Martial Club | aka Instructors of Death (1981) Review

"Martial Club" Chinese Theatrical Poster

“Martial Club” Chinese Theatrical Poster

Director: Lau Kar Leung
Writer: Kuang Ni
Producer: Mona Fong
Cast: Gordon Liu, Kara Hui, Robert Mak, Wang Lung Wei, Ku Feng, King Chu Lee, Chu Te Hu, Wilson Tong, Hsiao Ho
Running Time: 102 min.

By Chris Hatcher

Of the storied directors in old school kung fu cinema, none stand higher on the mountain top than the great Lau Kar Leung. His directorial run from 1975-1986 produced some of the Shaw Brother’s most celebrated classics including The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, 8 Diagram Pole Fighter, and Legendary Weapons of China. Known for creating realistic training and fight sequences influenced by the Chinese martial art of Hung Gar, Lau saturated his films with some of the most authentic choreography in the genre’s history. And no one added to his formula for success as frequently, or as spectacularly, as the Master Killer himself, Gordon Liu.

Lau cast Liu in 18 films and starred him in over half of those during a time of forging a new path in martial arts cinema. He ended his long-time work as an action choreographer for director Chang Cheh on the set of 1975’s Marco Polo out of need to focus more on the martial arts itself and less on Cheh’s affinity for blood-soaked violence. As one of the few directors to be an actual martial artist and the first choreographer to direct a feature film, Lau mentored actors like Liu in the ways of depicting spectacular kung fu on screen. And his approach paid off; Liu’s breakout role in 36th Chamber sealed their partnership and sky-rocketed both men to superstardom. In short, you can’t have a conversation about the best in martial arts cinema without mentioning Lau Kar Leung and Gordon Liu.

Whenever I read opinions on the duo’s best collaborations, it’s a given to see the films already mentioned sitting in the top spots. However, I’m always a bit surprised to find Martial Club towards the bottom of the list, or nowhere on the list at all. Granted, when you have so many great films under your belt it’s hard to find room at the top for everyone. But Martial Club seems… forgotten. Like it’s the one Lau/Liu film placed on the backburner simply for being a lesser known title in the filmography of these two greats, which is truly unfortunate. Here’s why:

Martial Club contains some of the best martial arts action to never kill a character on screen, which I greatly admire (a feat Lau/Liu pulled off three years earlier in the superbly bloodless Heroes of the East); it also displays an excellent blend of humor and action throughout; and, in what I consider the most compelling argument for its greatness, the finale features the single best Gordon Liu/Wang Lung Wei showdown of their many excellent encounters (which is truly saying something if you’ve ever seen these two go at it). Mix all of this together and you get a film that would likely rank top three on any other filmmaker’s “Best of” list. For a supreme director like Lau, however, it’s just another day at the office.

Martial Club’s plot keeps things light with Liu once again taking on the role of legendary troublemaker Wong Fei Hung (he previously played the part in Lau’s Challenge of the Masters). He and Robert Mak are students of neighboring kung fu schools, each always looking to one-up the other in friendly combat. An opening credits lion dance (featuring rules explanation by Lau) sets the stage for a third school’s head student (King Chu Lee) to break etiquette and challenge Mak’s Wang Yinlin to a lion dance-off. The aftermath finds the two schools’ masters, Zheng (Wilson Tong) and Lu (Chu Te Hu), seeking mediation from Fei Hung’s father (Ku Feng), a process that goes awry and leaves the two sides at odds.

When the hijinx of besting one another leads Fei Hung and Yinlin to ask their closest confidants (Hsiao Ho and Kara Hui) to rig a fight contest on their behalves, the result is a run-in with Master Shan (Wang Lung Wei), a northern kung fu expert who’s come southward to make friends and blend styles. Turns out he’s a guest of Master Lu’s, and an unsuspecting pawn in Lu’s shady plan to exploit the northerner’s talents and lead all rival schools. What ensues is a series of misunderstandings, double-crossings, and deceptions, each spawning a grander scale fight scene than the one before in route to the climactic showdown between Fei Hung and Shan.

Martial Club has been called one of the purest kung fu films ever made in some circles; another reason it demands to be more widely known by the fu fan masses. Lau is truly a master at highlighting kung fu intricacies and this one follows suit in multiple areas. For starters, I love his focus on strength of stance throughout the film with one particular scene showing Fei Hung goading a group of classmates to try and move him before his father secretly slips in to take a turn. The encounter is brief but exhilarating as Liu and Ku Feng demonstrate great footwork in a contest of focus and strength between father and son.

Another similar scene pits Gordon against Wang Lung Wei and Chu Te Hu as they attempt to break Fei Hung’s stance using long drapery-style material being offered as gifts. Each man winds cloth around his legs and attempts to hold his ground in the name of testing its quality when, in fact, the quality of the stance is the very thing being tested. Lau’s play on context is humorous and clever, not to mention pretty cool to watch.

Speaking of humor, Martial Club has plenty of it with Liu’s and Mak’s shenanigans taking center stage (Liu doesn’t play Fei Hung as zanily as Jackie Chan did in Drunken Master, but it works). Whether the two are posing as head coaches of their respective schools and being taught a lesson by a real master or Yinlin is impressing tricks in a brothel with his strength, the story is never bogged down by the silliness. In fact, it’s enriched by it due to Lau’s ability to flow effortlessly from the funny to the fighting and back again. Liu and Kara Hui demonstrate this when a misunderstanding leads Yinlin’s sister (played by Hui) to come after Fei Hung. The result is a school-on-school brawl featuring some great hand-to-hand and weapons combat between the two.

Which leads us to why we watch kung fu films in the first place… the fights. And no one stages great action like Lau with Liu, Hui, and Wang leading the way in a number of exciting clashes. I would go so far as to say Martial Club showcases some of Lau’s very best work and the final showdown between Gordon and Wang is the definitive proof. It’s one of the most breathtaking displays of technical skill I have ever seen in an old school film with the highlight being the alley it takes place in growing smaller in width as the fight progresses! Marvelous styles, stances, and flare throughout… oh, my!

But seriously, the fight is truly spectacular and I love the notion of their showdown being for nothing more than honor and the testing of skill. No revenge, no blood, no death… just honor and skill. It’s the epitomical scene for why Lau decided to sever his ties with Chang Cheh and blaze his own trail as a filmmaker… and the kung fu cinema world is a much better place for it.

Chris Hatcher’s Rating: 9/10

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2 Responses to Martial Club | aka Instructors of Death (1981) Review

  1. James says:

    The opening lion dance takes place in a very fake “exterior” with a hasty canopy between the teahouses to hide the rafters of the studio.

    • Chris Hatcher says:

      It is one of the few lion dances to ever be filmed on a studio lot compared to most being shot in open outdoors. I once read an article that speculated Lau did this to more easily capture the direct overhead shots he filmed of the tiered platform holders, but I don’t really know if this is true.

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