In an effort to subvert the single-minded phallocentrism of kung fu cinema, Heroes of the East employs marital strife and misogyny as thinly-veiled metaphors for Sino-Japanese relations, using rival schools of martial artistry as a vehicle for examining cultural diffusion and gender politics. Despite the intellectual heft of its narrative facets, the cataloging of contrasts functions to fabricate a screwball romance, treating sex and race as fodder for comic relief instead of a recipe for discord. The opening fragments even hint at the erotic gamesmanship of a “bodice ripper,” building arousal through playful competition and period-appropriate flute, basking in the bleary light of sconces that adorn its ornate decor. Unfortunately, this ardor builds, but never crests, as subtlety and lust are sacrificed before the tense rattle of combat, surrendering any emotional thrust to the appetites of a core audience.
Finding common ground between the bonds of matrimony and an artist’s devotion to craft, Kuang Ni’s script positions an arranged marriage between a Chinese playboy and gamine Japanese teen as an uncomfortable clash of customs, allowing their diverging forms of fighting to represent their domestic mores en masse. Beneath the patriotic superficialities of their verbal barbs and deftness of their art lies an inequality of the sexes, transforming each exposed inch of Koda’s (Yuka Mizuno) bustline into a libidinal blow far more dangerous than the impact of her judo strike.
Wielding his chauvinistic principles as a means to discredit the legitimacy of her body and budō, Ho Tao (Gordon Liu) treats taut flesh and aplomb as immodest traits for a submissive housewife, forbidding the practice of ninjutsu as a culmination of these duplicitous attributes. Though his rage may signify more about cultural inequality than racism, the plot avoids any cerebral exercises in emasculation, repurposing irreconcilable differences into an excuse for an olympiad of weaponry and technique. Ironically, the character dimensions provided for each tournament combatant, etched onto the screen like the menu of an arcade game, possess more depth than ascribed to Koda, left here to languish outside of the arena as a tertiary participant.
As pure entertainment, each kinetic vignette and magnificent physical contortion work as a distraction from authorial laziness, but abandoning its amatory core breaks faith with any high-minded attempt at sexual or global impartiality. By betraying its better judgment, Heroes struggles to reconcile its incongruous halves, concluding with a glib resolution that makes its stylistic vigor and acrobatic magnificence seem like vain narcissism.
Heroes of the East (Shaw Brothers Ltd., 1978)
Directed by Lau Kar Leung
Written by Kuang Ni
Photographed by Arthur Wong