Heroes Of The East (1978)

Directed by
Amongst the greatest kung fu films ever made
Reviewed by Simon on 2022-07-04

There was only one way to honour the passing of legendary screenwriter Ni Kuang... maybe two... OK, there were at least 100 valid options, but this is the one I chose. The best of the best.

If Chinese Boxer started the kung fu decade's obsession with virtuous Chinese martial artists fighting back against their villainous Japanese counterparts then HEROES OF THE EAST feels like Lau Kar-Leung's attempt to end it. Whilst it doesn't exactly put Chinese and Japanese martial arts on an equal footing, either in effectiveness or morality, it does at least ultimately conclude that life might be better if we try to understand and learn from each other.

The film is a showcase of different weapons and techniques, and I can't imagine anybody other than Gordon Liu doing such a good job of demonstrating the Chinese side as he takes on each opponent, adapting his approach to counter their specialisation.

Yuka Mizuno is a phenomenon as the Japanese martial artist who refuses to become a submissive wife to Gordon's Chinese nobleman - though her zeal for coming out on top does eventually become a touch unhinged. Yasuaki Kurata is a beast, and the various Japanese masters are all distinct and convincing in their particular styles.

Arthur Wong's cinematography plays really well with Lau Kar-Leung's rich and varied choreography, tracking and framing the fighters to show their forms and convey the narrative of their combat. There's no one I'd rather have behind the camera when directing an intricately choreographed duel of martial arts.

I wish the film had been more consistent in its use of Japanese dialogue - I suppose we're lucky there's any Japanese spoken at all for the era, but it's almost more jarring when Yuka Mizuno and Yasuaki Kurata speak Cantonese in private when they have spoken Japanese at other times. I think Cantonese is the "original" language for the film, though in 1978 Shaw Brothers were just testing the waters so it's possible both Cantonese and Mandarin were available at different screenings. Whatever language you choose, at least half the dialogue is clearly not being spoken in it, though.

HEROES OF THE EAST embodies Lau Kar-Leung's martial arts philosophy as well as or better than 36th Chamber Of Shaolin. In stark contrast to the bloody explosions of rage and revenge that Chang Cheh or Jimmy Wang Yu delivered, nobody is killed or even seriously injured - the practise of martial arts is seen as a way to avoid such undesirable outcomes, by cultivating nobility, respect and self-discipline.