Today I watched Lau Kar-leung’s Heroes of the East (1978)
Gordon Liu plays Ho Tao, the son a Chinese merchant and a student of Kung Fu. Because of his father’s connections with Japan, he ends up in an arranged marriage with a Japanese woman named Yumiko. At first their relationship seems alright, but quickly they get into quarrels because Yumiko practices Japanese martial arts which Ho Tao does not respect. They both act like complete pricks about each others cultures and eventually Kumiko leaves in a huff, returning to Japan to improve her skills. Ho Tao still has a love for his wife though and in a rather boneheaded move he tries to get her back by sending a rather inflammatory challenge in the hopes of her pride bringing her back. Unfortunately she shares the letter with her martial teachers who do not take kindly to the challenge and decide to send a troupe to China to duel Ho Tao in a number of exhibition matches.
This film is unique among it’s peers in how it represents Japanese martial artists as something other than complete mustache twirling villains, they may be the antagonists, but cultural understanding is the main theme and the lack of it is the cause of conflict. At the same time the film bungles some elements of this theme, particularly in trying to get into the differences in philosophy. While it’s presentation of Japanese martial arts as falling more on the martial side and Chinese more on the art side, which is apt, it fails to really demonstrate the cultural importance in a way that elevates the Japanese arts from pure military exercises.
Aside from that the film is quite an entertaining tale of cultural misunderstanding gone awry. The actual bouts between Ho Tao and the Japanese masters are really quite incredible, especially when swords are involved. The mixing of martial styles leads to some very unique sequences that play off the clash of styles on display. The film is also notable for having Lau Kar-leung display some of the Drunken Boxing style he would use in the fight choreography for a pair of films that helped catapult Jackie Chan to international stardom, but watching the director and choreographer himself demonstrating a few moves is really something. The film may not be perfect in it’s themes but it is certainly a unique, interesting, and entertaining attempt, it’s a lot less jingoistic than it’s trailer presents. 4/5