(Movie Review by Kevin Nickelson) Have you ever visited a home where the décor wildly differs from room to room? There is the main living room, usually reserved for guests, decked out in something vaguely similar to Victorian style. You move to the kitchen, which is 90’s glass and wood panel. Turn left down the hall and you go face-to-face with the kids’ bedroom, done in the best goth style a minimum wage, part-time job can buy. Yet it all seems to come together when you look at it as a whole. That is exactly the feeling you get watching Lau Kar Leung’s “Zhong hua zhang fu (Heroes of the East)”. Produced in 1979 by the martial arts movie icon Shaw Brothers of Hong Kong, “Heroes of the East” is an odd but ultimately exciting mix of broad “Taming of the Shrew”-type comedy, culture clash dramatics, and stunning action sequences.
Gordon Liu stars as Ah To, a Chinese martial arts expert forced into an arranged marriage by his uncle to a Japanese beauty named Kung Zi (the delightful Yuko Mizuno). Zi has been betrothed to To since childhood. A battle of the sexes begins when she boasts of the Japanese forms of martial artistry being superior to that of the Chinese. Zi proceeds to not only insult the Chinese forms of combat but also uses To’s home for a practice facility for her study of Jujitsu. The proud To retaliates with equally scathing insults, causing both a breakup and Zi returning to Japan. Alone, To realizes he is in love with Zi. With the help of his klutzy friend Shou (a hilarious Kang-Yeh Cheng), To devises a scheme to get Zi back by challenging her to a Chinese/Japanese martial arts competition. Zi shows the letter to her Jujitsu mentor and some of his friends, each experts in specific forms of combat. Enraged, the group journeys with Zi to confront an unsuspecting To and make him fight each of them in their own challenge. Needing expert advice on how to counteract their weapons and styles with his own, To seeks out the help of friends as well as a drunken master (a riotous cameo by director Leung). The end result is a wicked series of high-flying moves and lightning fast action.
“Heroes of the East” is unusual for a 70’s martial arts film in that there are no killings and no gore, yet there is still tense action with an ample dose of comedy thrown in. There are none of the deadly earnest themes like revenge, codes of honor, and blood feuds that were too often used, to dull effect, during that period. Director Lau Kar Leung deliberately sets out to make a film that is both a hilarious clash of wills and a serious study of two dynamic cultures and succeeds on both counts. He is also no amateur when it comes to fight scenes. Himself a martial arts master, Leung handles the fight choreography duties for “Heroes of the East” and offers a fine amalgam of fierce, ballet-like stunts and dizzying hand-to-hand contact. It’s almost a primeval dance recital. Elegant yet brutal.
Star Gordon Liu shows immense likability as To, imbuing the character with a mixture of strength and frailty to make a very human hero. As the character and the film progress, Liu shows how To’s pride, honor, and ego become his greatest obstacles in his attempt to find love with Zi. Liu also shows some amazing athleticism during the action sequences. He comes precariously close to Bruce Lee’s ability of elevating to an other-worldly level of raw energy. Liu is matched every step of the way by Mizuno as Zi. Mizuno compares favorably to classic Hollywood actresses like Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis with her mixture of iron will strength and free spirit individuality. The chemistry between the two leads is engaging and tangible. And Mizuno shows her own cat-like reflexes and limber frame during several of the action scenes.
The comedy elements are well-handled by both cast and director. Liu and Mizuno show deft flairs for humor, especially during early scenes. One example is when Zi turns her new home into a practice room and demolishes nearly everything in sight as To struggles to save some precious heirlooms. Director Leung infuses much frenetic slapstick energy in this scene and throughout the film, giving an amiable feel to the proceedings. Amongst a terrific cast, Kang-Yeh Cheng lends nice support as To’s best friend Shou, a genial but pratfall-prone klutz who does more to get To into trouble than out of it. A gifted comic actor, Cheng uses all his acting tools, physicality, and timing to good effect here.
“Heroes of the East” is not without some problems. The cinematography suffers from excessive use, by director Leung and cameraman Arthur Wong, of zooms and pan-out shots. To be fair, this was standard for many kung fu action films of the time. It still manages to be little more than static and uninventive. A broader repertoire of camera angles can give a film a more expansive look as well as bring more of a kineticism to the action set-pieces. Of course, even a better use of the camera could not hide the obvious overuse of studio-bound sets. This, along with some very poor background mattes, gives a bit of cheapness to the production.
Fans should enjoy the dvd re-issue of “Heroes of the East”. Released by Celestial Films and Dragon Dynasty, the package contains a beautiful, digitally remastered print of the film, audio commentary by film expert Bey Logan, a documentary piece on the director, an interview with Gordon Liu, and a segment on martial arts weapon forms of China and Japan. The interview with Gordon Liu was especially interesting as he talks of attempts by his father to dissuade him from pursuing passions for western music and martial arts.
“Heroes of the East” is a highly enjoyable mix of comedy, drama, and action that, like the multi-style deco nightmare of a home, works best when you view it from a broader whole rather than the individual parts. It’s high entertainment. Well, maybe not the same level of entertainment as the goth/southwestern/nouveau homegrown hell the neighbor lives in down the street, but a dvd is cheaper and you can turn it off and walk away when your done.
Lau Kar-Leung (director), Ni Kuang (screenplay)
CAST: Gordon Liu Chia-Hui … Ah To
Mizuno Yuko … Kung Zi
Kurata Yasuaki … Takeno
Cheng Kang-Yeh … Shou Kwan
Cheng Miu … Ah To’s father
Norman Chu Siu-Keung … Wang Chun Keung
Liu Chia-Liang … So