Fantasia 2012/Shaw Bros. Sat.: ‘Fists of the White Lotus’ demonstrates that it’s cool to fight like a girl
Directed by Lo Lieh
Written by Tien Huang
Hong Kong, 1980
*This week’s film was recently viewed at the 2012 Fantasia International Film Festival on a 35mm print, hence its inclusion in both the Fantasia 2012 and Shaw Brothers Saturdays columns.
The old, evil martial arts master who can still pack a thunderous punch, often demolishing anyone who stands in his path with precise, near-effortless movements. He dresses in white, laughs a powerful laugh and frequently passes his hands on his white beard when in thought. The image is fond one among many a martial arts movie fan. For many, their first ever exposure to the character was in Quentin Tarantino’s 2004 feature, Kill Bill: Vol. 2. the truth of the matter is that the old kung fu master has made numerous appearances in much older action films. In fact, not so long ago in this very column, Executioners of Shaolin was reviewed and it featured the iconic figure. Now, time for the sequel, directed and co-starring legend Lo Lieh. Prepare to face the Fists of the White Lotus.
As is so often the case with these movies, the story opens up with terrific action sequence, with the audience thrust into the midst of a furious hand to hand battle between a familiar foe, the elderly martial artist with the long white beard, and two younger allies. The contest requires both sides to exercise all their might and skills as fighters to defeat the other. It is the sort of battle which provides the audience with a snippet of things to come later on, with plenty of fights expressing the technical mastery of the performers and the desire of the filmmakers to inject a little bit of the fantastic into the action scenes. First, however, some set-up. Two long time friends and pupils of the same shaolin temple, Piao (Ching Chu) and Wei Ting (Gordon Liu) meet after a prolonged absence, this being after the defeat of the chief antagonist in Executioners of Shaolin. The White Lotus gang is still working hard in obliterating the shaolin students who survived the destruction of their previous temple, this despite that the central governing body recently decreed that the establishment shall rise again. Piao and Wei Ting have little time to rest with their loved ones when the White Lotus attacks them, killing off many of their brothers and sisters, leaving only a few alive. Wei Ting, discovering that his current skills are no match against the White Lotus priest (Lo Lieh), but rely on the teachings of his ‘sister’ Mei Ha (Kara Hui), for only a more graceful, feminine touch will ever stand a chance at finally vanquishing their mortal enemy.
Lo Lieh is remembered far more for his performances in Shaw films than for his directing resume. Even by 1980, when he made the picture under review today, only so many movies were under his director’s belt. Save for a few filmmakers who truly brought a sense of identity to their projects, stand outs being King Hu, Lau Kar-leung, Chang Cheh, there is a curtain of homogeneity about these stories and especially about the styles, aesthetic and thematic. Lo Lieh brings a little bit of everything into the pot to cook up a plot which is familiar, right down to some of the character motivations, with Shaolin pupils proudly and loudly making statements along the lines of ‘Brother X was killed. We must avenge him!’ That dogmatic dedication towards to notion of killing the ‘other’ for they killed one of their own is ever present in Fists of the White Lotus. Lieh introduces some slapstick humour with a character played by the charismatic Lam Fai Wong. The individual is a clumsy, tired, out of shame former martial artist who serves as target practice for Wei Ting. Such scenes of their moments, no question, yet overall it feels as though the picture is force feeding comedy into the film, which was not the case with the previous episode, Executioners, wherein the comedy flowed more organically.
It should come as to no surprise that the highlights of the film are the battle sequences. Gordon Liu is one of those names that stirs up the passions of kung fu movie fans the world over. The man was both a beast, displaying enormous power, while also proving capable of moving like a cat depending on the situation. Coupled with his honest, good natured charm, very visible in many of his performances, Liu was one of the all time great Shaw Brothers actors. He certainly puts on a show here in Fists of the White Lotus, his scenes with Lo Lieh brilliantly balancing a sense of excitement with the ridiculous. That capacity to juggle such disparate tones may very well be what the film does best in fact. In one instant the viewer is impressed and taken aback at the great skills of the performers, only to belly laugh seconds later when the White Lotus priest absorbs his testicles into his body for protection (a trick the villain of Executioners did as well, one of several reasons why White Lotus is nearly considered a remake as much as a sequel).
The most unique aspect to the story however, is in its utilization of the main female character, Mei Ha. It should be noted that more than once in the past Shaw pictures have featured strong female leads and co-leads. In the majority of those examples, the women were either mere love interests or, even though they did engage in combat like their male counterparts, their depiction made them appear as men. There are even some films in which other characters address them as ‘brother’, virtually negating their femininity. In White Lotus, the game is played differently. No, Mei Ha does not tag long with Wei Ting during his challenges to the White priest, but what she does do is inform Wei Ting about the best way to go about defeating the nefarious creature. To be precise, Wei Ting concerns himself too much with power in an effort to literally over-power his foe. The priest is gifted in ‘chi’ however, and as such has the ability to ‘float’ away from Wei Ting’s titanic blows, as if carried by the gush of wind created by Wei Ting’s swings. He must now learn to adopt more graceful, fluid yet no less precise and vicious combat skills which Mei Ha has perfected. For all intents and purposes, he must fight like a girl, otherwise he incurs the risk of defeat and even death itself. Only the grace of a female fighting style can overcome the priest’s chi. It is a fantastic idea, one that pays a great deal of respect to what a woman can bring to the foray of kung fu. If there is one knock against this strategy, it would have to be that Lo Lieh is too far inclined to make use of this storyline for exaggerated comedic effect, with Gordon Liu acting how his final fight like an overly effeminate man, right down to his speech patter. If the film had found a tonal middle ground in this regard, it would have been perfect.
Fists of the White Lotus on the whole is small downward step from Executioners, if only for its overuse of ham fisted comedy. Some of it is genuinely funny, but there is too much of it, especially in how the protagonist embrace the feminine side to kung fu, which could have been amazing had the comedy been toned down somewhat. Even despite these faults, Lo Lieh delivers an entertaining and on the whole engaging adventure film fans of the genre are sure to enjoy.