Asian action stars from Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan made huge strides in revolutionizing Hong Kong action cinema by introducing a unique blend of storytelling and kick-ass martial arts action to the world.
Lau Kar-fai better known as Gordon Liu, ushered in the “golden age” of Hong Kong action. Liu was a major star of the renowned Shaw Brothers Studio and was also known for his partnership with the late legendary filmmaker and Hung Gar master, Lau Kar-leung (check out our interview with his official direct successor, Mark Houghton).
Whilst most studios invested time and money scouting around for the next or reincarnated Bruce Lee unleashing the Bruceploitation era, the Shaw Brothers with the help of Liu and Leung – both of whom were Hung Gar practitioners whose lineage could be traced back to the legendary Wong Fei-Hung – introduced action fans to the history and mythos of Shaolin. This amazing partnership produced some of the most revered classics of kung-fu cinema for decades to follow.
Even long after the demise of the Shaw Brothers empire in 2011, Liu was never out of work (nor for that matter was Lau Kar-leung) though his roles weren’t quite as high profile. However, his influence was felt largely in the West and soon Quentin Tarantino cast him in two famous roles in ‘Kill Bill’ Volume 1 and 2, and rapper turned filmmaker, RZA of the Wu Tang Clan featured him in “The Man with the Iron Fists“.
Although Gordon has largely retired from film whilst recovering from health, financial and personal challenges, fans are enjoying a resurgence of his finest with Netflix and Amazon Prime streaming a selection of his best work. Thanks to 88 Films, two of his films “Clan of the White Lotus” and “The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter” are available for the first time on Blu-ray.
His films, especially those in which he collaborated with Lau Kar-leung, are considered some of the greatest ever in martial arts cinema. Gordon Liu’s work ethic and commitment helped spread the culture, values, and majesty of Shaolin and Chinese history to a much wider audience and, combined with his unique talent and charismatic presence, has cemented his status as a legend in kung fu cinema. Join us for an extended, deep-dive into Gordon Liu’s best fights in our (descending order) countdown!
- The House of Blue Leaves / The Cruel Tutelage of Pai Mei — Kill Bill: Vol 1 & 2 (2003 / 2004)
- Chainsaw Fight — Tiger on Beat (1988)
- Chu vs The Manchus — Return to the 36th Chamber (1981)
- Hung Wen-Ting vs Pai Mei — Clan of the White Lotus (1980)
- The Prince’s Bodyguard — Dirty Ho (1979)
- Karate vs Drunken Boxing — Heroes of the East (1978)
- Wedding Party Showdown — Disciples of the 36th Chamber (1985)
- Wong Fei-hung vs Chen Erh-fu — Challenge of the Masters (1976)
- Final Fight — The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1984)
Well, it’s two mini entries here to convey how much of an impact Gordon’s inclusion into the saga made.
And what better way to inject new life into your career than to have one of Hollywood’s most prolific directors – who also happens to be your fan – cast you in their epic homage to 70’s kung fu movies? Well that’s exactly what Quentin Tarantino did when he invited Gordon Liu to play not one but two memorable roles in the “Kill Bill” saga.
As Johnny Mo, head of O-Ren Ishii’s (Lucy Liu) katana-wielding army – The Crazy 88, Liu showed that his age (he was 52 years-old at the time) had not slowed him down and proved to be a formidable foe against Uma Thurman’s (and sometimes stunt woman extraordinaire Zoe Bell) The Bride. Sporting the now iconic black suit and kato mask, fans of quintessential kung fu movies got to enjoy seeing their onscreen hero back in action.
It’s ironic that Liu was cast as the sadistic and cruel kung fu master Pai Mei, the villain of “Executioners from Shaolin” and “Clan of the White Lotus” both featuring Liu. Dressed in the traditional robes sporting the infamous white eyebrows and long-flowing beard, which he strokes menacingly, Liu exudes plenty of charisma and evil screen presence. And this time we get more than a passing glimpse of those legendary Shaolin skills, mixed in with some vintage wire-fu for good measure.
Eastern cinema’s answer to “Lethal Weapon”, the partnership of Lau Kar-leung and Gordon Liu survived the demise of the traditional kung fu genre adapting progressively to the new-wave urban-action style. Lau Kar-leung directs and stages the fights for this action-packed comedy extravaganza starring Chow Yun-fat and Conan Lee as two Hong Kong detectives battling crime boss Johnny law (Norman Chu).
In this bloody, fast-paced finale Michael Tso (Lee) attempts to rescue damsel in distress Marydonna (Nina Li Chi) but has to deal with Johnny Law’s henchman including Fai the Hitman, in a deliciously evil turn from Liu, armed with a chainsaw no less.
