When fans think of Gordon Liu, they instantly think of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin series or more recently Kill Bill – that is until they have watched “Heroes of the East” – the penultimate Chinese versus Japanese martial arts flick produced by Sir Run Run Shaw and directed by action legend Lau Kar-leung (Chia-Liang Liu).
This is not your generic kung fu versus karate movie – it is an unrivalled mix of styles and weapons skilfully displayed with a rare respect shown to both countries’ unique arts. This epic feast of fight choreography pretty much set the standard for all other kung fu movies to follow!
Chia-Hui Liu aka Gordon Liu headlines the movie for Shaw Brothers’ kung fu juggernaut after his standout performance in “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin”. In a rare appearance with hair, Gordon Liu plays Ho Tao, with his Japanese wife Yumiko Koda portrayed by Yuka Mizuno.
In an almost show-stealing performance, Japanese actor and Hong Kong stalwart Yasuaki Kurata, plays Takeno Sanzo, a Japanese ninjutsu expert. Director Lau Kar-leung also has a small and convincing role, as Drunken Master Su. Other notable performances by Tsutomu Harada (Kendo), Yujiro Sumi (Karate), Hayato Ryuzaki (Nunchaku and Tonfa) and Yasutaka Nakazaki (Sai) round out the performers.
An arranged marriage between the Chinese Ho Tao (Gordon Liu) and Japanese Yumiko (Yuka Mizuno) soon erupts into a fierce rivalry, with both of the newly weds eager to show that their martial arts styles are superior to the other.
We see multiple duels between the couple, and eventually see Yumiko return to Japan after Ho Tao insults Yumiko’s ninjutsu. In a misguided attempt to get Yumiko to return, Ho Tao issues a challenge to Yumiko, which is misinterpreted when Yumiko’s sensei, Sanzo, reads the letter and interprets it as a challenge to all Japanese martial artists.
Shortly afterwards, Sanzo sets sail with a band of Japanese experts to confront Ho Tao and accept his challenge. Yumiko trails after them, a little concerned with the events that have now been set into motion.
Immediately upon arrival, the group of Japanese martial arts experts confront Ho Tao and a duel between Ho Tao and a Japanese sword expert ensues. After defeating the Japanese swordsman, Sanzo informs Ho Tao that he will face a different martial arts expert every day.
The stakes are raised when Ho Tao inadvertently disrespects the Japanese after refusing to accept the defeated Japanese kendo expert’s sword.
What quickly follows is a series of creative and spectacular duels, as Ho Tao must come up with a way to counter each Japanese martial artist’s specialist expertise. In an epic final showdown, Ho Tao must finally face Sensei Sanzo and his ultimate style of ninjutsu.
The combination of the legendary Sir Run Run Shaw as producer and the masterful Lau Kar-leung as director has produced a kung fu movie with almost perfect fight choreography, that was truly spectacular and ahead of its time.
As always, Gordon Liu’s performance is skilful and true to his art. What sets “Heroes of the East” apart is the inclusion of nearly equally skilled opponents who represent their respective arts with commanding performances.
The ensuing matches rival and are in some ways even better than the scenes of Gordon Liu versus Hoi Sang Lee in “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin”.
“Heroes of the East” is not the first movie to depict Chinese martial arts against Japanese martial arts. What sets this movie apart from classics like “Fist of Fury”, “Ip Man” or “>Fist of Legend”, is that the entire cast of Japanese combatants are portrayed as skilful in their own right. Whilst Gordon Liu and his brand of Chinese kung fu and weapons mastery comes out on top, each duel proves a satisfying challenge, and each exponent gets to show authentic moves which can be quite rare.
From the outset of the movie, there is a hearty mix of action with Ho Tao duelling his new wife and both newly weds demonstrating several aspects of their respective culture’s arts – includes Gordon Liu demonstrating how to kick in a skirt and remain demure which is rather entertaining. The real action kicks off however when the Japanese masters arrive.
Immediately, Ho Tao must put his Chinese straight sword to the test against a kendo master’s samurai sword. The fight choreography is exquisite to the say the least, and despite the fact that the Chinese straight sword would not likely hold up against the samurai sword, the scene clearly demonstrates the difference in the two styles and more importantly, accurately displays the techniques of each.
To prepare for the next duel against a Karate master, Ho Tao learns drunken boxing from Beggar Su (played by director Lau Kar-leung). Gordon Liu’s drunken boxing is not of the standard of say Jackie Chan in “Drunken Master 2” (Legend of Drunken Master) but the drunken style is in direct contrast to the directness of the Karate master and makes for a great fight scene.
There are multiple more duels (spear versus spear, butterfly knives versus sai etc), but none are more impressive than the duel of Ho Tao using a 3-section staff versus his Japanese opponent using nunchaku and a single tonfa. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this combination of weapons before and the choreography of this fight scene is exceptional – a real credit to the director.
The final showdown between Ho Tao and Sanzo the ninjutsu master is exquisite to watch. Both exponents initially put their stealth and craftiness to the test which culminates in a multi- weapon face off, highlighted by Sanzo’s running crab which puts the proverbial icing on the cake! Unlike most of the other styles shown, the ninjutsu here, whilst far from authentic, does not detract from the showdown in any way.
Throughout all the battles, respect is maintained for each style being emphasised by skilful actors, truly allowing each to shine on their own merits. It is rare for Chinese cinema to portray the Japanese martial arts in such a positive way.
Shaw Brothers had set the bar high for kung fu cinema back then and coupled with Lau Kar-leung as director, for a long time to come. Even by today’s standards the quality, watchability and legacy value of this movie remains deservedly high.
Many Gordon Liu fans have probably never seen “Heroes of the East” and if you’re one of them reading this right now, that’s an injustice you must remedy ASAP!
The movie in my opinion, is a masterpiece of martial arts cinematography and choreography plus originality. For example there’s a scene involving Gordon Liu covered in oil fighting a huge judo opponent which must be seen to be believed (as well as the outrageous sound effects heard). Watching Gordon Liu play a character with hair when the vast majority of his roles involve a clean-shaven monk character makes it worth it for that alone!
“Heroes of the East” has remained in my personal Top 5 martial arts movies ever made list since first viewing it as a teenager.
If you’re a fan of Gordon Liu and the kung fu movie genre in any way, shape or form, definitely go on right ahead and watch this like now, (or again).
- It is rumoured that director Lau Kar-leung performed some of the more difficult 3-section staff scenes for Gordon Liu.
- Besides hurt egos, none of the duels end up in death or the other fighter being seriously injured – this was the stance the director wanted to take.
- “It looks like a young girl dancing” – Yumiko (to Ho Tao.)
- “Is it necessary to yell like a barbarian?” – Ho Tao (to Yumiko.)
- “In Chinese we call it murder.” – Ho Tao (to Yumiko remarking on her ninjutsu skills.)