Shadow Boxer, The (1974)

Reviewed by Koray
January 13, 2016


Chen Wo-Fu • Shih Szu • David Chung Gam-Gwai • Wai Wang • Cheng Miu • Yeung Chi-Hing • Chan Shen
Pao Hsueh-Li
Yuen Wo-Ping • Cheng Tin-Hung
Widescreen. Mandarin with English Subtitles.

Ku Ding (Chen Wo Fu) is a struggling railroad worker that sees his life struck by tragedy when the evil Mr Jin (Wai Wang) terrorizes his family and friends. As Ku Ding is being pushed to his limits he wrestles with trying to uphold the values taught to him by his Tai Chi master (Yeung Chi Hing), and tries to tolerate the blows of his enemies. But for how long can he hold back his rage before taking revenge?

Released in 1974, just one year after the death of the legendary Bruce Lee, this Shaw Brothers production does share certain similarities with Lee’s martial arts classic THE BIG BOSS (1971) in that both tell the tale of a disgruntled worker that has given a promise to not fight, but breaks his word when pushed too far. BIG BOSS succeeded in its telling of that particular story by always making viewers aware that Bruce Lee’s character could fight, but that he chosenot to because of a promise he made. It also managed to show us enough examples of the hero’s fighting skills throughout the film to keep viewers interested while successfully building tension up until the final battle.

Sadly, SHADOW BOXER spends much of its running time showing main character Ku Ding taking a beating due to his strict adherence to the principle of tolerance in the art of Tai Chi. As a devoted Tai Chi practitioner, Ku Ding never actively attacks his opponents until the final act, instead taking punishment with the plan to waste his opponents energy as his master had taught him.

The audience never gets a glimpse of Ku Ding’s fighting skills until the final fight arrives near the very end, presenting only short moments of his tai Chi training, instead showing a lot of him and his allies taking punishment from the bad guys. Even when the film takes a darker turn with the appearance of the far more sinister Mr. Jin, a wealthy man who sets of a string of back-to-back tragedies in Ku Ding’s life, the main character remains almost frustratingly passive in his confrontations.

Chen Wo Fu (ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS,1975) does a decent enough job in the lead, despite the fact that his character has little else to do than react to bad news for most of the film. But once he finally gets to show himself as an exponent of Tai Chi, he carries himself very well in the action department. Though he may not have the screen presence of Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan, it would have been interesting to see him take on more leading roles. However, in a tragic turn of events, he committed suicide at the age of twenty-four, before the premiere of SHADOW BOXER.

Shih Shzu (THE AVENGING EAGLE, 1978) plays the daughter of the Tai Chi master, and represents the most interesting character in SHADOW BOXER, one that both dares question the overtly non-violent approach of her father’s teachings, whilst also taking the first active steps to confront the villains. Shih Shzu gives the film’s strongest performance, and in many ways she echoed my feelings as an audience member when her character would actively criticize  Ku Ding as a martial artist that practices self-defense for 10 years and just passively takes a beating, or when she would display the rage and anger that it takes so long for the main character to express.

SHADOW BOXER constantly reminds viewers of the importance of tolerance, but at times the film appears to be testing the audience’s own tolerance level as it spends much of it running time depicting the people in Ku Ding’s life being killed with no real retaliation from Ku Ding on their attackers.

Though the over-reliance on the more pacifist aspect of Tai Chi might be the film’s biggest problem, the focus on Tai Chi is also what gives SHADOW BOXER its most interesting and entertaining moments.

The opening segment of the film that demonstrates and explains the techniques and philosophies behind Tai Chi is one of the highlights. And the all-too-brief training sequences present a very grounded and practical approach to Tai Chi that is a stark contrast to the more spectacular depictions of the art in films such as Yuen Woo Ping’s wire-fu classic TAI CHI MASTER (1993), and the more recent CGI heavy TAI CHI ZERO (2012).

The film’s pacifist outlook is so deeply rooted that when the final fight arrives there is a risk of it becoming a case of “too little, too late”. Luckily the finale does not disappoint.

In the final showdown Chen Wo Fu finally lets loose with a much more high-impact and ferocious style of Tai Chi, going against the villain and  his henchmen with support from Shi Shzu. She steals the show here with some nice kicking techniques, and really delivers some exciting moves. Leading man Chen Wo Fu is very capable in the fight scenes, and he gives an impressive performance of his character’s Tai Chi moves. Unfortunately the finale is the only fight scene of note in SHADOW BOXER, as the other brief fighting sequences featured are simply there to depict the inevitable defeat of Ku Ding’s allies at the hands of villains, and they lack the power or technique of the finale.

SHADOW BOXER is far from being a Shaw Brothers classic on par with the works of Lau Kar-Leung and Chang Cheh, but if you’re a fan of martial arts films that focus on Tai Chi, or are interested in seeing a performance from ‘a martial arts star that could have been’ from Chen Wo Fu, then it’s worth checking out.

But it all depends on if you have the patience to watch a main hero spend most of the running time in severe mental and physical torment before he finally throws a punch.