Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Five Fingers Of Death

Five Fingers Of Death is in many ways the prototypical Kung Fu movie. All the pleasures of the genre, naïve callow heroes, blind avengers, strange techniques, exotic training, dorm room philosophy, dastardly villains, flamboyant fodder, and of course jaw dropping Kung Fu, are present and accounted for.

Its appropriate then that Five Fingers Of Death (or King Boxer as its known in China) was the first Kung Fu movie given wide release in America (Predating Enter The Dragon by six months) its such a perfect summation of the genre’s pleasures, that it makes for a perfect ambassador. (And an influential one, Kill Bill Fans will get a nice surprise, Tarantino actually does a superlative commentary track with the great Elvis Mitchell on this one.)

The Five Fingers, tells the story of a young martial arts student, sent to learn The Iron Palm Technique at a distant dojo. There he finds himself drawn into a long standing feud between his master’s honorable school, and the one of the biggest douche to ever run a martial arts school. Through his colorful mercenaries, the giant douche has been in control of the martial arts in the area, but with the arrival of Lo Lieh, he even goes so far as to hire the sneaky sneaky Japanese to help him achieve victory (Warning this like many Chinese films made in the first few decades after World War II does not have a view of The Japanese that one would call PC).

The story is nothing you haven’t seen before, complicated only by the jealousy of a passed over student and the loyalty of a Dance Hall girl who is ultimately, and disappointedly rejected for the girl back home. But once again that’s kind of the point, the ease and skill with which Five Fingers Of Death puts itself through the paces is kind of astounding in its own way. When a dishonored blind man seeks to redeem himself with great vengeance and furious anger, it’s the most ass kickingly awesome dishonored blind man seeking redemption through great vengeance and furious anger that you’ve ever seen. When there’s a training montage, there’s a hell of a training montage, with Lieh dipping his hands into real hot coals. When there’s a fall it comes with a torture scene that’ll make you squeamish despite not showing anything. And when it comes time for Lieh to lay waste to a roomful of his enemies or decimate a villainous master… Well brother I believe you get the picture.

While Lo Lieh doesn’t have the natural charisma of say Bruce Lee, Sonny Chiba, Jet Li, or Jackie Chan, what he lacks in flashiness he makes up for with sheer competence. They don’t try to make Lieh a superman, he gets his ass roundly handed to him more then once in this thing. But It’s clear that Lieh can do everything that we see him do (Well up to a point I doubt if you where to break his hands by beating them with Iron Bars for a few hours he’d come up smiling after a brief convalescence, nor do I believe he can make his hands actually glow. But you get the point). He carries himself to with an ease and confidence only experience can bring.

(That man's hands are glowing! What in God's holy name would possess you to fight him?)

As an entry point into a genre that is often so inexhaustible that it can be intimidating, Five Fingers Of Death is more or less perfect (though modern viewers might find it a little slow at first their patience will be rewarded). As a reminder to the hardened fan of just about everything fun about the genre its works perfectly as well.


Franco Macabro said...

Cool, Ive seen lots of Kung Fu movies, but I havent seen this one. Was the copy you watched a good one? I mean, some of these Kung Fu movies are pretty badly transfered, I want to make sure I get a good copy of this flick.

Have you seen Duel to the Death? I always recommend that one cause its so freaking excellent! Its got Kung Fu, Ninjas and Karate plus Samurais! Movie is nuts, lots of fun every step of the way!

Thanks for this review man!

Bryce Wilson said...

Yeah the copy I saw was done by Dragon Dynasty. They're owned by The Weinsteins and have been doing some beautiful restorations on the old Shaw Brothers films.

I haven't seen Duel To The Death, but given your description I am now sure to.

Unknown said...

Oh yeah, this is a great film - a Shaw Bros. classic to be sure. I too have the Dragon Dynasty version which features a beautiful print as you point out. Also, this film is a fave of John Carpenter's and inspired him to take the directing gig for BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA.

Bryce Wilson said...

Huh had no idea on the Carpenter connection thanks for the info.

Anonymous said...

Great review. I had no idea about the Carpenter connection either. Awesome.

Unknown said...

great review! i'll have to check it out now. I tend to stick to Sammo Hung, Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies. But I do know that i really like Shaw brothers movies in general.

I also found a good kung fu fansite here: I'm pretty sure the guy is still building it but what he already has up is pretty cool.