Mystery of Chess Boxing | aka Ninja Checkmate (1979) Review

"Mystery of Chess Boxing" Chinese Theatrical Poster

“Mystery of Chess Boxing” Chinese Theatrical Poster

AKA: Double Chained Horses
Director: Joseph Kuo
Writer: Joseph Kuo
Cast: Lee Yi Min, Mark Long, Jack Long, Jeanie Chang, Siu Foo Dau, Simon Yuen, Ricky Cheng, Wong Chi Sang, Wong Wing Sang, Mau Ging Shun
Running Time: 90 min.

By Chris Hatcher

Rumor has it that in 1979, the release of Joseph Kuo’s Mystery of Chess Boxing on New York City’s famed 42nd Street in Times Square caused near-riots due to its massive popularity. The film earned rave reviews and was so well-received by the public it played continuously in NYC theaters for nearly two years… an impressive feat for a 70s kung fu film not starring Bruce Lee. So, does MOCB really live up to the hype of its iconic fan-love beginnings in The City That Never Sleeps? In short… yes it does, on a number of fronts.

For starters, we’re talking about Joseph Kuo, one of the paramount directors of Taiwanese martial arts movies and most prolific filmmakers of the old school era. Kuo’s success spanned many genres (including romance!) with his most well-known being Wuxia and traditional kung fu films. His 7 Grandmasters was a definitive masterpiece with Born Invincible, World of Drunken Master, and Dragon’s Claws being other great works. Mystery of Chess Boxing is right there in the mix as one of his best (ranking just below 7 Grandmasters, in my opinion).

Secondly, Kuo’s usual suspects – Jack Long, Mark Long, and Lee Yi Min – turn in some great work for MOCB. This is especially true of Mark Long as Ghost Face Killer Wan Chun San, one of the most notorious villains in old school fu film history (made even more famous by early 90s rapper Ghostface Killah of the Wu-Tang Clan). He looks, and sounds, fantastic in the role with flowing gray hair, wicked laugh, and some of the strongest kung fu of his career. In some respects, GFK is at the center of the story as a man on a mission to take out the martial arts masters who once conspired to kill him.

Thirdly, Kuo skillfully interweaves many short but great fight scenes of GFK dispatching masters with the story of Ah Pao (Lee Yi Min), a young man who wants to learn kung fu and avenge his father’s death. Each master displays different techniques to challenge Ghost Face Killer’s Five Elements style, an approach that keeps the fights fresh and exciting. And that’s a good thing, too; when Ah Pao joins a school only to become the whipping boy of its students, you’ll be thankful for the intermittent fights as the sillier parts of his initiation begin to drag out. It’s one of the few complaints I have of MOCB; it gets a bit too silly for the level of seriousness demonstrated by the fights and the back story. More gung fu and less goofy antics would have been preferred here.

Another minor complaint is Simon Yuen’s underdeveloped role as the school’s cook. One minute he’s giving wise sage advice and showing Ah Pao a trick or two and the next he’s dead on a slab (supposedly at the hands of GFK, though the signature amulet left on every GFK victim is never shown or mentioned in connection with the death of Yuen’s character). Revealing this doesn’t give away anything of significance because it happens off screen and in the blink of an eye. What it does show is a rare misstep by Kuo in reducing the role of an actor whose storied career should have garnered more respected screen time.

(Note: Yuen died of a sudden heart attack early in the same year MOCB was released. Though I could find no evidence in my research, this may have inadvertently played a part in the lack of screen time for Yuen’s character if the film was unfinished at the time of his death. Read my review on Dance of the Drunk Mantis to get the full Simon Yuen treatment).

Issues aside, Mystery of Chess Boxing’s bread-and-butter scenes take place over the final 35 minutes or so as Chess King Chi Siu Tien (Jack Long) takes in Ah Pao and teaches him the ways of chess boxing (i.e. applying the skills of mastering chess to how one masters kung fu). In this we’re treated to some good training sequences with Lee Yi Min looking sharper, faster, and more determined as the truth of his connection to Ghost Face Killer is revealed. By the time Jack Long gets into the training mix and subsequent showdown with GFK as one of the co-conspirators, all jokes are aside and MOCB really shines as a kung fu spectacle. He and Yi Min make a great tandem, and their combining of chess terms with a tag team approach to fighting in the finale is an outright adrenaline rush! (Speaking of spectacles, keep your eyes on Ghost Face Killer’s arms when Ah Pao applies one of his strength training exercises in the final fight… the incredibly obvious use of prosthetics will have you gasping and laughing at the same time!)

On a personal note, Jack Long’s fight-filled role in 7 Grandmasters is one of my all-time favorites and I wish his skills had been as frequently showcased in MOCB. He dons his fantastically long gray wig in both outings, but his participation in the action is reduced by more than half in this one. Knowing MOCB is more a vehicle for Lee Yi Min and Mark Long, the adage better late than never kicks in and Jack Long’s work in the third act offsets any disappointment. And though his form doesn’t appear quite as crisp in Mystery of Chess Boxing compared to 7 Grandmasters, any Jack Long is better than no Jack Long in my book.

In closing, one of my favorite old school quotes comes from Chi Siu Tien when he tells Ah Pao: “To master this game, you have to be… very calm. But also quick of wit, sharp of eye, fast of mind, slow of tongue, quick to see.” It’s a classic line that beautifully ties the connotations of learning chess and kung fu together, and well-represents Mystery of Chess Boxing as a classic of the old school genre.

Chris Hatcher’s Rating: 8/10

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2 Responses to Mystery of Chess Boxing | aka Ninja Checkmate (1979) Review

  1. Oldboy says:

    Nice review, but I have to say I was utterly disappointed by this. While the “philosophy of chess” parts were interesting I didn’t really think they were well integrated into the action itself like say drunken master or Incredible Kung Fu Master. I felt the fights were pretty bland. More could have been done with the idea.

    • Chris Hatcher says:

      While I definitely wouldn’t describe the GFK fights with his co-conspirators or the final fight as “bland,” I can see your point of doing more with the chess concept. Lee Yi Min and Jack Long’s tag team fighting style at the end was exciting, but the concept of applying chess philosophy was not nearly as fleshed out as the drunken concepts in “DM,” as you mentioned. I still think the silliness of the middle portion involving Ah Pao and the students at his school took away from the film. I wanted more Jack Long, which is why “7 Grandmasters” is one of my all-time favs!! Thanks for leaving your feedback, Oldboy!

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