Director: John Lo Mar
Writer: Ni Kuang
Producer: Mona Fong
Cast: Ng Yuen Jun, Kwan Feng, Wong Mei Mei, Lau Fong Sai, Wang Sha, Lam Fai Wong, Lau Hok Nin, Keung Hon, Cheng Miu, Chiang Cheng, Baan Yun Sang, Chan Fai Kei, Cheung Hei, Chin Siu Ho, Chow Gam Kong, Chui Fat
Running Time: 92 min.
By Martin Sandison
Being the two main choreographers of the classic Shaw Brothers output, Lau Kar Leung and Tang Chia’s contribution to martial arts cinema with the great studio cannot be denied. The Venoms came in to their own towards the end, but one man to me is the third best and creator of some of the finest Shaws action: Hsu Hsia.
Beginning as an extra and actor in the 60’s, he appeared in ridiculous amount of classics including The Duel and The Deadly Duo. As the late 70’s Independent kung fu boom occurred, he worked on the action in the immortal Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master under Yuen Woo Ping. He also acted in the latter as the ‘King of Sticks’, his most memorable part.
In 1979, Hsu moved back to Shaws as head choreographer and made two films: Five Superfighters and Boxer from the Temple. The former needs no introduction, and stands as one of the undisputed classics of the time, Shaw or not. As a viewer, I knew of and loved Five Superfighters, but was less aware of Boxer from the Temple. My anticipation mounted, and I hoped not to be disappointed.
The film is very interesting because it takes existing kung fu movie tropes of the time and twists them to create something with a little originality. The almost universal trope of the baby left by its sick/dying mother at a place of refuge opens the film, as the young one is left at the steps of the Shaolin Temple by the ‘mad lady’ who is never present onscreen. As in most genre films of the time, the lad is an outcast but is then trained by a Monk who takes a liking to him. The Temple scenes are short and to the point and the lad, nicknamed ‘Crazy Kid’ is cast out in the world not through his wrongdoings, just because he doesn’t fit in. He arrives at a village and makes friends easily, and becomes a chef in a Vegetarian restaurant! There, he gets involved with the local gangsters and ends up befriending a prostitute who has ran away from a brothel and has a young son.
It is no surprise that the screenplay is written by Ni Kuang, perhaps the all time greatest kung fu movie creator. By 1979, Kuang was dividing his time between Shaws and independent studios, and had written my childhood favourite Death Duel of Kung Fu the same year. His ability to weave simple storylines into classic kung fu is undeniable, and Boxer From the Temple sees him really challenge himself. The dialogue and actions of the ‘Crazy Kid’ are at turns naive, naturalistic and surprising for a kung fu film; one scene sees him discussing the prostitute, with such an innocent mindset that he didn’t consider her former profession a hindrance to their getting together. This reinforces the depth of the depiction of his character tenfold, and sets up the bite of the reality sandwich that occurs later in the narrative.
Starring as ‘Crazy Kid’, Ng Yuen Jun appeared in Five Superfighters in one of the main roles, and carries Boxer from the Temple like a veteran. He is in A Deadly Secret, also choreographed by Hsu Hsia. That’s definitely on my list. It’s a shame Ng’s career never really took off, as his action and acting chops are exemplary. In Boxer from the Temple, he really gets to shine, and it is his signature role.
Starring as the prostitute San Niang, Wong Mei Mei made her debut in the film. She also has small roles in some other Shaw films, such as Holy Flame of the Martial World and Roving Sworsdman. She was a favourite of Hsu Hsia, and worked on a lot of the films he was involved in. The penultimate villain is played by Lau Hok Nin as Lian Shang Yao, who was an independent player, only working on a few Shaw movies, mostly involving Hsu Hsia.
The ultimate villain Wang Chang Huai is played by Kwan Fung, who was in plenty of Shaw movies subsequent to Boxer From the Temple, including one of my personal favourites (with one of the best titles ever) Bastard Sworsdman, and one of the deepest Shaw movies Opium and the Kung Fu Master.
Playing Xiao Hei, ‘Crazy Kid’s’ best friend, Lau Fong Sai gets some good fight scenes and proves his kicking ability in a dramatic scene towards the end. A Shaw stalwart, his most unusual credit is main action director on Tsui Hark’s A Better Tomorrow 3. Presumably he took over the role of pyrotechnics after the Vietnamese film maker they hired blew himself up!
As the film’s first half progressed, I was impressed by the trope-breaking approach, but not by the action. Slow and overly comedic in approach with some terrible music cues, I was disappointed. However, this movie is another one wherein the fights get better as the movie goes on. By the third main fight I was in raptures, as Ng takes on room after room of baddies with excellent rhythm and a Chan-worthy comedic delivery. The end fight as he takes on both villains contains some stuff that’s up there with the best of Five Superfighters, and intensity-wise is a suitable payoff for the interesting narrative.
The film is in my humble opinion much more engaging story-wise than Five Superfighters, as that film was very formulaic. However the first rate level of the choreography and the frequency of the fights give it ultimate classic status. Unfortunately Boxer from the Temple suffers a little in this aspect, but the second half action more than makes up for this, and it is up there with the better lesser known Shaw Brothers films.
Martin Sandison’s Rating: 8.5/10