HOW TO SEE | The Grandmaster of Kung Fu Films: Lau Kar-leung


The kung fu genre is Hong Kong cinema’s most
unique and significant creation. My name is La Frances Hui. I am a film curator at the Museum of Modern
Art. In this video, we will look at the genre closely and discuss the work of Lau Kar-leung, the great director and actor of kung fu films. There are mainly two kinds of martial arts
films. Wuxia films and kung fu films. Wuxia is a Mandarin term combining the words
‘martial arts’ and ‘chivalry’. One of the most important Wuxia film directors
is King Hu, who made some of the most stunning and artistically original Wuxia films, such
as A Touch of Zen, Dragon Inn, and Come Drink with Me. In these films, the fighting is very stylized,
imaginative, borrowing elements from northern opera traditions. You see high kicks, intense acrobatics, antigravity
and weightless leaps, supernatural power fully fantasized. A more recent example is Ang Lee’s “Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. You see how the heroes leap all the way up
to the top of bamboo trees, stay there, perform extended fights, and fly all over the place. Kung fu, though, is something else. Kung fu is a Cantonese term. It literally means ‘skill’. You can call a chef a kung fu master. In the context of martial arts, it refers
to southern martial arts traditions. Southern kung fu relies a great deal on upper
body strength, supported by solid lower body stances. The movements are closer to the ground. The kicks are lower, and you see a lot of
intricate arm and fist techniques. The most famous kung fu master is undoubtedly
Wong Fei-hung, a late Qing Dynasty figure who ran a martial arts school in Guangdong,
who was an expert of the hung fist School of Martial Arts, associated with southern
Shaolin temple. His story is so legendary that it has inspired
over 100 films, including The Story of Wong Fei Hung, and King of Lion Dance. It wasn’t until the ’70s when the label kung
fu film was used to describe the genre. It was a time when Bruce Lee emerged and took
the world by storm, with films like Enter the Dragon and Game of Death. The Chinese audience, being experienced spectators
of martial arts, wanted to see realistic fighting. They wanted to see real kung fu fighters doing
the real thing. A whole generation of actors who were actually
trained in martial arts became movie stars. Lau Kar-leung practiced the hung fist tradition
under his father, who was a student of Wong Fei-hung’s direct disciple. In the ’60s, he joined the Shaw Brothers Studio
as a martial arts instructor, making short play Wuxia films like One-armed Swordsman
and Golden Swallow. Look, a lot of directors and actors are associated
with kung fu genre, but what they deliver is not strictly kung fu. Bruce Lee was trained in a southern wing chun
style, but he delivered far more than kung fu in his films. Look at how he moves in “Way of the Dragon.” The way he bounces left and right; those are
steps in western boxing. You also see judo, taekwondo and he was never
shy to say how proud he was to mix different martial arts styles, reflecting his identity
as a Chinese, and a Chinese-American, truly a global citizen before globalization. Another action star, Jackie Chan, who is often
associated with kung fu, actually studied Peking Opera, which gave him the
acrobatic skills to play kung fu characters, such as the one in Drunken Master II. This athleticism makes him a great performer
in action films set in modern times. This is a fight scene in Police Story. What you see is not really kung fu, but, because
of the training Jackie Chan has received, he is able to choreograph and perform incredible
stunts. These mixed styles are all sensational to
watch, and equally hard to execute. There’s no need to privilege one over the
other. But if you want to talk about old school,
authentic kung fu, there’s no one quite like Lau Kar-leung. Lau Kar-leung has a very strong desire to
show the audience the holistic beauty of kung fu, a discipline of body and mind. He loves showing the making of a kung fu master,
a strenuous, grueling process that offers no shortcuts. He devotes a huge amount of screen time to
training sequences. “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” demonstrates
this like no others. In this film, his favorite kung fu star, Gordon
Liu, goes through a series of Shaolin chambers to fine tune each kung fu technique. You can say it’s just a movie, but the laborious
training scenes have the feel of a documentary. No actor can act out the training without
going through the actual training itself. The process is exhausting. You can’t watch it without feeling complete
respect for the actor and kung fu artists. Lau Kar-leung also likes to showcase the teacher
student relationship, informed by the Confucian philosophy of honoring the elders. The teacher doesn’t only pass down the kung
fu skills. He or she is also concerned with the cultivation
of the students’ moral character. Lau Kar-leung’s films reflect his intimate
relationship with kung fu. His action scenes are meticulously planned,
performed and filmed. He acts in his films often, and works with
his favorite kung fu stars, all of them very well trained, and can perform his style of
kung fu. There are a few close-ups to create distractions. Medium and wide shots are often used to expose
the entire body. There’s nowhere and no way for an actor to hide. The camera pulls back often to reveal the
movements as they are. Continuity editing is used to make the action
and the trajectory of any movement legible to the audience. The editing cuts are really not very rapid. Certainly not like some other action films,
such as “Bourne Ultimatum”, which is made up of very quick cuts stitching together actions
that appear to be continuous, but most likely performed in broken fragments on the set. Here is a great scene from “Martial Club”,
showing two actors fighting in a very narrow alley. What do you do with your limbs in a tight
space measuring three or four foot wide, and how do you film it? Watching a Lau Kar-leung film is similar to
watching an illustrated guide or documentation of kung fu and its philosophy. The fight scenes are spectacular. The performers are top notch. The films are even funny sometimes. It’s joyful to watch these films regardless
of how much you know about kung fu. Just know that you are watching the works
of the most dedicated and authentic exponent of kung fu and kung fu film — someone who
has been hailed the grandmaster. So those are my thoughts on kung fu films
and Lau Kar-leung. I hope that you have enjoyed watching this
video. What do kung fu movies mean to you? Let us know in the comments section below
what other topics you would like us cover, and also please subscribe for other videos
from MoMA and our Department of Film. My name is La Frances Hui. I am a curator at the Museum of Modern Art. See you at the movies.

