Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Lau Kar-Lueng Edition - The Part-Time Critic

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Lau Kar-Lueng Edition

*Scroll down past the following paragraphs to skip the summary and go straight to the sequences

To my mind, Lau Kar-Lueng is the best traditional kung fu choreographer/director/performer of all-time. He comes from a family line of martial arts masters and broke into the Hong Kong film industry as a performer and choreographer during the 1950's and 60's. His big directing breakthrough came with 1976's Challenge of the Master. From this point forward, his film work was practically unequaled on the martial arts scene for eight straight years. What makes Lau Kar-Lueng so unique is that he is not only a talented performer, but he is an incredible director and choreographer behind the camera as well.

In fact, there are only a handful of people who can choreograph and perform complicated and tradition grounded fight choreography like Lau Kar-Lueng. His fights are well known for often playing out in unusually long takes (even by Hong Kong cinema standards). It's not unusual for fights to include multiple sequences with 10-20 moves per fighter (I once counted a 35 move take). He knows just when to move the camera, come in for close impacts, and stay back for wide shots. At his best, his choreography shows off the immense skill, speed, and style displayed in great traditional kung fu and weapon use. He is so well versed in Chinese martial arts culture that his fights (even though it's clearly presented cinematically) have a genuine authenticity to their feel. Lau Kar-Lueng is at his storytelling best when he is using that authenticity to showcase that cultural knowldge, like the variety and weapons and styles in Chinese kung fu (The Legendary Weapons of China), showing respect for elders while still encouraging the youth (My Young Auntie), that the martial spirit is bound by morality (Martial Club), or the ethical questions of whether it’s right to take the life of an evil doer or to be a person of peace (8 Diagram Pole Fighter). His films need this subtext because the plots of the stories are often cheesy, needlessly convoluted, while also being predictably formulaic. In that way, he did not distance himself from the weaknesses of the genre. 
At his worst, his sequences can be richly complicated, but still lack something that makes them pop. It can create an odd situation where the viewer can feel appreciative of the difficulty of what is being executed, but can still find themselves not entertained. So focused on traditional style and the execution of it, his fights can lack major stunts and often miss that memorable visual violent punctuation that Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Tony Jaa, and Donnie Yen would incorporate so wisely into their scenes. It’s one of the reasons someone might remember a very basic Jean Claude-Van Damme sequence that is punctuated by an impressive move featuring the splits, but a 15 minute richly detailed fight sequence choreographed by Lau Kar-Lueng can wind up forgettable and ultimately un-engaging. The problem is that the longer the sequences go, the less can feel at stake. If you can fight someone for 5 minutes and they are not too tired or beat up to fight for another 5 minutes, then outside of very original and inherently satisfying choreography, fights can feel worthless and perpetual. Too many moves, no matter how stylish, just feels superfluous. 

I'm critical of Lau Kar-Lueng because I find myself so in love with that he has made that I don't want any imperfections to show. When I began my series of action sequence lists, I've been relishing the chance to revisit his filmography and dissect his sequences. In case you haven't figured it out yet, I think he is on the Mt. Rushmore of martial arts cinema - there are simply not more than a few people who are his equal or better in this regard. Thus, I couldn't bring myself to limit this to just a top 10 or 25 sequences, but put together a list of what I think are his top 40 sequences to share with you. This list will be unique because it features not just fights he is personally performing in, but any fight he is performing, choreographing, or directing. As you get closer to the top ten, the more difficult it is to differentiate whether one is actually "better" than another. I'd say by the time you get to #8, they are all masterpieces. If the list has inspired you to seek out his films, you can currently watch pretty much everything I've mentioned through a combination of Netflix streaming or Amazon Prime streaming.


