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OBIT: Martial Master Lau Kar-leung (1936 – 2013) (TRAILER)

OBIT: Martial Master Lau Kar-leung (1936 - 2013) (TRAILER)

The pioneering martial arts choreographer and director Lau Kar-leung, who died this week at age 77, was a kung fu purist. 

He was a stylish martial acrobat but as a movie director he was not a great stylist. Unlike the other top action film directors who were his colleagues at Hong Kong’s Shaw Bothers studio in the 1970s, such as Chang Cheh and Chor Yuen, Lau made violent masculine melodrama or elaborately staged magical conspiracies.

Lau had, however, a vivid imagination and great skill when it came to devising and staging fight sequences, and he was a sincere advocate for the Chinese martial arts themselves and of their cultural context, the traditional values of teacher-student fealty and family and clan loyalty inculcated by his father and first teacher, Lau Charn.

In fact, Lau was a key figure in every phase of Hong Kong martial arts movie making. He became a performer and a martial arts choreographer (or “fighting instructor”) in the Wong Fei-hong films in the ’50s, and in the 1960s, with collaborator Tang Chia, brought unprecedented martial authenticity to “New Style” Mandarin-language wu xia swordplay films such as “The Jade Bow” (1965).

The senior Lau claimed a direct martial lineage from “Magnificent Butcher” Lam Sai-wing, a disciple of turn-of-the-20th-century Hong Fist legend and latter-day iconic HK movie character Wong Fei-hong. Lau Charn played Lam in the early films of the long series of black-and-white B pictures about Wong that began production in HK the late 1940s. Kar-leung entered the family business as an extra and stuntman on his dad’s films around 1950.

Lau conceived and directed what is widely regarded as the definitive historical Chinese martial arts movie, “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” (1978), starring his adopted martial brother Gordon Lau Kar-wing aka Gordon Liu (“Kill Bill”). Based on a Cantonese pulp novel of the 1940s, the film gave lasting shape to the central populist myth of the Shaolin Monastery, the story of a fugitive from oppression who works his way through a series of grueling training rituals, acquiring skills that enable him to turn the tables on his enemies.

The classic martial arts movies Lau made at Shaw Brothers also included  “Challenge of the Masters” (1976), “Executioners from Shaolin” (1977), “Heroes of the East” (1978), “My Young Auntie” (1981) and “Legendary Weapons of China” (1982). Later he did strong work with younger performers such as Jet Li, in “Martial Arts of Shaolin” (1986), and Jackie Chan, in “Drunken Master II” (1994).

At Shaws, Lau and Tang choreographed most to the violent macho kung fu films of Chang Cheh, including “Men From the Monastary” (1974), “Five Shaolin Masters” (1974) and “Shaolin Martial Arts” (1974). And in his first film as a director, “The Spiritual Boxer” ( 1976), Lau created nothing less than a new sub-genre, the raucous kung fu comedy, which would become a Hong Kong staple in the 1980s in the work of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung.

This Japanese TV segment has cool footage of Lau sifu directing Gordon in “The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter” (1983). No English, unfortunately.

And the final fight sequence from the film:

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Thanks for the informed and respectful appreciation, D.C., and especially for the video clip, English or no. I don't think I've ever seen footage of the workaday behind-the-scenes routine at Shaws' Movietown (although there's probably more out there if I search for it).

One small quibble – while I wouldn't call Lau a "great" stylist, I don't think he should be dismissed out of hand as a stylist by any means. No action filmmaker in Hong Kong at that time was working at a Kurosawa level, but Lau's movies were more visually deft and elegant than most (compare them to the contemporary work of Chang Cheh, who after the '60s wasn't much of a director, in my opinion). The way he used staging, framing and editing to increase clarity and impact, and not just in action scenes, is the work of an expert, even if in other ways he shared some of the tacky idiosyncrasies common in the industry in those days. Re-read David Bordwell's discussion in "Planet Hong Kong" (pp. 229-231 of the first edition) of a scene from "Legendary Weapons of China" for a nice example and explanation.


I would argue that 8 DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER, despite its prosaic title, is the best kung fu film ever made. It's got a powerful emotional subtext as we see the erosion of the great Yang Clan amidst political maneuvering and violent attacks by an opposing force in 10th century. The emotions are enhanced by the tragic fact of the death of one of the film's stars, Alexander Fu Sheng, in an auto accident right in the middle of the production (10 years to the month after Bruce Lee's death). Fu Sheng's character goes mad in the course of the film and disappears at some point, with his brother, played by Gordon Liu, and sister, played by Kara Hui Ying Hung, wreaking vengeance for their clan. An air of tragic melancholy imbues the whole production. This film and 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN are Lau's most sophisticated films and belong on any list of great Hong Kong movies.

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