Thursday, April 7, 2011

Tying (and Kicking and Punching) the Knot in “Heroes of the East”

Ah To (Gordon Liu) is opposed to his arranged marriage to a Japanese woman, Kung Zi (Yuka Mizuno), at least until he finally sees his beautiful bride-to-be. Just a few days into the union, Ah To’s trusted servant, Shou (Cheng Hong-Yip), hears sounds behind closed doors which lead him to believe that his master is beating his wife. As it turns out, Kung Zi is practicing martial arts, such as karate and judo. Ah To, believing that Chinese kung fu is both superior to the Japanese martial arts and more “proper” for a lady to practice, offers to teach kung fu to Kung Zi. The woman’s absolute refusal to learn invariably compels both husband and wife to prove that each respective discipline surpasses the other. Physical altercations ensue to showcase technique and weaponry, until Kung Zi packs her things and returns to Japan.

While visiting Japan, Ah To’s father learns that Kung Zi has left and is apparently being courted by childhood friend and ninjutsu expert Takeno (Yasuaki Kurata). When Shou convinces an irate (and drunk) Ah To to send a letter to Kung Zi, what the man sends is an open challenge, claiming that he will admit defeat if his wife is victorious in whatever martial art she chooses. An unforeseen repercussion of the challenge is Takeno reading the letter, which he shows to other martial arts masters. They take the letter as an insult, and experts in different martial arts travel to China to confront Ah To, with Kung Zi trailing behind them.


Heroes of the East (aka Shaolin Challenges Ninja; Challenge of the Ninja; Shaolin vs. Ninja/1978) was directed by Liu Chia-Liang (also known as Lau Kar-Leung), one of the most prolific directors, along with King Hu and Chang Cheh, to work at famed Shaw Brothers Studios in Hong Kong. He also worked as an action choreographer and sometimes as an actor, and his brother, Liu Chia-Yung (or Lau Kar-Wing), likewise was a director/choreographer and occasional actor for Shaw Brothers. Their adopted brother is Liu Chia-Hui, better known as Gordon Liu, one of Shaw Brothers’ most popular stars.

Heroes of the East is primarily an action film, but the comedy derived from the constant bickering between Ah To and Kung Zi is both whimsical and sweet. Ah To differentiates the marital arts by describing kung fu as a softer, more delicate discipline, whereas Kung Zi’s karate (or Japanese martial arts in general) is too aggressive. This plays well with the actors’ performances: Liu’s boyish face and mischievous smirks contrast with his skilled moves, while Mizuno’s sharp, vigorous punches and kicks are an antithesis to the seemingly meek Japanese wife. The sequences involving the two of them are the film’s highlights, including Ah To attempting to show Kung Zi the demure way to kick befitting a proper lady, using his robe as a makeshift dress; in one of their many confrontational moments, the two show each other their more covert weapons, pulling out hidden knives and the like, and slamming them on a table; and when asked about a bandage, Ah To is too embarrassed to admit that he has sustained an injury from his wife.

The film can be broken into two parts, the first half being the “battles” between husband and wife, and the second half a nonstop series of action set pieces, as Ah To must duel with each master. Japanese characters in Hong Kong films are often villains, but in Heroes of the East, a number of Japanese martial arts are displayed and treated respectfully. Each duel features a specific Japanese weapon or technique against a Chinese counterpart. The fights are superbly filmed and truly outstanding. One of the most memorable scenes is when Ah To’s master suggests using Chinese drunken boxing to combat karate. Not trained in said discipline, Ah To’s fellow students must approach Master So (played by the director), hoping that he’ll engage them in a fight. So while they’re continually beaten, Ah To copies So’s movements and slowly learns drunken boxing.

