This past weekend, the organizers of the Old School Kung Fu Fest at Anthology Film Archives were the only people to do something that should be happening around the world this year, over and over and over again: they held a Lau Kar-leung retrospective. Lau forged the very soul of the kung fu film, and almost every martial-arts or action movie made since 1975 owes him a huge debt, from Ip Man to, believe it or not, Dirty Dancing. Lau passed away in 2013, and with him went an entire school of filmmaking. As he said in an interview toward the end of his life: “Action films today are all special effects, and everything is drawn up on the computer. The spirit is gone.” 

But it lives on in his films.

Lau got his start working on Hong Kong’s Wong Fei-hung serial that ran from 1949 to 1970, shooting something like 77 installments. It was the cinematic training ground for both Simon Yuen, father of Yuen Wo-ping, and Lau Cham, father of Lau Kar-leung and third-generation disciple of the real-life Wong Fei-hung. Hooking up with Tong Kai, another action choreographer who worked on the Wong Fei-hung series, Lau and Tong choreographed action before the job even had a name. They both worked on Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles, which shot in Hong Kong in 1966, a watershed moment for the Hong Kong industry that taught a whole host of new tricks to Hong Kong action directors, most importantly introducing the idea that an actor’s reaction to blows was essential to making action look realistic. 

Lau and Tong choreographed all of Chang Cheh’s important early films, like One-Armed Swordsman (67), <em>The Golden Swallow (68), The Return of the One-Armed Swordsman (69), The Blood Brothers (73), and Heroes Two (74). In 1975, Lau directed his first film, The Spiritual Boxer, a kung fu comedy, and then proceeded to turn out 18 martial-arts movies for Shaw before shooting what came to be pretty much the last Shaw Brothers movie of all, Martial Arts of Shaolin (86). Inspired by Lau Kar-leung’s films which had revived interest in the Shaolin Temple, China had authorized a series of massive Shaolin movies shot at the temple itself, starring a young, unknown martial artist named Jet Li. MAOS was the third of these, and it was during its production that Shaw decided to get out of the film business altogether. Afterwards, Run Run Shaw shut down the company’s film arm and devoted all his resources to his television channel TVB. Without the shelter of the Shaw studio, Lau never hit those same heights again.

Putting the emphasis on the master-student relationship, Lau’s string of 18 Shaw Brothers films are thoughtful ass-kickers that treat kung fu realistically, pit style against style (Northern Leg vs. Southern Fist! Snake vs. Eagle! Monkey Boxing vs. Drunken Boxing!), and draw their stories from the folklore of kung fu itself. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (78) stars Gordon Liu as a young idiot who seeks sanctuary inside the Shaolin monastery, and the centerpiece of the film is a training sequence that’s an hour-long cinematic tone poem about discipline, focus, and commitment. Every training montage, every movie with a stern master tough-loving their student into a more evolved personality, owes a debt to Lau. Dirty Dancing could be Lau’s Challenge of the Masters if you turned Gordon Liu into Jennifer Grey and Chen Kuan-tai into Patrick Swayze. Nobody puts Wong Fei-hung in a corner.

Few white people have thought as long and hard about how Hong Kong movies work as the scholar David Bordwell. If you don’t own a copy of his book Planet Hong Kong, you need to fix that now. It’s out of print, but he sells a PDF version directly here for $15, featuring tons of color photos and a deep—I mean, deeeeeeeeep—formal analysis of how Hong Kong filmmakers do what they do.

“Lau Kar-leung is the one of the only filmmakers who actually had hands-on martial arts experience,” Bordwell says when I call him up to talk about Lau. “The others were trained entertainers, not martial artists. Bruce Lee was a martial artist, but he never figured out a very complicated film technique. You put Bruce in a movie, and you watch Bruce, but Lau had a magic touch for editing, staging, patterns of color . . . He was a born filmmaker. Just look at the sheer diversity of films that he made. Chang Cheh really made the same kind of film over and over again, but Lau Kar-leung can go from comedy, to melodrama, to hardass action, to bleak stuff, and mix them all together in the same film. 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is a harsh, bleak movie but there’s this nutso comedy in the middle. His movies are in constant flux.” 

