“Legendary Weapons of China” is a classic martial arts film directed by Lau Kar-leung. It features a host of popular Shaw Brothers stars including Lau Kar-leung himself, his brother Lau Kar-wing, Hsiao Ho, Kara Hui Ying Hung, Gordon Liu Chia Hui and Alexander Fu Sheng.
Legendary Shaw Brothers director, choreographer and actor, Lau Kar-leung stars as “Uncle Yu/ Lei Kung”. A real life Hung Gar expert with a direct lineage to the Chinese folk hero and martial arts master Wong Fei-hung, Lau Kar-leung’s career spanned sixty years. Working on the early black and white Wong Fei-hung movies starring Kwan Tak-hing, he soon rose through the ranks to appear in, choreograph or direct some the most acclaimed martial arts movies of all time. Just a small selection includes “The One Armed Swordsman”, “Boxer From Shantung”, “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin”, “Mad Monkey Kung Fu”, “My Young Auntie”, “Eight Diagram Pole Fighter”, “Pedicab Driver”, “Martial Arts of Shaolin”, “Tiger on the Beat” and “Drunken Master II & III”.
Younger brother of Lau Kar-leung, Lau Kar-wing plays “Lei Ying”, who combines Taoist “magic” with martial arts. Lau Kar-wing is a successful martial arts actor and director in his own right, having started at a young age in Kwan Tak-hing‘s Wong Fei Hung movies. He has appeared in many classics including “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin”, “Dirty Tiger, Crazy Frog”, “Odd Couple”, “Knockabout”, “Eight Diagram Pole Fighter”, “Tiger on the Beat”, and “Skinny Tiger Fatty Dragon” to name but a few.
Hong Kong martial arts film actor, stunt performer and action choreographer, Hsiao Ho plays “Ti Hau”. He began his career in movies at the age of 17 under the guidance of Lau Kar-leung. He is probably best known for his roles in the movies “Mad Monkey Kung Fu”, “Disciples of the 36th Chamber”, “My Young Auntie” and “Iron Monkey“.
Kara Hui Ying Hung stars as “Fang Shao Ching”. Kara Hui got her big break in 1976’s “Challenge of the Masters”, going on to appear in many Shaw Brothers classics including “Invincible Shaolin”, “Mad Monkey Kung Fu”, “Dirty Ho”, and “Return to the 36th Chamber”. Her defining role was as the lead in 1982’s “My Young Auntie” for which she won the Best Actress Award at the 1st Hong Kong Film Awards. Still active today, in recent years she has appeared in the martial arts horror movie “Rigor Mortis” and opposite Donnie Yen in “Dragon/Wuxia”.
Another Shaw Brothers legend, Gordon Liu Chia Hui guest stars as “Ti Tan”. His breakthrough leading role in “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” led to further memorable parts, often playing a shaven-headed kung fu master as either the hero or the villain. He appeared in two sequels to “36th Chamber”, as well as classics such as “Heroes of the East”, “Challenge of the Masters”, and “Eight Diagram Pole Fighter”. As the Shaw Brothers star dimmed somewhat, Liu remained active in smaller roles in films such as “Tiger on the Beat”, “Kill Bill”, “Dragon Squad”, “True Legend” and “The Man with the Iron Fists”.
A protégé of the famous director Chang Cheh, Alexander Fu Sheng appears as “Con Artist”. His first lead role was in Cheh’s “Police Force”, leading to starring roles in “Heroes Two”, “Five Shaolin Masters”, “Shaolin Temple”, and the “Brave Archer” series. Fu Sheng was supposed to star in “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow” but was refused by Run Run Shaw, head of the Shaw Brothers Studio. Jackie Chan was eventually cast in the role. On 7th July 1983, Fu Sheng died as the result of a car accident. At the time, he was filming “The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter” in which he was to be the hero. The film was partially re-written and the remainder of the film was shot. In the finished film, Fu Sheng’s character abruptly disappears and the focus was put on co-star Gordon Liu’s character.
