Heroes of the East

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/19/13 13:27:33

"Nothing hurts a marriage like incompatible martial arts styles."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

"Heroes of the East" is an unapologetic (but effective) exercise in giving the audience what it wants, and what it wants is Gordon Liu Chia-hui fighting Japanese martial artists. It sets the situation up, makes things stay on that path, and then ends the moment that there aren't any more fights to be had. That there's other types of genuine fun in there as well is a nice bonus.

As things start, Ah To (Liu) is feigning illness to avoid the marriage to the daughter of one of his father's Japanese business associates that had been arranged when he was just a child. Things change when he actually gets a look at Yumiko "Kung Zi" Koda (Yuka Mizuno), who has grown into a great beauty. And while you'd think that both being martial arts enthusiasts would bring them closer together, she's not impressed by China's wussy kung fu while he finds her judo and karate crude and the clothes she wears to practice immodest. Soon, she's run back home to Japan and the letter he sends to get her back also brings back her grandmaster (Naozo kato) masters of kendo, karate, nunchuku spear, sai, judo, and ninjitsu - the latter, Takeno (Yasuaki Kurata), an old boyfriend.

That is, for those counting, seven fights for Ah To, not including all the spontaneous battles that break out with Kung Zi, an attempt to surreptitiously learn drunken boxing, and various other bits of sparring. There is a lot of kung fu in this movie, to the point where it might get wearying, but the variety that is baked into the premise is a big help. Even when the audience is facing three or for action sequence in a row, Ah To chooses a new technique or weapon to counter each one he faces, and the action crew (headed up by director Liu Chia-liang) does a fine job of giving each fight its own rhythm and personality distinct from the one that came before, with the ultimate multi-part battle between Ah To and Takeno a suitably big, enjoyable finale.

That's what audience's expect from Shaw Brothers kung fu movies, and while they didn't always deliver, they did often enough that Gordon Liu having a bunch of good fight scenes isn't exactly news. What sets Heroes of the East apart is just how laid-back and cheerful the whole thing is. Nobody dies or spends years training for revenge. Heck, Ah To and Kung Zi reconcile pretty quickly upon her return to China, so the fights are as much about bragging rights as anything else. The jokes are big and far from subtle, but they don't seem misplaced in the way a martial-arts film's comic relief often can be.

There's also genuine chemistry between Liu and Mizuno. The way they needle each other suggests that the characters didn't really hate each other as kids the way Ah To claims, and the fights that regularly break out between them in the first half play as needling gone too far rather than something really ugly. It may seem a little odd now to see Liu as a young, handsome guy with a full head of hair, but he's effortlessly funny and charming in a way he didn't always get to be as a layabout who must learn respect and discipline. Mizuno, meanwhile, gets to play the sort of Katharine Hepburn role, giving as good as she gets as she and Liu trade barbs and bits of physical comedy. They've got a great deal of able support - Cheng Kang-yeh as the much put-upon family servant is a particular standout, and all the Japanese masters have just enough style visually and in how they move and hold themselves to keep from running together.

All of this makes "Heroes of the East" a lightweight movie even as this genre goes, but raising the stakes probably wouldn't have made it any more fun. There are probably plenty of martial-arts movies that want to be Hepburn & Tracy romantic comedies, but this one is probably as close as I can recall anybody coming.

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