Though the action is topnotch, the second half of the film is at its best when it manages to acknowledge the feud’s catalyst: the relationship between Ah To and Kung Zi. It is handled in a surprisingly subtle manner, but there is undoubtedly a mutual love and respect between the two. After his wife leaves, Ah To has drunk himself into a stupor, evidently upset over Kung Zi’s absence. Following Ah To’s first duel, his Japanese opponent tries to give Ah To his katana (sword), as a sign that he has yielded. Unable to speak the language or understand the custom, Ah To does not accept the sword. The remaining masters consider this an offense and demand he fight everyone else. Kung Zi explains this to Ah To later and says that, had he taken the katana, the feud would have ended. It insinuates that the two of them should be together, an idea confirmed later when Kung Zi essentially becomes a translator for Ah To and his opponent.

The same year as Heroes of the East, Gordon Liu starred in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, also directed by his brother and which remains one of his most recognizable films. Playing a student of the Shaolin Temple, Liu shaved his head, a style he has retained for the majority of his career.

Japanese actor Kurata, an accomplished martial artist in karate, judo and aikido, has been quite successful in Hong Kong movies. He has appeared in two unforgettable cinematic battles, against Jet Li in Gordon Chan’s 1994 Fist of Legend (a remake of the 1972 Bruce Lee film, Fist of Fury) and Vicki Zhao Wei and Karen Mok in Corey Yuen’s So Close (2002). He also maintains a stunt agency, Kurata Promotion Company, based in Tokyo.

Heroes of the East is brimming with action sequences yet tells a decidedly good-natured story. It only falters by not satisfactorily resolving the dilemma within the couple’s marriage, as the movie abruptly concludes following the final duel. However, they did seem to put their petty disputes aside for the abundant fights, so one can assume that the two found common ground. After all, when a husband beats the crap out of seven men just to prove something to his wife, can that not be equated with a happy ending?

7 comments:

  1. Great post, Sark! Your knowledge about the differences between Chinese and Japanese martial arts, and the actors and moviemakers is impressive to me. I really had to go more on gut feeling about the movie I reviewed rather than expertise like yours!

    This movie sounds like a lot of fun! I love the relationship betweeen the battling couple. It mirrors every marriage in th early years -- a constant fight for control! LOL! Your description of Ah To learning Chinese drunken boxing by watching others get whaled upon is funny. And I had to laugh at the picture of all the challengers lined up at Ah To's front gate -- how would you like to open the door and see THEM looking for a fight!

    With my new interest in all things martial arts, this one is going on my list. I still have to see Lady Snowblood, and I forked out a few extra dollars to get disks from Netflex as well as streaming, so I can get it now! Oh, and you are quite right -- any wife who would not appreciate what Ah To has to go through for her, just cannot be pleased and should, in all decency, commit seppuku for her ingratitude!

    Maybe you can answer a question for me -- why have I always heard Japanese ritual suicide called "hara kiri"? I didn't know until Shogun that they call it seppuku.

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  2. Becky, I'm unsure as to the difference in the Japanese language, whether it be spoken/written or formal/informal, but, at least for us yankees, "seppuku" and "harakiri" are synonymous.

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  3. Sark, this sounds like a mind-blowing mix of marital humor and martial arts! After reading your splendid review, I immediately went to YouTube and watched the duel with the spears. The choreography is captivating and I was amazed by the speed of the fight. It also reminded me how incredible the Shaw Bros. studio was. I believe that, at one time, it was the largest (in terms of physical size) studio in the world--containing a virtual indoor city. It's odd, though, to see Gordon Liu with hair. Based on your review, I think I'd love this film.

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  4. Gordon Liu is a supremely talented actor and martial artist. I own most of his movies. This is one of his best.

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  5. Sark, your review of "Heroes of the East" sounds a bit like a Hollywood comedy of the late 30s or early 40s with martial arts thrown in. This film really sounds like fun! I find that the reviews so far are teaching me to toss out my preconceived idea of martial arts films being centered principally on revenge. Awesome review!

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  6. Sark, this is your niche area--you do a great job with this genre. I have never seen this, but it reminds me of Five Deadly Venoms and even the Kill Bill films in that the hero has to beat different foes with their own distinct fighting styles.

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  7. Thank you for reviewing the movie. Recently I have enjoyed this type of movie. Actually I love Mixed Martial Art related movies. Karate in Connecticut

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