Top 40 Action Sequences
*I've tried linking to decent youtube versions of the action scenes. Keep in mind, the YouTube videos are not always high quality and often clip off parts of the fights.
(40-26)
40. “Three Section Staff vs. Nunchuku” -Heroes of the East (Link)
39. “Kendo Master vs. Chinese Broad Sword” -Heroes of the East (Link)
38. “Chinese Spear vs. Japanese Spear” -Heroes of the East (Link)
37. “Knife Fight: Husband & Wife Fight Grandpa” -Shaolin Mantis
36. “Finale: Apprentice and Kar-Lueng Return & Get Revenge” -Mad Monkey Kung Fu (Link)
35. “All Out Fight Between Martial Clubs in the Opera” -Martial Club
34. “Sword Fight Breaks Out at a Costumed Ball” -My Young Auntie
33. “Opening Battle of Jinsha: Nearly All the Yang Family is Killed” -The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter (Link)
32. “Lau Kar-Lueng vs TarTar Ambush at His Home” -The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter
31. “Nighttime Assassination Attempt Coincidence” -The Legendary Weapons of China
30. “Nighttime Fight with the leader of the Boxers” -The Legendary Weapons of China
29. “Finale: Seven Swords Arrive in Time to Save the Village” -Seven Swords (Link)
28. “Fight on the Great Wall: Shaolin vs Government Soldiers” -Martial Arts of Shaolin 
27. “Finale: Shootout and Chainsaw Duel” -Tiger on Beat 
26. “Second Attempt to Kill Pai Mei Fails” -Executioners from Shaolin 

25-11
25. “Sammo Hung vs. Lau Kar-Lueng” -Pedicab Driver (Link)
24. “Stopping a Night Execution by the General's Men” -The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Link)
23. “Opening: Gordon Liu vs Archers Army” -Executioners from Shaolin
22. “Wheelchair Kung Fu: Ambushed in a Windy Town” -Dirty Ho (Link)
21. “Getting Revenge: Graveside Fight” -The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Link)
20. “Ah Tao and Young Auntie Infiltrate Third Uncle's Mansion and Battle for the Deeds” -My Young Auntie (Link)
19. “Finale: Sword vs. Three Sectioned Staff” -The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Link)
18. “Finale: Liu Returns and Fights the Mill Bosses with Scaffold Kung Fu” -Return to the 36th Chamber (Part 1(Part 2)
17. “Train Thief Fight: Jackie Chan vs Lau Kar-Lueng” -The Legend of Drunken Master (Link)
16. “Spear vs Sword: Inspector Fights Leung & Dies by Death Kick” -Challenge of the Masters 
15. “Finale: Disciples Try to Escape the Ching Courtyard” -Disciples of the 36th Chamber (Link)
14. “Gordon Liu vs Lau Kar-Lueng: Forest with Staff and then Bamboo” -Challenge of the Masters (Link)
13. “Finale: Athletic Gym Battle to Rescue Kara Hui” -The Lady is the Boss (Link)
12. “Finale: Shaolin Monks Battle on He Sao's Boat” -Martial Arts of Shaolin (Part 2 Only)
11. “Lui vs Kar-Lueng, the Girl, and the Boy” -The Legendary Weapons of China (Link)
 
Top Ten
10. “Finale: Series of Weapons Fights Culminates in 1 vs 1 Mantis Style” -Shaolin Mantis (Part 2 Only)
- Unfortunately, I couldn't find a link to the entire weapons portion of this fight sequence for you. I wish you could see it because this is a fight that demonstrates well the greatness and weakness of his style. This finale advances in stages (a staple that video games would copy, not the other way around!) of increasing difficulty and choreographing complexity - but by the time it ends, it's run for nearly 17 whole minutes. At times, you can find yourself both amazed and slightly bored during the fights - a kind of oddity to be honest. Still, this fight is so detailed and rich, it deserves a top ten spot.

9. “Axe Gang Attack” -The Legend of Drunken Master (Link)
- After the Shaw Brothers Studios closed down, Lau Kar-Lueng began collaborating with new people. The news that he would co-direct a sequel to 1979's Drunken Master was a big deal. To put that in perspective, it would be a bit like Steven Spielberg announcing he would team up with Quentin Tarantino to co-write and direct a film in the year 2000. Unfortunately, and probably unsurprisingly, Jackie and Kar-Lueng struggled to work together and Kar-Lueng left the set before the finale sequence was filmed. Still, their collaboration produced this little gem of a piece. I think it's a glimpse at how their two styles could co-exist as the bamboo weapon work strikes me as Kar-Lueng influenced, while the focus on hard-hitting stunts and a quick succession of impactful moves over long and flowy moves strikes me as Chan's influence. I wish there was a couple more minutes of content here, but what we got is a hard-hitting and lean action gem.

