cast: Ti Lung, Jimmy Wang, and Kuan Tai Chen
director: Lau Kar-leung
99 minutes (18) 1975
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Momentum Asia DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Martin Drury
The Spiritual Boxer challenges the kung fu ‘iron armour’ myth, which states that fighters are invincible to guns or knives. The Spiritual Boxer is on the run from the law. Soon, the Spiritual Boxer develops the skill to foretell future events and at last becomes ready to conquer the world. To say this film is confusing is to make the understatement of the century. The Chinese dialogue and English language subtitles fail to fit and as such all of the film appears farcical. Having to constantly read the subtitles to understand what is going on in the film is distracting and much of the action is missed as the viewer digests tiny white letters as they appear at the bottom of the screen.
Ninety-nine minutes is an excruciating length for this film as characters standing around talking about honour and courage in battle fill many of the moments on screen. The casual movie viewer has little to no interest in the proving or indeed the dismantling of ancient kung fu myths and there’s nothing to drive the plot of the film onwards, nothing to grab the viewer by the scruff of the neck. Every day life in the
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China of 100 years ago is fascinating but the depiction of such a world belongs in a documentary. The kung fu villains Fung Hak On and Lee Hoi San keep their allotted appointment with the hero and provide fierce, intense opposition to the Spiritual Boxer but the challenge to the mission of the hero by those who skulk in shadows feels predictable and so much of this film remains unsatisfying after consumption.
Women dress up as men in an unconvincing fashion in the film and at one stage parallels with Shakespeare’s love affair with deception within the sexes are exposed. The film addresses the issues of religion and leadership well and is original in its portrayal of a doomed man receiving so much applause and so many followers. Siu Chien is a fraud. He pretends to be a master of spiritual boxing, calling on the Gods for guidance through strange rituals designed to enchant and intoxicate the audience. The Spiritual Boxer is an illusion sketched onto a man. Eventually, true masters of the craft of kung fu see through the elaborate charade and Chien is forced to flee. This is a film about tricksters conning people for profit, the gullibility of villagers influenced by legend, the money that can be made from lies and the effect guilt and remorse can have on a conman.
Yet, so much of the film itself feels like a con perpetrated on the viewer. One expected a kung fu romp. One received a boring journey through ancient China. One expected a plot. One received a film full of persons unknown discussing legends little heard of outside of the Far East. The Spiritual Boxer will leave you feeling short-changed.