Tuesday, 12 April 2022

The Chinese Boxer

As confident a directorial debut as you're ever likely to see, Jimmy Wang Yu's The Chinese Boxer (released as The Hammer of God in some territories) constantly looks for ways to submerge the viewer into the personal and physical stresses facing the film's hero. Wang Yu plays Lei Ming, the last survivor of a Chinese martial arts school levelled by supernatural Japanese invaders and their Chinese collaborators. Although at death's door himself, Ming swears revenge. Wang Yu, who was coming to the end of his time as an underpaid in-house talent with Shaw Brothers Studios, was in his mid-20s when he wrote, directed and starred in The Chinese Boxer. With that in mind, the film plays like a calling card for potential investors in Wang Yu's future blockbusters - the actor presenting himself as a matinee idol uniquely attuned to the bloodthirsty cravings of his audience. Chinese Boxer then is restless and constantly inventive. Wang Yu and cinematographer Shan Hua never play it safe with their shots, avoiding typical, locked-down, glimpses of backlot sets that had to have been laundered through dozens of features at this point. 

Action photography is similarly untethered, thrusting itself into straining grapples to better capture clenched teeth or circling a shrinking exchange with a massing, barely removed, mob. The Chinese Boxer really sings though during the body-smashing training Lei Ming subjects himself to while on the path for revenge. Although a routine premise now, Chinese Boxer's tale of a broken kung-fu student rebuilding his body through stressful drilling was novel at the time of the film's original release. Wang Yu and Shan Hua get to create a visual language of their own when considering these wilful, transgressive, transformations. Their model emphasises the horrific nature of the changes being enacted on a vulnerable - even sickly - human body. Surrounded by cobwebbed gargoyles, Lei Ming plunges his hands into boiling sands in an effort to create a callused pair of claws. The sequence careens at a Satanic fervour - the horrendous carvings bring themselves to bear on the soundtrack, laughing and snorting at Ming's torturous metamorphosis. Wang Yu doesn't neglect the frail human element in these macabre rituals either: although Lei Ming achieves his deadened technique, his hands are irreparably changed into bubbling talons that must be wrapped in surgical gauze to avoid becoming infected. Ming then is the hero as wounded and maniacal; lousy with a sickness that can only be purged through (righteous) violence. 

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