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The Boxer from Shantung (Ma yong zhen, 1972)

Chang Cheh & Pao Hsieh Li

Hong Kong

126 min, color, Mandarin (English subtitles)

Review © 2003 Branislav L. Slantchev

This is the film that turned Chen Kuan Tai into a credible dramatic actor and introduced his incredible fighting skills to the general audience. The film also marked the first collaboration of director Chang Cheh with this charismatic actor. While often first steps are only of historic interest (having been supplanted by later and far better films), The Boxer from Shantung stands up quite well to the test of time on its own. It is a somewhat typical story for I Kuang and Chang Cheh but it is laden with symbolism and metaphor that is missing from the later renditions. Pretty satisfying performances all around make this film a must-see not just for the expertly staged fighting scenes but for its drama as well.

Down and out in Shanghai David Chiang as the captivating Boss Tan

Chen Kuan Tai is Ma Yongzhen, a poor guy from Shantung who arrives in Shanghai with his buddy Jiangbei (Cheng Hong Yip) in search of fame and fortune. The big city would swallow a lesser man, chew him up, and spit him out as a disillusioned and failed never-been, much like it does to the hordes of aspiring actors arriving in L.A. But Ma is an excellent fighter with indomitable spirit. He stays in squalor at a hostel, unable to afford a proper room, but he walks proud, sure of his future success.

Vive la revolucion! Gratuitous shot of Ching Li

He accepts any challenge, knowing that the way to climb the heights of the mean streets hierarchy is to be the top dog. This leads him to the encounter with Boss Tan (David Chiang), the suave and perpetually smiling gangster who appreciates Ma's skill and teaches him a lesson to fight for his means of sustenance instead of living off charity. Ma takes the lesson to heart and becomes an instant admirer of Tan's. Very quickly, however, Ma finds himself in the midst of a turf war, in which he unwittingly takes the side of Tan against Boss Yang and his four blood-thirsty henchmen.

Lingzi harassed by Agen The good life

Ma's fighting skills ensure his victory in this brawl and Tan rewards him with the territory around the restaurant where it occurred. This marks the first step upwards and it is notable that it is also the occasion of Ma's first encounter with the beautiful singer Lingzi (Ching Li). It is love at first sight, and it appears that things are looking up for Ma. In a somewhat heavy-handed symbolic scene, Chang Cheh pictures Ma making it to the second floor of the hostel, to the rooms which he previously could not afford. For those who miss the reference of his climbing the stairs, there's the helpful hint by Jiangbei explaining it.

Symbolic ascent to up the stairs Typical gweilo brutishness

What follows is a series of encounters between Ma and various opponents, all of whom turn out to be associated with Boss Yang's (Chiang Nan) gang. Ku Feng, Tien Ching, and Fung Ngai repeatedly get themselves mauled by Chen Kuan Tai after failing to recruit him. There's also a fight between a white Russian muscleman (played by Italian wrestler Mario Milano) and Ma. Besides portraying the white dude in a typical anti-Western way (complete with huge physique, uncouth growling, and propensity to humiliate Chinese men by sheer brute strength instead of martial art skill), the scene occasions yet another confrontation with the Yang gang.

Ma defeats the Russian Kuan Tai as the quintessential Chang Cheh hero

This finally makes Ma top dog, albeit in a rather small territory. However, it also causes the abrupt rupture in his budding relationship with Lingzi who cannot accept his rise to thugdom. The brief unfulfilled love is quite inconsequential in terms of Ma's future but it is essential to understanding the story of Ma's rise and fall. Lingzi sees that he will be nothing more than the next racketeer, and, more importantly, there soon will be a "next" racketeer --- "Whoever's in charge next, we must pay his protection fees." In other words, not only does she disprove of Ma's vocational choice, but she also foretells his inevitable demise. In fact, every top dog in this film ends up dying.

Very nice choreography Lingzi realizes Ma is just another thug

Lingzi is devastated and disappears from the story even though Ma attempts to behave according to his own code of morality. He does not force himself on Lingzi, he does not punish her refusal to abide by his command (despite urging by his underlings), and he tries to be just to the people he is racketeering (citing his remembrance of poverty as the reason). All this seems nice but cannot conceal the fact that he is a thug and people are not paying him because they like him. They are paying him to protect them from himself.

Gratuitous shot of devastated Ching Li Ma as the "nice" thug

Having forfeited forever Lingzi's love, Ma tries to enjoy the good life, but a brothel is not exactly the same even in the haze of his drunken stupor. Ma's fighting skill earn him control of a larger territory, but he soon finds himself outwitted by the scheming Boss Yang who manages to assassinate Tan Si. The death of his idol finally awakens Ma to the reality of his choices. The one powerful man he regarded as friend and an example has perished, and there is little Ma can do except seek revenge, aware that it will probably cost him his life. He orders his faithful sidekick Jiangbei to leave town before he gets corrupted (and killed should Ma fail to eliminate the Yang), and then accepts an invitation to an obvious trap.

The good life is not that fulfilling An aesthetic death for David Chiang

The epic confrontation between Ma and Boss Yang is a protracted fight scene laced with metaphor in a way that few Chang Cheh films are. Ma arrives at the restaurant for his meeting with Yang. The ambush setup is almost an exact replica of Ti Lung's death in Vengeance, down to the ax in the stomach, plus David Chiang's climb to the top of the staircase at the end. He is mortally wounded and, in typical Chang Cheh fashion, strips to the waist, and battles his armed enemies with bare hands. The raw energy of this fight is stunning. Ma repeatedly tries to climb the stairs where Boss Yang is standing and enjoying the spectacle, but every time he is pulled back into the fray by some underling.

Tien Ching argues metaphysics with Shum Lo Apocalyptic final battle, mortally wounded hero

Having realized the futility of his attempts, Ma brings down the staircase and kills Yang. He emerges the victor but he is doomed. When one surviving Yang gang member slashes him from the back, he can scarcely bring himself to fight. Instead, he laughs and laughs, underscoring the irony of achieving his dream by destroying the very hierarchical structure that he was trying to climb. He has sacrificed everything for nothing and his only consolation would perhaps be that Tan's death was properly avenged.

Still attempting to climb the stairs... ...and trying to drag himself up to the end

The film is pretty entertaining and although perhaps not as good as some of the later collaborations still delivers. The fights are exceptionally well done, and Chen Kuan Tai gets to display his martial arts skills in addition to some good acrobatics. The fights are not flashy, and are quite bloody instead of being stylized.

The Celestial Pictures DVD is very nice, with an anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer. Only the Mandarin dub is included (DD 2.0), and I have heard that it has been "enhanced" by things like chirping birds. I am not a purist in the extreme sense so I don't object to small meddling with the original. The English subtitles are generally free of errors and are easy to read. The extras are few: photo gallery, trailers, and talent bios. A recommended buy for fans of the genre, the lead actors, and the director.

July 5, 2004