The Shadow Boxing (1979)

Directed by
Corpses don't pee
Reviewed by Simon on 2021-03-27

Before Xiangxi province developed its infrastructure people that died away from home had their bodies transported back for burial by corpse herders, who used black magic to animate the corpses so that they could hop their way back home under their own steam.

Master Chen Wu (Lau Kar-Wing) teaches his disciple (Wong Yu) the spells and incantations required for the corpse herding trade, when he's not drunk or gambling - which is apparently not very often. When enough bodies have accumulated for it to be worth making the trip the pair set off with their bouncy undead followers, but something seems a little off about the last corpse to join the entourage.

As far as I can tell this was the first film to feature hopping vampires, or gyonsi, and it basically establishes the template for the genre that is more widely known from Mr. Vampire and its many sequels, spin-offs and imitators. It features that mix of comedy, horror and martial arts action that would become a staple of Hong Kong cinema in the following decade.

It's odd that it isn't more widely recognised as the progenitor of the genre, as it was unmistakeably an influence on Sammo Hung's Encounters Of The Spooky Kind, which is more often credited as the originator but which came out almost 2 years later (which is forever in Hong Kong cinema).

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The film is nominally a sequel to Spiritual Boxer, which also doesn't get enough credit for being Kung Fu Comedy several years before Jackie Chan and Yuen Wo-Ping supposedly invented it. It's a completely stand alone film though, with only thematic similarities and a lead actor in common.

It's surprising how familiar THE SHADOW BOXING feels, with its gyonsi looking and moving just as they do in the MR. VAMPIRE films. I assume that the style is based on folklore and perhaps showed up in Chinese opera before, but maybe they just got it so right everybody agreed that was how they should be from then on.

Gordon Liu is absolutely adorable as the naughty gyonsi, hopping along and causing trouble. It's obvious from pretty much the start that there is a bit more going on with him than the rest of the cast realise.

The film is surprisingly funny, and it's a wittier sort of comedy than the slapstick that was in vogue at the time - though there is some of that too. Cecilia Wong can take a lot of the credit for that, as she has good chemistry with Wong Yu and they play well off each other. Gordon's contribution shouldn't be overlooked either.

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Lau Kar-Wing isn't at his best here, unfortunately, mainly because he isn't a very convincing drunk. His character is the polar opposite of Lam Ching-Ying's uptight Taoist, which means that the master/pupil relationship doesn't have the same dynamic. It's probably for the best that he disappears in the second half of the film. Some supporting cast members such as Lee Hoi-Sang and Wilson Tong are surprisingly rounded, which makes up for the lack of a strong sifu to an extent.

The film isn't as action packed as some of Lau Kar-Leung's films, though the last twenty minutes deliver a steady stream of fights. What it loses in quantity it makes up for in quality though, with typically interesting choreography from Sifu Lau and typically excellent delivery from Gordon Liu and the rest of the cast. Arthur Wong's fluid camera work is the final ingredient that makes the action shine, he really understands the flow of the action and makes sure the camera flows with it. Wong Yu has a very unique fighting style in the film, based around the stiff movements of the gyonsi he works with. It looks very goofy next to Gordon Liu's fearsome Eagle Fist but it makes for an entertaining contrast.

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I'm surprised THE SHADOW BOXING doesn't get mentioned more often, it was obviously influential amongst Hong Kong's film makers, but maybe it didn't do particularly well at the box office? I suppose it wasn't easily available on home video for 25 years whilst the Golden Harvest gyonsi films were widely distributed, so perhaps it didn't seem as fresh and exciting when people finally got to see it as it would surely have been in 1979.

It deserves to be recognised though, it's not only a trailblazer in the horror-comedy genre but it's one of the better Kung Fu Comedy films of the era and it's no slouch as a martial arts film. I'd rate it amongst the best of the Shaw Brothers and Lau Kar-Leung's output.