8. “Master the Final Chamber: Series of Weapon Fights to Beat Master” -36th Chamber of  Shaolin (Link)
- The film 36th Chamber of Shaolin is probably the most iconic entry in Kar-Lueng's filmography. It features the same basic formula as countless other kung fu films (opening injustice, trying to right it and getting devastated, training to overcome it, getting revenge), but this film nails the Shaolin training better than any other sequence in the genre. In order to advance to the final "chamber" of the Shaolin temple, San Te must defeat another monk in a weapons fight. What takes place is a series of fights that are fun to watch, but are deeper than the usual kung fu standoff. With each fight, you can watch visually see San Te progress in skill and in the way he conceives of the best weapons to use in order to disarm his opponent. Eventually, San Te invents a new weapon, the three sectioned staff, in order to win the fight. The story takes a typically strong Kar-Lueng sequence and elevates it to new heights.

7. “Finale: 3 vs 2 - Ho and the Prince take on Liang” -Dirty Ho (Link)
- The choreography here starts out a bit stiff, slow, and unremarkable as the performers seem to be walking through the motions. However, a couple minutes in and Gordon Liu properly joins the fight and these guys kick into a higher gear with several long takes of three versus two group fighting. It’s only then when you see the theme of “working together” take shape in the choreography – our two heroes working seamlessly together, switching weapons back and forth, and tagging up while the three villains also try to coordinate, weave in and out, and switch off their weapons too. The ballet eventually becomes memorizing – requiring the viewer to stop, rewind, and re-watch to catch everything. I’m very grateful for the “go back 10 seconds” command; it's one of the best fight scene helps I’ve come across.

6. “Finale: Liu vs Kurata - Three Stage Fight Ends in Crab vs Crane” -Heroes of the East (Link)
- The joy of this fight is the spirit of competition between Japanese and Chinese martial arts. In this case, they are fighting over which version has the best subterfuge and illusions. It’s a bit like spy vs spy fight, if one was a Chinese kung fu specialist and the other a ninja. Throughout the fight, Kar-Lueng crafts multiple situations where each fighter gets to demonstrate a variety of illusions and concealed weapons. That’s the core conceit and it's executed with a lot of giddy excitement. The fact that the rest of the fight is filled out by some great kung fu back and forths between Gordon Liu and the Japanese fighting legend Kurata (his fight with Jet Li in Fist of Legend is incredible) is just a cherry on the top of this incredible sequence. Kar-Lueng went on to feature many of these same skills in other films like The Legendary Weapons of China, but he’s never done it more comprehensively and better than here. Unfortunately, the best online clip I could find misses the first several minutes of the fight (an entire phase).

5. “Finale: Weapons Fight Extravaganza” -The Legendary Weapons of China (Link)
- Lau Kar-Lueng fights his real life brother in this extended weapons finale. The concept behind this fight is to showcase as many traditional Chinese weapons as possible: how you can uniquely attack, defend, and disarm with each one. As each fighter grabs a new weapon a subtitle appears on the screen to inform the audience. This is quite possibly the single best one vs one weapons showcase ever put to film. My favorite section of the sequence is easily the shield and blade showcase.

4. “Finale: Uncles Advance in Three Stages to Rescue Auntie” -My Young Auntie (Part 1(Part 2)
- This sequence is perhaps the best overall demonstration of the range of Lau Kar-Lueng’s choreography and skill. The reason this one ranks above the previous weapons extravaganza is due to the variety of skill on display here. This is truly a comprehensive fight sequence. The fight takes place in three phases with demonstrations of large scale fighting between enemies and the good guy uncles. Eventually, Lau Kar-Lueng and his son fight into third uncle’s mansion (the bad guy) where they face two of his henchmen. This sequence alone is a bravura display of weapon work and traditional kung fu style (there's a sequence of butterfly knife fighting here Kar-Lueng is just magnificient), but it’s the final phase of the fight – a one on one between Lau Kar-Lueng and Lung Wei Wang – where the true standout moments are found. The only thing holding this fight back from near perfection, is that some of the Qi Gong style silliness doesn’t quite work for me, and there is sometimes a lack of violent punctuation needed to highlight turning points in fights. Additionally, Kar-Lueng sometimes relied too strongly on comedy to end his fight sequences - which is what he does here. It just doesn't work well with the epic fighting that preceded it.

