his fist. This of course leads to a spectacular fight sequence that sees Fu Sheng moving in a robotic manner, as he is being manipulated by the doll, and the choreography blends seamlessly into this comedic device.
As mentioned, Fu Sheng puts in one heck of a performance here. Although you could never acuse him of being subtle, he makes scenery chewing an art form as he bounces around the set as the loud mouthed con artist who can not fight but pretends to be a Kung Fu master. Although his role isn’t one of the primaries, he establishes himself well and becomes one of the most memorable characters in the picture. Liu Chia-Liang himself gets to star this time around, as well as handle the directorial work. The man is a tremendous worker and really shows amazing ability as a martial artist here. There is a fight sequence that comes late in the picture that features he and his adopted brother Gordon Liu, and the two set the screen on fire. It is funny to see how, after all of these years, both men have changed very little in their appearance. You can see the age that has dawned on their face, but both men have truly kept their facial features. They are both so young here and they take advantage of that youthful athleticism by putting on some of the best martial performances within their lengthy careers.
The historical context of the film places it in the boxer’s rebellion during the Ching dynasty, somewhere between 1899-1901. This was a time period in China where the Manchurian government had close ties with foreign leaders, such as the British and had made many deals with them through their extremely popular export of opium. The Ching government had lost much of its power to western influence and the Boxer’s Rebellion was born through this time and the rebellion came primarily through antagonism towards Christian and Western influence throughout China. It wasn’t a very sophisticated rebellion and relied upon myth instead of actual intelligence, and during this time there truly were those who believed that they could make their skin impenetrable to canons and gun fire through the act of spirit possession. They also claimed to be able to shoot lightning from their palms as well, but unfortunately we never get to see any of that in Legendary Weapons of China
! Yet, it’s still an interesting look at a very intriguing moment in history. Although Liu Chia-Liang’s character can do these things (and not through the ritual of spirit possession, but sheer martial will), he doesn’t look to use his power to take on the Western forces.
Chinese audiences no doubt hold grudges, and I don’t see this character as being friendly to the Ching’s nor the Western influence on the Chinese culture, but instead I see the filmmakers pointing out the futility in fighting against modern weaponization and in essence fighting the shifts in change. Mind you, I doubt Liu Chia-Liang was going into deep moments of reservation in contemplating what he wanted his movie to “say”, but on the most primitive levels I think his film has some interesting comments on modern weaponry versus traditionalism. This leads us of course to the title of the film itself, Legendary Weapons of China
and as you can guess we do indeed get to see many such weapons throughout the film but the final fight sequence is the ultimate battle of traditional Chinese weaponry. Liu Chia-Liang is often known for incorporating a very realistic depiction of martial arts techniques and although this film does get pretty outlandish (martial artists being able to deflect bladed weapons and firearms), you still trust the man for depicting a fairly true vision of ancient Chinese martial arts.
There’s a lot happening with this one and it certainly marks some of Liu Chia-Liang’s better work. He wasn’t as active as Chang Cheh, without question, but that just means that his filmography tends to be that much more consistent. I give the film a high four out of five stars. The only real negative I can possibly think of is the fact that it doesn’t feature any over the top outstanding characteristics that would lead me to say that no other film has done anything quite like this. Hard to fault a film for being very, very good but not extremely great.
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