I’ve mentioned my love of martial arts movies a lot in my reviews. Although Enter the Dragon was the first of these I saw when I was quite young, it wasn’t until a few years later, around the time I was finishing college and starting university, that I delved deeper into the wonderful world of Hong Kong martial arts movies. Around the time, the only way I could effectively and affordably satiate my kung-fu fix was through DVD releases on the now defunct Hong Kong Legends label. Some other martial arts titles were available on other labels, but there were generally of a poor quality with no native Cantonese/Mandarin audio options. Being the movie snob I was (and still am) I generally avoided these and stocked up on whatever Hong Kong Legends discs I could afford. However, although this was a period of movie discovery I savoured and will be forever grateful for, it skewed my Hong Kong movie knowledge in one particular direction. You see, Hong Kong Legends largely only had rights to the output from the Golden Harvest studio. This included numerous greats such as The Prodigal Son, Iron Monkey and most of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan’s films, but as great as these and many other titles from Golden Harvest are, it missed out a huge portion of Hong Kong’s martial arts movie heritage. That portion came from the Shaw Brothers Studio. More recently, as importing DVDs has become less expensive and 88 Films has started delving into the Shaw Brothers library, I’ve been playing catchup, but through the 00s, even though I called myself a martial arts movie fan, I’d seen next to no films from the famed studio.
Shaw Brothers popularised the kung fu movie in the 1960s, churning out martial arts classics throughout the end of the decade and the whole of the next. Golden Harvest stole their thunder during the latter years of the 70s and throughout the 80s, making a star of Jackie Chan and others, helping bring forth the end of feature film production at Shaw Brothers in 1986. The two studios had different styles too. Although there were exceptions on both sides, the Shaw Brothers kung-fu movies tended to be period pieces with lavish sets, often bloody violence and largely more of a serious tone. Golden Harvest’s films on the other hand tended to have more current settings (particularly as they moved into the 80s), were often a bit cheaper looking (in the late 70s/early 80s at least) and more light hearted and fun, with less gore and a more frequently comic tone.
This epic introduction then brings us to The Spiritual Boxer from 1975, a film that I see as a sort of missing link between the two warring studios. It’s the solo-directorial debut of Chia-Liang Liu, who would later go on to direct many of the greatest martial arts movies of all time, such as Drunken Master 2 (a.k.a. The Legend of Drunken Master), The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter and Legendary Weapons of China.
The Spiritual Boxer follows Siu Chen (Yue Wong), a conman who pretends to summon the spirits of legendary Gods in impressive (but fraudulent) displays of kung-fu prowess and invulnerability known as spiritual boxing, in order to swindle money and free food from his hapless victims. As he comes across various undesirables strong-arming money from those less fortunate though, he begins to use his sneaky tactics for good. In doing so, he becomes a target for some criminal gangs and he must learn to use his tricks to improve his true kung-fu skills.
It’s an episodic affair that feels like a series of skits more than a fleshed out story. As such, on top of its comedic tone, The Spiritual Boxer reminds me very much of Jackie Chan’s breakthrough films, Drunken Master and Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow. It came three years earlier though so can be seen as a definite influence on the mega-star’s career, which was largely produced by Golden Harvest (the two titles mentioned weren’t however). Hong Kong comedies had recently become popular at the time, due to the success of the Hui Brothers in Games Gamblers Play and there was some kung-fu in that (choreographed by the great Sammo Hung) but not to the level you have here in The Spiritual Boxer or in the later Jackie Chan films. As such, The Spiritual Boxer feels like an important and groundbreaking title in the genre and deserves better recognition.
Away from the film’s influence, it’s a solid, if slightly flawed martial arts movie. The action is very good and there’s a heck of a lot of it throughout the film so it’s a lot of fun to watch. That said, there aren’t any truly mind-blowing sequences though. The development of the lead character’s kung-fu skills is practically non-existent too. There are no training sequences here. Instead his sensei suddenly pops up at the end after disappearing for practically the whole of the film to simply advise him on which of the styles to use, from those he already knew, against some particularly strong foes who know his tricks. So the finale doesn’t feel as satisfying as in your typical kung-fu movie where our hero trains hard after being defeated and comes back to save the day.
The comedy elements are pretty solid. Your mileage will depend on your penchant for the typical Hong Kong style of mugging and slapstick, but I enjoyed Siu Chen’s schtick and tricks as he convinces those around him he’s possessed by the Gods. There's an enjoyable move into comedy-horror too when Chen is asked to exorcise a ghost. Actor Yue Wong doesn’t quite have the charisma or physical dexterity of Jackie Chan, so never reached anywhere near his level of fame (has anyone?) but it’s a shame he didn’t become more of a star as he’s fun to watch here and helps carry the rather flimsy premise as far as it will go.
Overall then, being one of the earliest successful true fusions of kung-fu and comedy, it’s an important and influential entry into the martial arts movie genre. Some later films may have improved the formula and Chia-Liang Liu bettered this himself in his illustrious career which followed. However, this still holds its own. Fun and action-packed from start to finish, it’s well worth a watch.
The Spiritual Boxer is out on 11th June on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by 88 Films, or you can order it now from their website - https://88-films.myshopify.com/ The Blu-Ray looks and sounds fantastic. The picture is wonderfully clean and sharp but still natural-looking. Both the original Chinese audio and English dub are available, so all bases are covered. I opted for the former, in case anyone’s interested.
Included in the set is an audio commentary from author and critic David West. This is excellent, providing a huge amount of background info on the cast and crew involved. There’s also a booklet written by Calum Waddell which helps better appreciate the context in which the film was made and the future work from its director.