Director: Chang Il-ho
Producer: Runme Shaw
Cast: Chuen Yuen, Shih Szu, James Nam, Fang Mien, Tung Lam, Lee Ka Ting, Wong Chin Feng, Yukio Someno, Gam Kei Chu, Chan Feng Chen, Cheung Hei
Running Time: 86 min.
By Paul Bramhall
In the history of kung fu cinema, 1972 was one of the most significant years. The Shaw Brothers studio had imported several experienced directors and martial artists from Korea, and in this particular year it proved to be a move that paid dividends, when Chung Chang-wha directed a little movie called King Boxer. Not only was it a runaway box office success locally in Hong Kong, but it would also become forever remembered as the movie that introduced western audiences to the world of kung fu (under the title Five Fingers of Death). Sensing that Chang-wha had formulated a recipe for success, understandably fellow Korean director Chang Il-ho was subsequently tasked with replicating it, and the end result came in the form of The Thunderbolt Fist.
Unlike Chang-wha, who by the time he made King Boxer had already been working at the Shaw Brothers studio for 3 years (during which time he churned out 6 movies), for Il-ho The Thunderbolt Fist was his debut for the studio. It was far from being his debut as a director though, with a filmography that already came close to almost 50 titles made in his native Korea since the early 60’s. Being tasked with imitating the success of another movie is arguably not the best way to start your career at a studio though, and perhaps as a result of this Il-ho would only make two other movies for the Shaw Brothers – The Deadly Knives which was made the same year, and Devil Bride from 1975.
The Thunderbolt Fist gives half Dutch half Taiwanese actor Chuen Yuen his first lead role at the studio. A popular actor in Taiwan, Yuen moved to Hong Kong and took a contract at the Shaw Brothers in 1968. After various roles playing an extra or supporting part (he can be spotted in the likes of Chang Cheh’s Vengeance! and The Duel), it was The Thunderbolt Fist that gave him headliner status. Here he’s teamed with Shaw Brothers starlet Shih Szu, who was heavily marketed by the studio as the next Cheng Pei-Pei, for a tale which (much like King Boxer) has the Chinese rise up to take on the oppressive Japanese forces, led by Korean actor James Nam (aka Nam Seok-hun). Like several of the actors who appear in The Thunderbolt Fist, Nam also has a role in Chang-wha’s earlier production.
So enough of tip toeing around it, let’s be clear from the start that The Thunderbolt Fist is completely derivative of King Boxer. The structure even follows the plot beats with remarkable familiarity. The hero tries to take on the Japanese, hero fails and ends up with one of his limbs partially crippled, hero trains to overcome his disability, hero takes on the evil Japanese and comes out victorious. In fairness, there are plenty of other movies out there that could also have that same plot description applied, however considering the timing and structure of The Thunderbolt Fist, I’d be willing to bet none do it quite so flagrantly as we see here.
With that being said, The Thunderbolt Fist shouldn’t be written off as just a second rate imitation of King Boxer. Despite the similarities, it’s also noticeable that Il-ho is trying to at least put as much of his own stamp on proceedings as the story will allow. By 1972 Chang Cheh has already developed a reputation for his excessive use of bloodshed, usually leaving the screen coated in liberal doses of the red stuff, but here Il-ho gives Cheh a solid run for his money. Stabbings, decapitations, and more projectile blood spitting than you can shake a stick are liberally sprinkled throughout, with the ground and walls of any given action scene usually caked in blood splatter by the end of any given scuffle.
What is immediately noticeable though is that Yuen isn’t a trained martial artist, or, as it would sometimes seem, much of a trained actor. To be fair, he’s not to blame for one major issue. We spend some time with the child versions of Yuen and Nam (played by kung fu cinema legends Austin Wai and Stephen Tung Wai respectively, here both making their screen debuts), and they look no older than 12 years old. When it skips 10 years forward and Yuen steps into the role, the fact that he should be no older than 22 just doesn’t match his appearance, which looks significantly older. The discrepancy between age and appearance also results in some cringe worthy moments. In one scene Yuen is resting in a field, recalling his time with a childhood sweetheart, shown in flashback. When it cuts back, he does a deep sigh while looking wistfully at the camera. I promise it’ll make you temporarily look away in embarrassment.
