At the turn of the century, during the Boxer Rebellion, a secret sect of mystical martial artists try to train their students to survive western gunfire. In attempting this impossible feat several students die. Appalled by this senseless loss of life, martial arts master Lui Gung (Lau Kar-Leung) disbands his kung fu school and goes into hiding as a humble woodcutter. Chief Eunuch Li Lien Ying (Wong Ching-Ho) of the Imperial Palace declares Lui Gung a traitor. He contacts sorcerer Tieh Tien (Jue Tit-Woh) of the fearsome Yi Ho Society who in turn assigns trained killer Tien Hao (Hsiao Ho), beautiful badass Fang Shau-Ching (Kara Hui Ying-Hung) and fanatical monk Ti Tian (Gordon Liu) to track down and assassinate Lui Gung. Yet the assassins discover Master Lui is a kindly, humble man more concerned with keeping his students safe than achieving glory.
For years fans of old school martial arts cinema upheld Legendary Weapons of China as inarguably the greatest kung fu film ever made. That the film, like other Shaw Brothers productions, remained unavailable for home viewing outside the odd bootleg for more than twenty years only fueled its reputation. Predictably on its eventual release on DVD the naysayers came crawling out of the woodwork to denounce the film as boring, outdated or silly. A viewer's reaction to Legendary Weapons of China really depends on what they look for in martial arts cinema. If it's a grim and gritty revenge-driven romp of the kind fans like Quentin Tarantino seems to favour, this film might not be for you. On the other hand if you are open to the possibility of a quirky but ambitious combo of kung fu, comedy, philosophy and humanistic ideals, this film stands as one of the most ambitious of its type. It is a rare treat.
In the opening scenes Lau Kar-Leung utilizes those sumptuous Shaw Brothers production values and evocative photography to create an otherworldly atmosphere around the Yi Ho Society. Yet the film's agenda is driven by clear-eyed realism. Master Lui Gung knows their mysticism is a sham, mere smoke and mirrors to manipulate the masses. If kung fu is no match for a gun, China must stop sacrificing its idealistic youth and help them modernize. Lau Kar-Leung was the most progressive genre filmmaker of his time. By comparison with the stolid machismo of many of his contemporaries, Lau's films were ambitious efforts that used kung fu to tackle weighty themes, often in decidedly offbeat ways: e.g. 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978), Heroes of the East (1979), My Young Auntie (1981) and Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1984).
On the other hand he could also be didactic in his adherence to what he saw as traditional Chinese values. There is a hint of ego here in Lau casting himself not just as an incorruptible moral authority but a bigger badass than his more famous co-stars: Gordon Liu and Alexander Fu Sheng, each of whom he admittedly moulded into stars. Even so Lau was also generous with his compassion and progressive with regard to women's roles in society (Fang Shau-Ching is not only a remarkable fighter but outspoken and raises pertinent points about Lui Gung's judgement). His films including this one continually stress the value of humility, humanity, decency and compassion. Here Lui Gung repeatedly saves the men who come to kill him.
As both director and star Lau stages and performs some of the most intricate, visceral and plain astonishing kung fu sequences in Hong Kong cinema. He is aided by his similarly gifted co-stars Gordon Liu (who was also Lau's adopted brother), the great Kara Hui Ying-Hung and special guest superstar Alexander Fu Sheng who has his own mini-subplot as a bug-eyed con artist posing as Lui Gung. One reason why the film has proven unpopular with so-called martial arts film purists is despite spinning a thought-provoking fable it includes a disarming amount of wacky comedy. Throughout the film Lau plays suspense scenes for quirky comedy. He even includes a gag that seems to poke fun at the excesses of grim-and-gritty martial arts maestro Chang Cheh wherein Fu Sheng pulls a blood-filled balloon from his phony stomach wound. The slapstick fu is breathlessly well-executed and genuinely funny. In particular a riotous fight at an outdoor bathroom where Fu Sheng's character becomes a kung fu voodoo doll! The title refers to the film's central gimmick of showcasing an amazing arsenal of death-dealing gadgetry James Bond would envy. Yet remarkably for a film filled with wall-to-wall action, the thematic emphasis is on compassion and a spiritual arc from superstition to enlightenment comparable with King Hu's similarly masterly A Touch of Zen (1969). Never mind the naysayers, this is deservedly a classic.
Chinese director and actor and one of the most influential martial arts film-makers of the 1970s. Kar-Leung joined the Shaw Brothers studio in 1965 where he worked as an actor and fight choreographer, before making his directing debut in 1975 with the kung fu comedy The Spiritual Boxer. A series of martial arts classics followed, including 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Shaolin Mantis, Dirty Ho, Mad Monkey Kung Fu and My Young Auntie. Kar-Leung was a strong believer that fight sequences should be shot in single, wide shots to showcase the natural skill of the martial artists, which was at odds with those directors who prefered wirework and fast editing.
Kar-Leung continued to direct throughout the eighties, with period films like Shaolin Temple, starring a young Jet Li, and modern-day action flicks Tiger on the Beat and its sequel. In 1994, worked as fight arranger on Jackie Chan's Drunken Master II, but was controversially sacked from the production when his methods clashed with Chan's. In retaliation, he directed his own Drunken Master 3 later the same year. Kar-Leung's last film was 2002's old-fashioned Drunken Monkey, once more for Shaw Brothers.