Casting Liu as a bloodthirsty hitman, essentially the bad guy, was a genius move and Liu clearly relished switching to the dark side. The chainsaw duel between Tso and Fai is just mind-boggling and highly entertaining though at times you’re not sure whether to laugh or grit your teeth. Lau Kar-leung’s masterful choreography and direction delivers an intense fight scene packed with acrobatic, high-flying maneuvers and fluidity of motion, especially Liu whose agility and skill simply shine.
The first sequel to “36th Chamber of Shaolin” took quite a departure from the groundbreaking first film. Essentially more of a comedy of errors with serious undertones and a message of honour and redemption, Gordon Liu returns but as a different character – hustler Chu Jen-chieh, with King Chu Lee cast as San Te.
Chu tries to help a group of workers being bullied by their Manchu bosses by pretending to be the famous Shaolin monk San Te. Racked when his façade is exposed leaving his friends in even more trouble, he heads to Shaolin’s 36th Chamber to learn real kung fu.
The lighter comedic tone suits both the story and Liu’s cheeky character, and rogue with heart. Overall it’s much more fun and lighthearted than the first with some innovative training scenes showing Liu’s incredible timing and agility. The heat turns on for a jaw-dropping finale when Chu returns to the village to clean up the Manchu menace. The battle with the guards armed with stools is both fun and nail-biting, ramped up for the big-boss fight where our hero unleashes his unstoppable ‘scaffolding-fu’.
Any Hong Kong action fan will know of Pai Mei – here portrayed by “Clan of the White Lotus” director Lo Lieh – from the earliest Shaw Brothers movies – “Executioners from Shaolin” all the way to “Kill Bill: Vol 2”.
Revenge is nearly always the prime motivator of any kung fu film and this Shaw Brothers’ classic is no exception. Survivors of the Shaolin massacre have Pai Mei in their sights with Liu as the monk, Hung Wen-Ting, on a mission to hunt down their traitor.
Reel History of Iconic Bad Guy: Lo Lieh
With co-star Lo Lieh serving both action and directing duties, regular choreographer Lau Kar-leung focused solely on ensuring that the action for the final fight delivered the goods, and boy does it ever!
Liu’s deft performance transforms into an earnest one for the finale fending off first, Pai Mei’s sword-wielding bodyguards before facing his nemesis. The fighters move with all the grace and fluidity of a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers dance performance. The intricacy of the techniques showcases Liu’s breathtaking skills and a performance that combines urgency with comic timing. The final, funny-yet-mind-blowing solution leaves you never looking at needlework in quite the same way again.
With a chance to show off his penchant for comedy, Liu stars as Wang Tsun Hsin the 11th prince of Manchuria who keeps a low profile posing as a wealthy and extravagant merchant whilst hiding his exceptional fighting skills. He meets thief ‘Dirty’ Ho Jen (Yue Wong) who reluctantly becomes his bodyguard though it is obvious throughout the film that Wang doesn’t really need one. “Dirty Ho” is quite a departure from Liu and collaborator Lau Kar-leung’s previous work to this point; for one thing, the hero of the film is a Manchu prince, unusual since the Manchus have always been the bad guys of Hong Kong cinema.
“Dirty Ho” features fight action disguised as innocuous encounters much like the Wong Fei-hung (Kwan Tak-hing) vs Demon Tailor (the late Fung Hark-On aka Fung Hak-On) fight in Yuen Woo Ping’s ‘Dreadnaught’.
In this scene Wang passes a musician (Kara Wai Ying-hung) off as his bodyguard manipulating her movements from behind making it look like she’s doing all the fighting. Lau Kar-leung’s skillful choreography features a technically rich collection of skill and agility with Liu keeping flawlessly in time with Wai, whose dance training proved invaluable.
The light-hearted, almost Shakespearean plot sees Liu – in a rare appearance with hair – as Ho Tao, son of a wealthy business, arranged to be married to Japanese heiress Yumiko (Yuka Mizuno).
The newlyweds disagree on which fighting style is best – Chinese Shaolin vs Japanese Bushido and Yumiko, insulted, returns to Japan. A cultural misunderstanding ensues and so Yumiko’s friend Ninjutsu master Sanzo (Yasuaki Kurata) rounds up an assortment of bushido warriors to challenge Tao and save face.
What follows is essentially a series of Top Trumps-style matchups – Tao’s Jian (sword) vs Tsutomu Harada’s katana and Yasutaka Makazaki’s sai vs Tao’s butterfly knives. Tao’s fight with the karate master (Yujiro Sumi), stands out with Tao incorporating the Drunken Boxing style he learned earlier from watching Beggar Su (Lau Kar-leung in a hilarious cameo) in action.
Liu’s mix of agile physical skill and comedic timing makes for a fun-filled clash especially when pretending to be drunk much to the chagrin of the Japanese.
