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OBIT: Martial Master Lau Kar-leung (1936 - 2013) (TRAILER)

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by David Chute
June 28, 2013 1:25 AM
2 Comments
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Miramax Lau Kar-leung with Jackie Chan on the set of "Drunken Master II"

The pioneering martial arts choreographer and director Lau Kar-leung, who died this week at age 77, was a kung fu purist. 

He was a stylish martial acrobat but as a movie director he was not a great stylist. Unlike the other top action film directors who were his colleagues at Hong Kong's Shaw Bothers studio in the 1970s, such as Chang Cheh and Chor Yuen, Lau made violent masculine melodrama or elaborately staged magical conspiracies.

Lau had, however, a vivid imagination and great skill when it came to devising and staging fight sequences, and he was a sincere advocate for the Chinese martial arts themselves and of their cultural context, the traditional values of teacher-student fealty and family and clan loyalty inculcated by his father and first teacher, Lau Charn.

In fact, Lau was a key figure in every phase of Hong Kong martial arts movie making. He became a performer and a martial arts choreographer (or "fighting instructor") in the Wong Fei-hong films in the '50s, and in the 1960s, with collaborator Tang Chia, brought unprecedented martial authenticity to "New Style" Mandarin-language wu xia swordplay films such as "The Jade Bow" (1965).

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2 Comments

  • Michael | July 7, 2013 6:17 PMReply

    Thanks for the informed and respectful appreciation, D.C., and especially for the video clip, English or no. I don't think I've ever seen footage of the workaday behind-the-scenes routine at Shaws' Movietown (although there's probably more out there if I search for it).

    One small quibble - while I wouldn't call Lau a "great" stylist, I don't think he should be dismissed out of hand as a stylist by any means. No action filmmaker in Hong Kong at that time was working at a Kurosawa level, but Lau's movies were more visually deft and elegant than most (compare them to the contemporary work of Chang Cheh, who after the '60s wasn't much of a director, in my opinion). The way he used staging, framing and editing to increase clarity and impact, and not just in action scenes, is the work of an expert, even if in other ways he shared some of the tacky idiosyncrasies common in the industry in those days. Re-read David Bordwell's discussion in "Planet Hong Kong" (pp. 229-231 of the first edition) of a scene from "Legendary Weapons of China" for a nice example and explanation.

  • Brian | June 28, 2013 10:50 AMReply

    I would argue that 8 DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER, despite its prosaic title, is the best kung fu film ever made. It's got a powerful emotional subtext as we see the erosion of the great Yang Clan amidst political maneuvering and violent attacks by an opposing force in 10th century. The emotions are enhanced by the tragic fact of the death of one of the film's stars, Alexander Fu Sheng, in an auto accident right in the middle of the production (10 years to the month after Bruce Lee's death). Fu Sheng's character goes mad in the course of the film and disappears at some point, with his brother, played by Gordon Liu, and sister, played by Kara Hui Ying Hung, wreaking vengeance for their clan. An air of tragic melancholy imbues the whole production. This film and 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN are Lau's most sophisticated films and belong on any list of great Hong Kong movies.

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