Monday, October 17, 2016

Ka-bam! Look Out for the Five Fingers of Death!

If you are a connoisseur of cinema history, then Five Fingers of Death (1973) is required viewing. It's not the best kung fu film. It wasn't the first one. It didn't launch the careers of any stars--at least not as far as English-speaking audiences were concerned. And yet, when Warner Brothers released it in March 1973, it ignited mainstream interest in martial arts films.

The table had been set, so to speak, with the success of David Carradine's Kung Fu TV series, which debuted a year earlier. But Kung Fu's occasional slow motion fights didn't prepare audiences for the explosive kicks and punches executed gracefully by the cast of Five Fingers of Death. Still, the film's success was not a total surprise to Warner Brothers, which released it in the U.S. Known by its original title of King Boxer, the film had played to packed houses in Europe.

It also helped that American interest in Asian culture was peaking due to President Nixon's visit to the People's Republic of China in 1972. For a modest sum, Warners acquired the rights to six movies made by the Shaw Brothers and released King Boxer first--under the catchier title Five Fingers of Death.

Lieh Lo looking humble as the hero.
Lieh Lo stars as Chao Chih-Hao, the star pupil in a martial arts school who has fallen in love with his teacher's daughter Yin-Yin. Marriage is out of the question, though, until he wins a major martial arts tournament. When some local thugs almost get the better of Chih-Hao's teacher, the elderly man sends his student to study with another martial arts master.

Chih-Hao gets off to a bad start at the new school, losing a fight handily to his best friend. His new master proclaims that Chih-Hao is "not good enough" and must show he's worthy to join the martial arts classes. The young man performs menial jobs without bitterness and continues to practice kung fu on his own. His resilience impresses the new master--as does Chih-Hao's ability to quickly grasp new techniques. Chih-Hao's steadily rising stature causes friction between him and his best friend (who also happens to love Yin-Yin).

Looking like the villain he is!
Meanwhile, the villainous Meng Tung-Shun (Feng Tien) schemes to set up his son's victory in the martial arts tournament. He "hires" a highly-skilled wandering fighter as well as three Japanese killers. This results in plenty of fights, changed allegiances, retribution, and reformation before the film's end title.

There are certainly elements of Five Fingers of Death that became overused in the genre: the big martial arts tournament; the secret technique (in this case, the Iron Fist); the mysterious stranger who changes sides; the disrespected school; and the one vs. many brawl. But with its many well-placed fight scenes and convincing cast, Five Fingers of Death makes it all seem fresh again. Star Lieh Lo may lack the celluloid grace of Bruce Lee, but he punches with power and kicks with authority. Director Chang-hwa Jeong injects flair, too, especially with a fight scene that takes place in a darkened room. (Note: There are edited versions, running less than 104 minutes, that omit key scenes.)

Note glowing right Iron Fist!
It should come as no surprise that director Quentin Tarantino often lists Five Fingers of Death among his favorite films. Kill Bill (both volumes) turns the Iron Fist lethal technique into the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique. When Uma Thurman's character sees two of her enemies, the music signature--know as the "siren sound"--is the same one played when Chih-Hao uses the Iron Fist in Five Fingers (interestingly, the "siren sound" was taken from the "Theme from Ironside," written by Quincy Jones).

As for Five Fingers of Death, Verina Glaessner sums up its influence nicely in the opening of her book Kung Fu: Cinema of Vengeance: "Led by King Boxer (Five Fingers of Death) and hotly followed by the films of Bruce Lee...these films set the scene for a mass invasion of western cinemas by Chinese action films." For more on the kung fu movie craze, you can check out our previous post on that subject.

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