One constant in Lau’s movies is the emphasis on narrative, at every level. Each of his movies is one overarching narrative that contains dozens of little stories (setpieces), each of which contains smaller stories (sequences). Dirty Ho (79) is about a disguised prince who has to recruit a con man to help him fight his way back to the imperial palace and stop a conspiracy. There’s very little connective tissue in this film; instead, it’s broken up into eight big set pieces. The first is a scene in a brothel where Gordon Liu (playing the prince) is on a pleasure barge docked next to Wong Yue (playing the con man). The two men separately compete to keep the attention of the most prostitutes by giving them more and more extravagant gifts. When they finally run into each other, Liu gets the upper hand and confiscates Wong’s cash, but Wong sneaks back onto the boat to take back his money. Liu fights Wong but conceals his martial-arts skills, manipulating the body of a prostitute (Kara Hui) to beat him down. At the end, Wong is wounded with a poisoned sword that moves the plot forward to its next beat.

This opening set piece is exactly 15 minutes long, and it’s made up of many small components: the men compete over prostitutes, ending in a confrontation, which ends when the police show up, which ends when Gordon tricks Wong out of his money, which ends when the police take Wong away, which ends when he sneaks back to the boat to get his money, which ends when Liu fights him using Kara Hui’s body, which ends when he’s poisoned. Each of these sequences has a beginning, a middle, and an end. This kind of story embedded in a larger story is especially evident when you look at Lau’s credit sequences. Dirty Ho starts with a blast of Seventies danger trumpets, then acts out the entire plot of the movie, start to finish, on a blank white soundstage. 

Bordwell puts it this way: “I tend to think that what he does is he takes certain things that are already there in the genre and decides he can work all these elaborate variations on them. Think of the training sessions in early Jackie Chan films, shot outdoors, fast and cheap. Lau decided he could elaborate on these and build them into powerful visual setpieces, like in 36th Chamber, in which each obstacle becomes a scene of struggle, each one becomes a mini-plot in itself. You don’t see a lot of that in Chang Cheh films. Those are mostly not about the preparation, but about the vengeance. In One-Armed Swordsman you assume there’s a lot of training going on, but Chang skips over that because his emphasis is on the clash of individuals. But Lau’s plots are stories of spiritual redemption, of people overcoming obstacles to rise to the occasion.” 

It’s not just Lau’s martial-arts skills that are so impressive, but his filmmaking. “Lau found a way to cut fast on the big screen, but keep everything clear,” Bordwell points out. “This dude is cutting three-, four-, five-second shots, which is fast, across the whole movie, but they don’t feel like fast cuts because everything is perfectly composed. He’s cutting like a mad bastard, but the way he’s staging, centering the image, putting it off-center, it’s all perfectly judged so it doesn’t feel frantic.

“I love his zooms,” he continues. “There will be a fight, and there comes a pause and he’ll zoom in on some detail, then there will be a cut and he’ll zoom back out again from another angle and they start fighting again. It’s a little pause, like a semicolon, and when you think about them working this out on the set, it’s really something.” 

While a lot is made in Hong Kong film criticism about the New Wave directors like Tsui Hark and Ann Hui who burst onto the scene in the late Seventies, fresh out of their overseas films schools, Bordwell makes another point: “Alongside the New Wave were the people who came up through the studios—Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Kwai, Lau Kar-leung. These guys didn’t go to high school let alone film school, but in a studio situation like at Shaw, somehow a certain magic takes place. You have all these people in the same place at the same time and this amazing flow of creative power comes out. That was definitely the case with Shaw Brothers from the late Sixties through the mid-Eighties.” 

Before he died, Lau said in an interview: “No one cares about this stuff anymore. But I’ve always had kung fu. It’s given me spirit and strength, and it’s taught me to be sincere and honest. This is the morality of kung fu. I really can’t find a reason to make another kung fu film. The big stars are busy, and not all actors know it; I’ll have to teach them and I don’t have the time.”

It turned out that he didn’t have the time, but if one director is ripe for rediscovery, it’s Lau Kar-leung. As Bordwell says: “There’s an enigma about this guy and what he did. Now that we’ve got all his films intact, someone needs to go through the archives and do the interviews. Someone needs to write the book.”


… David Bordwell has written extensively on Lau Kar-leung before.

He’s also written on Shaw Brothers and Hong Kong’s use of anamorphic widescreen—better known to fans as SHAWSCOPE!

Here he delivers a well-reasoned argument on why Hollywood action filmmaking is a pale, wan thing, while Hong Kong directors seem to do so much more with so much less.

And don’t miss his writing about Johnnie To’s movies including Mad Detective and Drug War.

… If you’re looking for more on Lau Kar-leung, check out this Cahiers du cinéma interview by Olivier Assayas and Charles Tesson.

… Or this 2003 interview from the South China Morning Post in which he threatens to kill the interviewer.