Goodhearted kung fu guy Chao Chih-Hao (Lo Lieh) is urged by Master Sung (Ku Wen-Chung) to forget about settling down with nice girl Ying Ying (Wang Ping) and hone his fighting skills under the tutelage of renowned Master Suen (Fang Mian). On his journey to the city Chao rescues pretty singer Yen (Wong Gam-Fung) from thugs secretly employed by Suen's arch-rival Meng Tung-Shan (Tien Feng). Meng's main aim is to help his son Tien-Hsiung (Tung Lam), a no-good gangster with a cigarette holder forever dangling from a permanent sneer, triumph at the upcoming all-important martial arts tournament. To that end he employs an array of martial arts villains to mess with Suen's students. After enduring a year of servitude and endless mockery from fellow students and enemies alike, Chao bests Meng's head-butting heavy Chen Lang (Gam Kei-Chu) in a bar room brawl. A grateful Suen bestows Chao with his fabled Iron Fist Manual whereby, after punching bare fists into hot coals, his hands become lethal weapons.
This ancient technique also makes Chao's palms glow red while the soundtrack plays Quincy Jones' siren theme from that old Raymond Burr detective show Ironside whenever he gets mad! More than thirty years later Quentin Tarantino lifted the same musical cue in loving tribute for his own martial arts movie, Kill Bill (2003). Produced by the legendary Shaw Brothers studio, King Boxer was the first Hong Kong martial arts film to play the American grindhouse circuit under its enduring alternate title: Five Fingers of Death. However it was not the first of its kind nor even the first from the studio. Superstar Jimmy Wang Yu pioneered the modern kung fu film at Shaw Brothers with his directorial debut The Chinese Boxer (1969). His film was an enormous success across Asia and on the international scene albeit some years later. Yet when Wang Yu broke away from Shaw Brothers, studio head Sir Run Run Shaw withheld his opus from the foreign market and fast-tracked the cash-in King Boxer with established star Lo Lieh under the direction of unsung yet talented and versatile Korean filmmaker Cheng Chang-Ho.
To this day the debate rages as to whether Jimmy Wang Yu or Run Run Shaw conceived the idea for Chinese Boxer. What remains indisputable though is Five Fingers of Death cracked the American market paving the way not just for more Shaw's product but Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, John Woo, basically the entire legacy of Hong Kong cinema. It also briefly made scowling Lo Lieh an international star before the more handsome and even more badass Bruce Lee stole his thunder. While Bruce landed the lead in a Hollywood film and became an immortal icon, almost everyone outside Hong Kong forgot about poor Lo. Only Italian filmmakers capitalized on his flurry of fame with choice cult items Supermen Against the Orient (1974) and The Stranger and the Gunfighter (1975). Still Lo had by far the more enduring and versatile career jumping from hero to martial arts villainy (Executioners from Shaolin (1977) as white-haired monk Pai Mei, the role his co-star Gordon Liu recreated for Tarantino's Kill Bill), horror (Black Magic Part 2: Revenge of the Zombies (1976), Human Skin Lanterns (1982)), sexploitation (Bamboo House of Dolls (1973)), comedy (Family Light Affair (1984)) and drama (his last role: Glass Tears (2001)). He also directed several films with at least one genre classic to his name (Clan of the White Lotus (1980) where he reprised the role of Pai Mei).
With King Boxer Cheng Chang-Ho established the classic kung fu scenario copied ad infinitum well into the twenty-first century by less imaginative filmmakers. You have your honorable yet angst-ridden hero caught in a feud between rival kung fu schools who must endure a brutal training regime to avenge his murdered master. If the plot hits all the familiar beats the film at least boasts a pace and energy that keeps things fresh, lively and compelling by comparison with other stodgy vintage kung fu films. It also etches some intriguingly complex relationships. Chao's humility and proficiency with martial arts arouses the ire of fellow student Han (James Nam) who also harbours a crush on Yen. Han's foolish quest to prove himself top dog provides him with his own intriguing mini character arc that climaxes in spectacularly brutal fashion and tragically takes collateral damage claiming one kindly, ill-fated supporting player. At the same time Chao's selflessness also inspires a change of heart in one notable villain. As was common in the work of Akira Kurosawa, Cheng Chang-Ho fuses martial arts with a humanistic outlook. He posits that if evil is contagious then so must be good.
Given the importance Chinese culture attaches to seniority it is fascinating to observe the sadistic undertones to each of the wise old martial arts masters. For while the villainous Meng is drawn as someone who hides his sadism beneath a cloak of righteousness, Chao's supposedly benevolent elders do not come across much better. Each employs emotional blackmail to coerce the hero into sacrificing his body, spirit and personal happiness for the sake of a tournament that, in light of the shattering climax, is ultimately meaningless. In King Boxer, the good, the bad, the innocent and the flawed all suffer equally in a story that is powerful yet profoundly nihilistic.