It’s the kind of scene that someone like David Chiang could have pulled off perfectly, but with Yuen it just comes across as slightly awkward. The same also applies to the choreography. While both Szu and Nam look sharp, with Nam in particular outshining everyone whenever he springs into action, Yuen only comes across as average in comparison. He visibly lacks that same sharpness, which is no more evident than when, in the middle of a group melee, he lands in a chair and performs an over the shoulder kick, with no one being there to receive it. The action itself is choreographed by Leung Siu-Chung (the father of Bruce Leung, who can be seen as an extra if you look closely), who never really found himself in that top tier of fight choreographers like his contemporaries Lau Kar Leung and Tong Gaai. Leung does deserve credit though for incorporating the likes of judo and karate into the choreography, but there’s no doubt that the action on display falls into the basher category.
What can’t be denied is that for fans of the genre, The Thunderbolt Fist offers a wealth of early glimpses at those who would become legends within a decade of its release. Apart from those already mentioned, it’s also possible to see the likes of Lam Ching Ying, Tony Leung Siu-Hung, Corey Yuen Kwai, and Alexander Fu Sheng in small parts. Throw in the likes of Kim Ki-ju, aka the guy who seems to appear in every Korean kung fu movie ever made (and of course, King Boxer), and there are plenty of familiar faces to keep the kung-fu cinema fan happy. Where The Thunderbolt Fist gets really interesting though, is in its application of what the title suggests, or rather, lack of.
Just as Il-ho’s effort is heavily influenced by King Boxer, so King Boxer was heavily influenced by Jimmy Wang Yu’s directorial debut The Chinese Boxer, from 1970. The Thunderbolt Fist in many ways is a kind of unintentional hybrid of the pair, with the aesthetics borrowing heavily from Chang-wha’s influential classic, while the element of Yuen’s arm being rendered crippled coming straight from Wang Yu’s earlier movie. However it’s due to this very point that The Thunderbolt Fist seems to lose its way in terms of narrative logic. With one arm rendered useless, Yuen trains his fist extensively from a secret manual explaining (guess what), the Thunderbolt Fist. However after an initial confrontation with Nam and his cronies, the villains are left to reflect on how deadly Yuen’s kicks are. If there was ever a “Huh?” moment in a movie, then this ranks as one of them.
At first I figured something had perhaps got lost in translation, but the more I thought about it, the more it became apparent to simply be a lack of coherency on the part of the filmmakers. We spend time watching Yuen train his fist, however in the last reel all the attention is diverted to his feet. I mean, if he had a powerful kick, why did we have to wait for him to become cripple before he kicked some Japanese posterior!? It doesn’t make sense, and coherency is thrown more and more out of the window as we head towards the finale. Nam sends a crony to injure Yuen’s leg before their penultimate battle in an outdoor ring (think the finale of Ip Man, it’s identical), however despite the crony being successful in his mission, during the match itself it doesn’t factor in whatsoever.
Despite this, such incoherency can be somewhat forgiven for delivering a finale that lays on both the creativity, and the bloodshed, in equally heavy doses. When Yuen is confronted by a group of Japanese attackers, it’s revealed they have concealed blades in their shoes, in a clear nod to the work Tong Gaai was doing with Chang Cheh at the time. Plus it’s not a spoiler to say that Yuen’s finishing move against Nam is worth the price of admission alone, providing one of those rare spit your coffee/beer/whatever it is you’re drinking out moments. As derivative as it may be, The Thunderbolt Fist does its best to compensate with ample bloodshed and over the top violence, and while it’s true to say they’re appealing to the lowest common denominator, sometimes that’s exactly what we need.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 6/10