After writing a review of The Stranger and the Gunfighter, also starring Lo Lieh, I thought it was a good idea to revisit this groundbreaking movie - groundbreaking in the sense that it was the first movie of its kind to get a proper US release and the one that opened up the market and paved the way for Bruce Lee and all others.
In King Boxer Lo Lieh is a young man called Chi-Hao who was adopted, after the death of his parents, by Wu Yang, the owner of small martial arts school in the countryside, who introduced him to the noble art of Kung Fu. Chi-Hao has also fallen in love with the master's daughter, Ying Ying. When the master thinks he's no longer able to teach Chi-Hao anything, he sends him to the big city, to study under a more qualified master, Hsin-Pei. Chi-Hao soon becomes Hsin Pei's best student and is selected to represent his school in a major tournament. Hsin Pei is keen on beating his major rival, the evil school owner Tung Shan, and therefore introduces Chi-Hao to his most precious secret: the dead palm technique.
The story of King Boxer1 is very pedestrian2, it's the usual stuff about two martial arts schools fighting each other (to the death if necessary) in the face of an important tournament, one school good, the other school pure evil, the good guys very noble, the evil ones fighting dirty and collaborating with the Japanese. There's one traitor among the good guys, who's jealous of Chi-Hao and lures him to a place in the woods, so two hired Japanese thugs can crush his hands. To restore the balance between good and bad, one of the evil guys eventually changes sides.
I saw King Boxer for the first time in 1972, along with several hundreds of excited teenagers in a cinema in my hometown Eindhoven. More than forty years later, some scenes bring back vivid memories: the deadly hands turning red, the eerie music playing over those scenes, the guy with the unstoppable forehead ... This guy, and his forehead technique, inspired Dutch censors - usually very lenient - to make a few cuts: they were afraid young people would imitate them. A few weeks after the release of the movie, a football player was knocked out with the technique by his opponent in a Dutch premier league game ... Not only teenagers watched those movies and were inspired by them.
Before joining the Shaw brothers studio, Lo Lieh had attended acting school and his rather laid-back acting style compared favorably to the jittery style of most of his colleagues; on the other hand he had only started the study martial arts at adult age, and as a martial artist he was no match for Bruce Lee or Chen Kuan Tai (the hero of Chang Cheh's classic The Boxer from Shantung). Apparently Warner Brothers were very careful in selecting which film they were going to use to introduce the genre to western audiences and Lo Lieh's charisma and natural acting style were no doubt reasons to pick this movie. Anyway, King Boxer was a good choice. The fisticuffs are short and intense and dialogue is always to the point. The script may be a bit simplistic, but the storytelling is fluent and characterizations are colorful: that unstoppable forehead must be one of the most memorable villains in the history of the genre.
But what made King Boxer so special in those days, was of course the level of violence, never seen before in western cinemas. There's spurting blood, hands are crushed and eyes are gouged out (!). Apart from the violence, the rather virulent anti-Japanese message caused some frowning; it would be interesting to know if these movies were shown in Japan, and if so, in what form. It's by the way quite hard to understand why those censors cut the scenes with the forehead technique, and let some extremely gross scenes intact. All censors are equally foolish, but some equals are more censor than others.
(1) The original title of the movie is Tiānxià dì yī quán (天下第一拳) literally The World's Number one Fist, which could indeed be read as 'king Boxer'; the title was changed into Five Fingers of Death for the US market. Some prints in circulation were titled The Invincible Boxer, which was misread by the Dutch distributor and translated as De Onzichtbare Bokser (Onzichtbaar = invisible !)
(2) According to the Hong Kong Movie Database, the script is a reworking of Jimmy Wang Yu's The Chinese Boxer (1970)