During the late Qing Dynasty, the Empress Dowager Cixi dispatches her agents to various factions of the Boxer Rebellion in order to find supernatural martial artists that are invulnerable to western bullets. Lei Kung, one of the leaders of these factions, disbands his group so no more students will needlessly perish. Assassins from the remaining factions are sent out to kill him for this apparent treason. Lei Kung goes into hiding, but his kung fu skills are eventually called upon, exposing his true identity.
As the opening credits play, the audience is treated to a spectacular variety of weapons duels, that include everything from swords and halberds through to spears, the three-section staff (also called: three-part staff, triple staff, and San Jie gun in Chinese) arrows and darts. The main players are incredibly flexible and acrobatic, incorporating full back bends, leg splits and double front somersaults into the lightning-quick choreography.
As the plot unfolds, there is an amusing scene between two assassins who try to discreetly fight each other in the ceiling without being detected. Even though it is played for laughs, the fighting is played with deadly intent.
It’s a similar case when a group of hustlers put on a street performance of Iron shirt qigong and “magic” kung fu. Although played for laughs the martial arts choreography is taken very seriously. The supernatural element is taken further in a fight with one of the fighters being controlled with a Chinese-style voodoo doll.
A highlight of this film is seeing Kara Hui in action. Every fight scene she has is a reminder of her versatility and the screen fighting skills that have made her one of the leading female stars of kung fu cinema. She is especially impressive in her duel with Gordon Liu. Lau Kar-leung is also in particularly fine form. Even though he is one of the older cast members he wields a heavy oak San Jie gun with ease, and always looks swift and powerful in his extended fight scenes, especially in the finale.
The last 20 minutes or so are a showcase for the incredible variety of martial arts choreography skills that Lau Kar-leung possessed. Aside from one or two other movies (Sammo Hung‘s The Odd Couple being a good example), I don’t think the multitude of traditional Chinese weapons techniques has been so well presented on screen in one single film.
Each weapon is introduced with a title followed by a magnificent duel demonstrating how that particular weapon can be used. It is a spectacular conclusion albeit featuring a rather abrupt ending.
I know a few people who have been put off this film by some of the perceived “silly” humour of the supernatural elements in this film. In the past, I was one of them. However, as my knowledge of Chinese history has improved over the years, I now realise that, at the time of the Boxer Rebellion, there were people who actually believed that “magic” martial arts rituals could really make them impervious to blades and bullets. It’s a subject that was taken more seriously in “Once Upon a Time in China 2”.
If there is a moral to this particular tale it’s that there is no magic spell, only hard training will make you a skilled martial artist, and even then, not invincible. Once you get past the rather overplayed mocking of these supernatural beliefs, this film is an absolute masterclass in traditional weapons choreography. It is doubly rewarding for those of you who are students of the classical weapons on display. The action sags a little in the middle but there is no denying the sophistication of the fight sequences that bookend this movie.
As with the other Celestial Pictures re-releases of the Shaw Brothers back catalogue, this looks crisp and colourful in high definition and is currently available on Netflix UK with both the original Cantonese soundtrack or English dub. If you love your classic Shaw Brothers kung fu films, this ranks with films like “Five Venoms” and “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin”. Essential viewing for genre fans!
- The 18 weapons include; Rope Dart, Double Tiger Hook Swords, Double Hammers, Battle Axe, Snake Halberd, Guan Dao, Twin Broadswords, Double-edged Sword, Chinese Spear, Nine-section Chain Whip, Double Daggers, Double Crutches, Monk’s Spade, Staff, Tiger Fork, Rattan Shield, Single Butterfly Sword, Three-section Staff.
- “Legendary Weapons of China” was also known as “Legendary Weapons of Kung Fu ” in some territories.
- Hip hop group Wu-Tang Clan named their 2011 compilation, Legendary Weapons, in honour of the film. The film’s English dub was heavily sampled throughout the album as well.