Gordon Liu’s most beloved film from his kung fu filmography is undoubtedly “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin”. Considered the greatest kung fu film of all time, it was a veritable game changer and the inevitable sequels followed. Liu returns as San Te and takes the trouble of taking Fong Sai-Yuk (Hsiao Ho) who’s been attacking corrupt Manchu officials, under his wing. When the Manchu leader (Lau Kar-leung) befriends Fong – during his unofficial excursions outside the temple – and entices him and his fellow pupils to a wedding with plans to kill them, San Te rushes to their rescue.
Like any follow up, this sequel doesn’t quite match up to the original, most never do. In its own right however, “Disciples of the 36th Chamber” has a solid story with some superb action showcasing Chinese kung fu at its best. As fight choreography underwent a fast and furious style change, Lau Kar-leung kept the fight action grounded in its traditional roots, and for the “Enter the Dragon”-style showdown, Leung added some high-flying acrobatic and wire-fu. The result is a fast-paced mix of speed, intricate kung fu techniques and tension that doesn’t stop to take a breath. Though it’s not the best film in his repertoire, Liu’s performance and action shine through.
Gordon Liu and Lau Kar-leung’s partnership also saw the two men share screen time sometimes briefly, but also for some epic showdowns. When they unite on-screen however the result is always spectacular.
Liu takes on the role of legendary Kung Fu Master Wong Fei Hung in this tale of revenge and spiritual growth. When he learns that assassin Chen Erh-fu, (Lau Kar-leung) killed his friend, Wong Fei Hung comes down from his seclusion (where he is learning Hung Gar kung fu to defend his school’s reputation) to meet his friend’s killer in an epic battle.
Not only are we treated to a meeting of masterful kung fu warriors but they come armed with Bo (staff) and Qiang (spear). The speed and agility, not to mention skill with these weapons are all up there on the screen to make for a tense and entertaining showdown. There’s an added philosophical message in keeping with the star and director’s mission of bringing the physical and spiritual facets of kung fu to the masses.
The increasing rise of the fast, urban fight style did not dampen the appetite for traditional kung fu movies altogether, and in 1984 Lau Kar -leung and Gordon Liu helped Shaw Brothers’ deliver yet another hit that has since become a beloved cult classic.
Liu plays Yeung Dak, the surviving fifth son of General Yeung Yip betrayed and killed on the battlefield by General Pan Mei (the legendary Lam Hak-ming). Devastated by his father’s murder Dak takes refuge at the Shaolin Temple on Mount Wutai and trains in their fighting systems. Since bladed weapons are forbidden Dak trains with the pole and develops his own Eight Diagram Pole-Fighting system. When his sister Yeung Kei (Kara Hui Ying-hung) is kidnapped by Pan Mei, Dak breaks his vows and leaves the temple to rescue his sister and exact revenge.
This is the finest example of how the director and the star truly bring out the best in each other. Lau Kar-leung stages some frenetically-intense innovative choreography especially for the finale where Dak heads to Pan Mei’s lair to rescue his sister.
As the film progresses the story becomes darker, and the fighting bloodier – it seems Dak and his fellow Shaolin Monks have a penchant for taking out their opponent’s teeth. Liu effortlessly leaps and bounds around the set showing some exceptionally fluid and hard-hitting skills with the staff whilst conveying Dak’s vengeful determination in the face of increasing danger even with help. The fight action is as dark and intense as it thrilling to watch the story unfold. You might feel a little breathless by the end, a testament to the duo of Leung and Liu’s creative, storytelling mastery.
…and in at #1 is…
San Te vs General Tien Ta — The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)
Gordon Liu’s body of work is varied and impressive, however none of them have been able to hold a candle to what is largely considered the greatest and most influential kung fu film of all time.
It proved to be a turning point in Gordon’s career, this being his first starring role, and started his legendary partnership with Lau Kar-leung. As a game changer, it set the standard by which many martial arts films that followed would be measured. It also introduced the often-used training scene or montage – in fact the film is one whole, big training scene with a beautiful showdown at the end.
Liu plays San Te, a young idealist who joins a rebellious movement fighting the oppressive Manchus. When his friends and later his father are killed by General Tien Ta (Lo Lieh). Te flees to the Shaolin Temple where he begins to study their ways working his way through the 35 Chambers. However, revenge is not far from his mind and soon San Te ventures out to meet General Tien Ta for a fierce duel.
The film introduced audiences to the mystique and gruelling physical trials of the Shaolin kung-fu monk which was the mission for both Lau Kar-leung and Gordon Liu. The Shaolin training shown was first and foremost, an inner voyage of self discovery, whilst seamlessly tying in the requisite fighting skills and weapons mastery.
Liu’s shaved-head and yellow robe look made him the icon of the quintessential warrior monk. It was also the first time audiences saw the sanjiegun (‘three-section staff’) in action and for the finale San Te brings his devised weapon to face Tien Ta’s double Dao (broadsword).
A engaging thrill ride of a finale, “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” has forever sealed itself in kung fu movie history by etching this cult classic onto celluloid whilst immortalizing its star, Gordon Liu.