The Chinese Boxer Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: November 9, 2021
Audio: English and Mandarin LPCM 2.0 Mono
Run Time: 89:52
Director: Jimmy Wang Yu
When his martial arts school is viciously attacked by a rival gang of Japanese thugs, Lei Ming (Jimmy Wang Yu) swears to bring them down with violent justice. (From 88 Films’ official synopsis)
In the broadest international terms, Chinese/Hong Kong/Taiwanese martial arts movies – henceforth referred to as wuxia films – tend to be divided into the eras before Bruce Lee, after Bruce Lee, and after Hollywood’s adoption of wuxia techniques/filmmakers. Those of us that really care appreciate the periods and innovations in between, but even we tend to overlook the period before Bruce Lee’s influence. One year before Lee burst onto the scene with the Raymond Chow produced, Lo Wei & Wu Chia Hsiang directed The Big Boss (aka: Fists of Fury, 1971), Shaw Bros. star Jimmy Wang Yu made his directorial debut with The Chinese Boxer (aka: The Hammer of God, 1970). Some critics consider The Chinese Boxer to be the first true “kung-fu” film, because it was the first big hit of its kind in that it didn’t feature magical elements or extensive weapons work. Instead, Wang Yu focused on elaborate hand-to-hand combat and a closer to contemporary setting (the film doesn’t take place in 1970, but also doesn’t take place in some mythic past), which, in turn, inspired the likes of Lee and the people that followed his lead. Its screenplay, credited exclusively to Wang Yu, also shares plot points and anti-colonial sentiment with Lee and Lo Wei’s Big Boss follow-up, Fists of Fury (aka: The Chinese Connection, 1972), which was itself sequelized and remade a half-dozen times.
During critical retrospectives on the subject of Chinese/HK martial arts cinema, The Chinese Boxer recognition tends to be its innovation and/or place in Wang Yu’s greater filmography. As such, it has been unfairly ignored as a footnote by any but the most ardent fan, rather than an entertaining entry in a busy subgenre that proves every bit as satisfying as Big Boss or Fists of Fury. As a performer, Wang Yu worked and learned the ropes under influential director Cheh Chang, appearing in some of his greatest early films, including The Magnificent Trio (1966), The One-Armed Swordsman (1967), and The Golden Swallow (a sequel to King Hu’s 1966 classic Come Drink with Me, 1968). Additionally, he worked with renowned Shaw choreographers Chia-Liang Liu and Chia Tang, the latter of whom helped him when it came time to design the bloody-knuckled stunts of The Chinese Boxer. For good measure, Wang Yu pads out the cast with legendary actors, including Lieh Lo, two years before his super-star turn in King Boxer (aka: Five Fingers of Death, 1972), and One-Armed Swordsman co-stars Hsiung Chao and Lei Cheng.
Despite Wang Yu and his collaborators working out the kinks of this somewhat new approach to martial arts on-screen, the filmmaking surrounding the action is so dynamic that a slow wind-up here or soft connection there rarely matters. The frame is constantly busy, but not crowded, the camera keeps moving without cluttering the compositions, and the editing, while flashy and punctuated by plenty of those patented crash-zooms, remains focused. The simple, structured plot loses little momentum during the second act as it leads into a third act defined by training montages and revenge plans, something that would eventually evolve into one of the genre’s most common clichés. Even the bloody intensity of the violence helps set the stage for a gory next decade and a half of Shaw Bros. output. A warning in this regard to casual viewers – there is a surprisingly intense rape scene for a 1970 movie and a literal handful of sparrows is killed on screen.
The Chinese Boxer was a relative rarity here in the US over the years. I’m sure it played in theaters and on television, and bootlegs abound, but there was no official VHS or DVD release. 88 Films first released The Chinese Boxer on Blu-ray in the UK and that same disc is now available in North America (both the US and Canada). Other Blu-rays were available from Germany and Japan, but neither had English dub or subtitle options. In my experience, Shaw Bros. HD transfers tend to be pretty similar across the board, no matter what company is releasing them, excepting authoring issues (the German Chinese Boxer is, for example, 1080i). This particular 2.35:1, 1080p transfer follows suit with rich, bright colors and busy wide-angle details. The hues are consistent and the elements are neatly separated with support from strong black levels. Like most Shaw Bros. remasters, however, DNR has been applied to the entire film. While this doesn’t obviously affect textures too much (especially not in motion), the lack of film grain is noticeable, as is minor posterization, usually in close-ups. You’d be hard-pressed to notice any of these minor problems in motion. Also note: the mix of anamorphic lenses, varying focal lengths, and camera movement inherent in the Shaw Bros. house style leads to a lot of in-camera artifacts, such as distortion and blurriness, but these are not mastering/remastering problems.
The Chinese Boxer comes fitted with the Mandarin and English dubs, both in uncompressed LPCM 2.0 mono. It is my understanding that this era of Shaw Bros. films were shot without set-synced sound and that all tracks were dubbed in post. Being a Hong Kong-based studio at a time when Hong Kong was still a British colony, most of these movies would have needed English, Mandarin, and Cantonese audio and subtitle options (some folks may remember the days of HK movies on VHS, which would include Cantonese audio and two messy lines of Mandarin and English subtitles). The English track features all the same effects and music (the gambling den scenes, for example, have all the same non-English background walla), but is considerably louder than the Mandarin dub. On the other hand, it’s a bit squeezed, mashing Fu-Ling Wang’s music into less dynamic dialogue. As per usual, the mix of advantages and disadvantages make this a largely aesthetic choice.
Commentary with critic and author Samm Deighan – The associate editor of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast (with Kat Ellinger) covers the film’s production, its innovations, its influence on martial arts cinema, the films that influenced it, and careers of the cast & crew with emphasis on Jimmy Wang Yu. This concise and informative commentary fills its entire runtime with context, timelines, and an infectious critical celebration of the film.
Open Hand Combat (17:29, HD) – Journalist David West further explores the differences between wuxia (weapons work) and ‘open hand’ (hand and foot techniques) martial arts cinema, what The Chinese Boxer offered to the larger genre, Wang Yu’s greater career, and similarities between The Chinese Boxer and Akira Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata (1943) and its sequel, Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two (1945).
Wong Ching at Shaw (13:44, HD) – Actor Wong Ching (credited as Tsing Wang) discusses his experiences working with Shaw Bros and beyond, from actor to stunt performer and writer.
Trailers – US Hammer of God trailer, Hong Kong theatrical trailer, English export trailer, and US TV spot
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.