This breezy Shaw Brothers kung fu caper is widely regarded to be the film that lay the groundwork for the comedic martial art style later pioneered by the likes of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung in the 1980s. In 1975, The Spiritual Boxer's contemporaries at the Shaw studio tended to be fairly serious, often complicated yarns, but Lau Kar-Leung's debut has a slight, amusing plot that puts the emphasis on humour rather than action.
Wong Yu plays Hsiao Chien, a young man who works alongside his teacher Chi as a phoney spiritual boxer. The idea is that they invoke the Gods to provide them with invincible powers while performing kung fu. In fact neither has any powers, but seem pretty successful at duping people into giving them money for displays of their supernatural abilities. When Chi drunkenly misses one such display, Chien takes over and soon finds that life as con-man is a lot more profitable on his own.
Wong Yu was a talented martial artist best known for films like Dirty Ho and 36th Chamber of Shaolin – both also directed by Lau Kar-Leung – but The Spiritual Boxer also reveals him to be a skilled physical comedian. Chein's favourite act is as the 'Monkey God' – he gurns, giggles and scratches himself, leaping around before inevitably demanding that those watching reward Chein or face the Monkey God's wrath. Chien has various tricks to help trick his victims – a fake knife that he will strike himself with, a lotion which allows him to pick up hot coals without being harmed – and pretty soon he has the whole town paying him terrified respect. Much of this is pretty funny, and although it seems crazy that anyone would be fooled by such a blatant con, it's an indication of just how much power superstition held over these simple townsfolk. Luckily Chien is also shit-hot at kung fu, enabling him to defeat anyone (including the great Ti Lung) who challenges his divine abilities.
The tone remains frivolous throughout, but Chien's conscience about his dubious lifestyle is finally pricked when he meets a pretty farm girl, played by Lam Jan Kei. She encourages him to use his growing reputation for good rather than personal gain, and eventually the villagers are rising up against local gangsters. Hardcore kung fu fans may be disappointed by the lack of action – there are a few fight scenes but these tend to be brief and largely played for laughs. But there's sense of gentle fun about it all – and not a single death in the entire film – while the production values and cinematography are well up to the high standard set by the studio during this period.
Aka: Shen Da
[Momentum's Region 2 DVD doesn't contain any extras beyond trailers for the other titles in their Shaw Brothers range, but it does present the film in a beautifully-restored widescreen, subtitled print]
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.