Director Profile: Lau Kar-leung

Being one of a collection of movie directors whose work I particularly like and why.
Lau Kar-leung AKA Liu Chia-liang
Best known for: 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978), Shaolin Mantis (1978), Heroes of the East (1978), Dirty Ho (1979), Mad Monkey Kung Fu (1979), My Young Auntie (1980), Legendary Weapons of China (1982), Invincible Pole Fighter (1984), Drunken Master II (1994)
Most emblematic: Heroes of the East
Widely considered the best: 36th Chamber of Shaolin
Most underrated: Heroes of the East
Personal favorite: My Young Auntie
First one I ever saw: Drunken Master II. In theaters: None.

Favorite actors: Gordon Liu, Kara Hui, Hsiao Ho, himself
Recurring themes and tropes: Showing the philosophy behind martial arts. Bloodless conflict. Clash of cultures. Drunken boxing.
Elements of style: Comedy. Long takes with as many moves in sequence as possible. Credits sequences with martial arts demonstrations.
Reputation: Top notch fight choreographer. Highly respected in the industry; Bruce Lee called him Uncle.
Appreciation: Credited with the invention of the kung fu action comedy with his first directorial effort, The Spiritual Boxer (1975) after graduating from the role of action choreographer (usually working with Chan Cheh), Lau Kar-leung is to me a lot more than the man whose work the Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung brands would later be built on. His comedy is fun enough, though Chinese cinema's idea of comedy can, to our eyes, be fairly broad, but it's the way he treats martial arts that really distinguishes him as one of Shaw Bros.' best.

You see, his movies are ABOUT martial tradition, not action flicks with martial arts simply incorporated. Master Lau finds it important to present styles and weapons, and to showcase the movements, but also to speak to their place and relevance in Chinese culture, and what values they promote. And so in an era (late 70s, early 80s) replete with bloody revenge stories, Lau gives us films like Heroes of the East, where Chinese and Japanese martial techniques are contrasted, and which ends with a handshake, not a body count. My Young Auntie confronts old-fashioned traditions to Westernized Hong Kong and uses martial arts as a central manifestation. His most famous film, 36th Chamber of Shaolin, is all about becoming a master and then using that status to democratize martial arts.

And in the style of film, it's ever-present. Each film focuses on different weapons and styles, and in several, opponents will test theirs against others', usually in such a way as to let the audience appreciate their value and specific advantages and drawbacks. And you just won't find another martial arts director who lets his takes run for so many consecutive moves. Usually, one cuts away (or has to cut away) after a handful of moves, but one of the things I do when watching Lau's action sequences is count, and 12 to 16 moves in sequence is more the norm. Spectacular! He doesn't ask anything of anyone he won't do himself either, and often played a role, minor but just as demanding. Between theme and style, we can really talk about "pure martial arts movies".

Not that American distributors during the 70s' kung fu craze got it. English dubs of these films have lurid titles like Master Killer (for films with nary a corpse) or Fangs of the Tigress (My Young Auntie), and cut out cultural elements like the dragon dancing central to Martial Club (I'm sorry, I mean "Instructors of Death"). I guess they thought audiences back then were only in it for the action spectacle, but with Lau Kar-leung at least, there was always something behind that spectacle, and that was usually impossible to cut around.

But how do YOU rate Lau Kar-leung?



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