3. “Epic Pole Match: Gordon Liu vs. Head Abbot” -The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter (Link)
- This is, to be direct, the finest 1 v 1 pole match I’ve ever seen. It’s considerably shorter than most of Kar-Lueng's fights, but I think that works in its favor here – as the fight feels intense with high stakes because of it. That isn't the only unusual trait in this sequence - this is the first time I visibly noticed him using slow motion to highlight big sweeping moves and it's the first time I noticed him using memorable music during fight to highlight emotion. Towards the end of the fight, Liu slowly creates a yin yang symbol on the ground and forces the abbot to “step out of his shoes.” This is an unusually beautiful use of symbolism in a Kar-Lueng fight. It’s a fight that proves Lau didn’t NEED to choreograph 10-15 minute blowout sequences to make an impact. Would I have liked a couple more minutes? Sure. Yet, pound for pound, this fight goes toe to toe with any finale sequence.

2. “Finale: Northerner vs Gordon Liu in a Narrowing Alley” -Martial Club (Link)
- The general theme of two men sparring to not just see who is better, but learn from their different styles is a common one, but it's executed with great skill in this sequence. Additionally, the fight environment of an increasingly narrowing structure has been done several times as well, but never better than here. The demonstration of athleticism and traditional kung fu style highlighted in this fight along with a few beautiful and creative flourishes (like the splits along the wall and the turning and punching of a brick) create one of my favorite one on one sequences of all time. It might be, to my mind, one of the best traditional one on one kung fu fights ever filmed. Every time I watch it, I’m surprised at how quickly the runtime goes by - it's not that short of a sequence but it always feels like it. Similar to the 1 on 1 pole fight, it’s a sequence that manages to produce the impact of sequences twice it’s runtime, yet still leave you wanting for more.

1. “Finale: Poles & a Pyramid of Coffins” -The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter (Link)
- The previous sequences were difficult to order, but I always knew this sequence would be first. To me, this is Lau Kar-Lueng's fight masterpiece. Like the rest of the great fights on this list, We get his attention to detail in skillful and dynamic choreography that is anchored by traditional pole styles, but the creativity and “cinema” aspect is cranked up in ways new to him. This fight, and the 1 vs 1 pole match from the same film, demonstrates a genuine evolution in his work. This is the first time that Lau Kar-Lueng increases the levels of violence, stunt, and spectacle. I've no idea why he chose to do it, I like to think it's in response to the growing popularity of the stunt and spectacle driven nature of Jackie Chan films, but it's clear there’s a willful choice to let spectacle and awe come from the sheer stunt or impact of something rather than just the difficulty/style of the complicated choreography. 

One scene in particular see’s a lead bad guy stabbed with a broken staff (see picture above) and Gordon Liu smashes it, like one would hit a pop-up gopher in that popular carnival game, and we are treated to the broken staff launching through his midsection into a pole in slow motion. If you watch the sequence, it's a pop of spectacle and violence that you can't look away from,  and this would not have happened in his previous work. 

Additionally, this finale works as a thematic culmination for the movie as well. The thematic tension of the entire film is the question of whether it is right to fight off bad guys "wolves" - to kill them, hurt them, or run from them. The main character seeks his revenge, but struggles with this tension during is monk training. During the finale, the abbot of the monastery arrives on the scene to help the main chracter de-fang the wolves. This metaphor of de-fanging wolves becomes literal in this fight with lots of creative ways the bad guys lose their teeth. This fight demonstrates not just Lau Kar-Lueng's amazing fight choreography, his commitment to traditional but stylized style, his ability to pull of grander stunts, spectacle, and violence, but a deeper and more mature weaving of subtext into his fights than I'd seen previously. It's my pick for his best work.

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