The Mystery of Chess Boxing (1979)
Director: Joseph Kuo
Writers: Chiang Ping Han
Starring: Mark Long, Jack Long and Li Yi-min

The Plot: Ah Po (Li Yi Min) is a young man in search of kung fu instruction. When he finds the school of his dreams, he unfortunately runs into a great deal of trouble. Ah Po, on the day before he reached his school, stirred up some trouble with a local ruffian, and it turns out that this local ruffian was also a very important student within his chosen school! As he begins his rigorous lessons, this same student looks to make Ah Po’s life a living hell. After being ostracized by all of his fellow students, Ah Po finds himself spending a lot of time with the school’s cook (played by Simon Yuen). This cook, however, is also an exceptional martial artist, and he soon begins to teach Ah Po all of his skills under the guise of training him to be a cook. Before long, Ah Po is better than any of his fellow pupils! When he displays his new talents, as well as the crest of the Ghost Face Killer (Mark Long), he is expelled from the school. This crest, which Ah Po has held onto for years, is merely the last thing that his father had passed on to him. With no teacher at his disposal, he follows the advice of his former chef/teacher and searches out a wandering chess-master who is supposed to be even more powerful. After Ah Po begins his training, we discover that the Ghost Face Killer is the man who killed Ah Po’s father, and he is on the prowl! Ah Po, seeing that his new master is the next on Ghost Face’s hit list, refuses to let another person he cares about die at the hands of this sadistic killer. Ah Po intensifies his training, and he is determined to finally put an end to the Ghost Face Killer.

The Review
There is really no discussing The Mystery of Chess Boxing without discussing its ties to the hiphop community. Referenced both on the Wu-Tang Clan classic “Da Mystery of Chess Boxing” as well as inspiring the name for Clan-member “Ghostface Killah,” this is certainly a film that played a large role in the formation of many young kung fu film nerds throughout the world. It just so happens that the producer of the Wu-Tang Clan, RZA, just so happened to be one of those young kung fu nerds growing up on the east coast. A regular of Black Belt Theater programming, The Mystery of Chess Boxing is another Joseph Kuo directed Taiwanese effort that essentially works as a showcase for all things that are good and right within the world of kung fu cinema. Although it is very much a film that defers to genre-patterns, especially when it comes to the foundation of its plot, but it makes up for it by being such a explosive and technically brilliant example of what makes this genre work. Viewers who think that the genre is a bore, they need not even apply. This is one for the kung fu junkies, because it does not disappoint.

The team of Joseph Kuo, Jack Long and Mark Long is one of the unheralded greats of martial arts cinema. Similar to Liu Chia Liang and Lau Kar Leung, or even Chang Cheh and his beloved Venom Clan, this combination almost always left the world with fireworks on screen. It is unfortunate that time has been so cruel to their popularity. The talent and skill of these three men can not be denied, but it seems that their working in the independent world has certainly hurt their chances of being rediscovered. Despite Taiwanese films being much more obscure in popularity, titles such as Born Invincible, The 36 Deadly Styles, Wu Tang vs. Ninja and our film today, The Mystery of Chess Boxing, still retain a very credible amount of popularity. Kuo consistently worked in the world of independent film during a time where the Hong Kong studios were extremely dominant. Shooting most of his work in Taiwan, Kuo was one of the few directors outside of Hong Kong to leave a broad and lasting mark on the minds of Western kung fu film fans. With The Mystery of Chess Boxing, Kuo brings his regular cast of characters and implements Li Yi Min into the equation for the first time. A Hong Kong film star under the tutelage of Chang Cheh, Min was a very different sort of leading man than the average. His career was unfortunately very short, but he showed a large range of talents during his time in the business. The Mystery of Chess Boxing shows the actor reaching out, and it probably represents him at his most animated.

Despite being a independent filmmaker, Joseph Kuo often worked with the best in the business. Born Invincible, for instance, featured both the amazing Carter Wong in its lead and even featured choreography by a young Yuen Woo-ping. Although The Mystery of Chess Boxing doesn’t factor in a big name behind the chorography, it does feature two decent stars in the front. Li Yi Min is still best known for his roles with the Shaw Bros. studio, in titles such as Heaven and Hell as well as Life Gamble, but here he gets to show off his charisma to its fullest extent. Min manages to show off his knack for comedy, which is something that I am not familiar with seeing from him. Although the kung fu comedy was still yet in its infancy, Li Yi Min proves to be a very solid comedic lead. When the drama becomes necessary he is also quite convincing, but throughout much of the film he is very over-the-top, and generally silly in his tackling of everyday situations. Continuing the discussion of big stars, one has to mention the immortal Simon Yuen. Best known as both Yuen Woo-Ping’s father as well as the drunken “Beggar So” character from both Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master and Snake in the Eagel’s Shadow. Yuen essentially plays the same role here, but he does so with all of the charisma that audiences expect of him. His role is actually fairly limited, which is unfortunate, but the time that he is present on screen is classic.

Aside from the great cast, the real focal point within The Mystery of Chess Boxing is in both the quality of the fight scenes as well as the frequency with which they pop up. Exceptionally well choreographed fight scenes are a regular occurrence in any Joseph kuo picture, and should be expected. With the cast that this film had, it seems that there was no way that the end results could have been any different. Featuring intricately choreographed fight scenes that are shot with perfect framing, Mystery of Chess Boxing shows just how a “old school” kung fu film should appear. Li Yi Min, who never appeared to be a dynamic athlete, gets to stretch out and really show his ability to carry a action packed production. Min unfortunately doesn’t get to do much fighting until the very end of the feature, but the fight scenes involving Mark Long more than make up for this fact. The story revolving around Li Yi Min is the glue that holds the film together, but the endless number of fights, involving Mark Long killing random kung fu experts, keeps things interesting. This becomes a bit episodic over time, but I find that the plot moves at too fast of a pace to really feel how repetitive the story actually is.

The Conclusion
The Mystery of Chess Boxing is not a perfect film. As has been mentioned, it is rather episodic at times and doesn’t offer an exceptional amount of new drama within its narrative. However, it is a perfectly technical piece of kung fu cinema that makes up for any inadequacies with a tremendous amount of quality action. Although it may be a bit excessive, I feel that I have to give the film a solid four out of five stars. I highly recommend it!