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: