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"I'll never marry the Japanese girl with the runny nose.",
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This review is from: Heroes of the East (DVD)
HEROES OF THE EAST is also known by the more badasss title SHAOLIN CHALLENGES NINJA, but whatever you call this movie, doesn't alter the fact that it is one of the most entertaining vehicle for martial arts ever put to cinema. No one dies in this one, so there's none of that extra gratuitous thrill. Rather, the focus is on the remarkable exhibition of techniques encompassing various disciplines in the Japanese and Chinese martial arts. It's been a while since I saw The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, but HEROES OF THE EAST may be my favorite Gordon Liu flick.
The misunderstandings here get more blown out of proportion than in an episode of Three's Company. Cultural clashes and notions of impropriety quickly surface when an arranged marriage hooks up a proud Chinese man and a willful Japanese woman. It starts at the wedding ceremony when the Japanese bride Kung Zi unwittingly wears white, the color of death in Chinese culture. Ah To, himself a student of kung fu, then learns that Kung Zi is a practitioner of karate, and he promptly contends that her style is brash and unladylike. It doesn't help that Kung Zi while training breezily wrecks the family garden, demolishing those decorative little stone statues and such. When Ah To shows off his Chinese kung fu, Kung Zi scornfully taunts him: "When you practice with it, it's like dancing." When Kung Zi demonstrates her more forceful moves, Ah To lets her know: "All that noise, it's like a beggar driving dogs away." Marital bliss gets kicked to the curb.
Thanks to a pretty stupid scheme of Ah To's cringing tattletale servant, things escalate even further, and before you can say "Can't we all just get along?" seven of Japan's foremost martial artists, each a master of a particular discipline, storm Ah-To's home to challenge him in a series of one-on-one duels.
These challenges play out superbly. Another fun element is that no sooner does one fight end than we immediately learn Ah To's next challenger, and then we watch Ah To, in his allotted time of rest, try to come up with the proper counter. These skirmishes are wonderfully choreographed and hold up spectacularly well today. One outstanding sequence is Ah To versus the kendo master (or, more properly, iaido master) and what Ah To does here actually worsens things. Further highlights are the nunchuk and tonfa versus three-sectioned staff sequence and the sai versus butterfly sword sequence (and I got a kick out of the odd little sai master with his French mustache and his twitchy mouth). Ah To versus the judo master falls out more like a comedy routine, as Ah To bests him in a pretty underhanded (but clever) manner. I did think that the finale which is Ah To taking on the master ninja, while pretty decent, goes on a bit too long. Surprisingly, the ninja's employment of the "Japanese crab fist" isn't as cheesy as it sounds.
Director Lao Kar-Leung, himself an accomplished and highly respected martial artist, has a wonderful cameo as the drunken boxing master whose style Ah To must lift. Lao Kar-Leung also doubles Gordon Liu in some of the tricker moves with the three-sectioned staff.
Unlike films like FISTS OF FURY, HEROES OF THE EAST doesn't portray the Japanese martial artists as evil goons. Legendary director Lao Kar-Leung instills a sense of dignity in the Japanese contemporaries and even though the challengers lose, there's respect there. Gordon Liu was a superstar in the late '70s and '80s and you can see why. Liu not only has the requisite skills of a martial arts icon, but he's got presence and swagger and grace. Even if it's a wig he's got on for this picture (around this time, Gordon Liu was still shaving his head regularly because of his shaolin monk roles). Mizuno Yuko, who plays Kung Zi, is herself a skilled martial artist and she holds up very well when sparring with Liu. What's more, you do get the sense that the two lead characters are genuinely in love, and that lends a sweet emotional core to what otherwise would only have been a technical exercise in Chinese and Japanese martial arts. As it is, HEROES OF THE EAST is one of the finest films of its genre that I've ever seen. And the way it ends, not with bloodshed and gruesome deaths, but with mutual respect after an exhibition of prowess and skills, well, that's pretty much a philosophical linchpin of martial arts, isn't it? Makes me want to go in the garden and practice maneuvers like the "Cripple Li Carrying Water" and chop down innocent garden gnomes. Such an awesome movie.
The DVD from Dragon Dynasty offers up several nifty special features: feature commentary from Hong Kong Cinema Expert Bey Logan; "Spotlight on a Legend" - a tribute to celebrated martial arts icon and director Lao Kar-Leung, hosted by Bey Logan (00:36:08 minutes); "Hero of a Shaolin" - an interview with Gordon Liu as he talks about his career and, specifically, about this film (00:22:13); "Shaolin vs. Ninja" (00:26:10) - this is a really interesting segment with a Japanese Iaido master, a Hung Gar weapons master, and an Okinawan bo master breaking down techniques in their craft; and the original theatrical trailers for HEROES OF THE EAST and COME DRINK WITH ME.