100 thoughts on “HOW TO SEE | The Grandmaster of Kung Fu Films: Lau Kar-leung

  1. Kung-fu films are like my lifeblood. Not just because I grew up watching them but also because of the moral impact and values that they embedded in me, Especially with Lau Kar Leung films. "The Pops" may not be as famous as Bruce Lee but no one cannot deny that he was just as influential and trendsetting to the genre itself. It was even said that Bruce Lee himself referred to Sifu Lau as Sisuk (Uncle) out of respect.

  2. Thanks for your insight and overview of this outstanding genre, La Frances Hui! I can't type coherent discourse when I'm excited, but I did think recognition should be given to the Shaw Brothers who were so instrumental in bringing many of these filmmakers' works to the screen. I'm sure the brothers were looking for the money, but they had an eye for really great artists, including King Hun, Lau Kar-leung and Chang Cheh. Of those directors, King Hu is probably my favorite. The first time I watched Come Drink With Me, I was bowled over. I couldn't believe this film had been made in '66 not just because it had a female protagonist but because the blocking and framing, the editing, the cinematography all had such a contemporary feel to them. He was a director with a keen eye for how to tell a story. If memory serves me right, The Five Fingers of Death, by Korean director Jeong Chang-hwa, was one of the earliest "chopsocky" films I ever saw (a disparaging term, I bet?). The choreography for these films was well-rehearsed and thought out, plus the movies were gorier and, well, we guys liked that! The 70s proved a fruitful era for watching martial arts films and were very popular where I lived in the southeast. Once more, thanks for your excellent study of these great filmmakers!

  3. This video is great! Not only did I learn about films I enjoy, I have now discovered some new films to watch. See you at the movies!

  4. Hi, my ideal is to continue creating great films and I have a short movie that I like to show you, if you want to view it try to look for "Planeta Zeme Stonjaus" on Youtube or simply write me for the link. THANKS🤝

  5. Very good video. Do you think movie studios will bring back the late 70s / early 80s style of kung fu movies? That was my favorite era with hits such as The Five Deadly Venoms, 7 Grandmasters and Avenging Eagles to name a few. The flicks mid 90s thru today rely too much on special effects and hyper-violence. Ti Lung, Gordon Liu, Beardy (for example) were superb actors and good martial artists.

  6. Thank you MoMA for highlighting the genius of Master Lau Kar Leung. He was and always shall be THE Grand Master of Kung Fu films.

  7. Very well done I thought. However, for those who have never seen him before in the films he directed and acted, it may be helpful to those unaware, to point him out in reference to the other actors. Just a thought.

  8. Thank you. A real treat. My own martial arts training coincided with the golden age of this favorite genre. Eventually when I made my own short film in the '70's I came to appreciate further the brilliance and perseverance of both the actors and director. I have yet to get to China or Taiwan, but masters from both made their way here. The true art and abilities of both my Northern Shaolin and Wu Shu sifu are as magical as any wire work I have seen. It is the combination of this cultural treasure and the inventiveness of the best directors that make these so inimitable.

  9. i have watched all these movies…they and many others are amazing..they bring me joy and inspiration… prodigy son and two i love the actors… i also love the moral lessons at the end of the story..so much more to these movies than just the kung fu..i have even written down when they use medicinal herbs and some healing techniques…thank you for your commentary i learned some new ideas…

  10. Well the effect of watching these movies as a youngster really did help alienate me from the western culture that I grew up in. In that, I thought western action movies were super lame. I watched like silly comedy movies that had better fighting than all of the big budget action western movies. Sadly, as she even points out, it still is kinda true. This video clearly shows that my movie snobbery is valid at least. Thank you for posting this great summation!

  11. How about a segment of the "Heroic Bloodshed" genre? I'm thinking of films like The Killer and Hard Boiled. Chambara would also be cool.

  12. Great observations: Would you agree that the older Kung Fu movies suffer from a very staccato fluidity to their movement. Contrast this with a say a Jet Li or Bruce Lee fight scene, which appears more realistic (in action) as any pause is at the beginning of a movement (consideration), rather than the older films which pause at the end (appreciation)? I get that a pause at the end allows us, the viewer, to appreciate the form, but it's not very realistic (although terrific in style).

  13. Martial arts to me means everything a way of living away keeping your mind in the place surrounded in peace I would like to see Ninja

  14. Being A Martial Artist Of 40 So Plus Years The Films Highlight The Beautiful Skill Patience And Training Of The Martial Artists..This Great Presentation..Thank You Do More Of Other Arts From the Martial Way

  15. I love these movies–I could watch them all day! Martial arts and martial arts movies helped get me interested in Eastern culture as a whole when I was a little kid. It lead to a lifelong fascination. It's great to see a scholarly appreciation and insight into these movies. I would love to see more!

  16. Long moon mo pai , bic lu and manny more styles are they still somewhere the manny ways for iron palm espacialy those without hitting are they still somewhere a piece with all kung fu movies and discrption is there something like that

  17. I just found this ch.
    I’ve enjoyed watching this vid, and will check out more of this ch. As for me : I am a life long student of various martial art forms and the latter part of my life have been devoting to learning Taiji. I got “bitten” by a martial arts bug through a movie. at around the age of 12 and martial arts have been a LOVE of my life ever since.
    Ghena
    Ps: Subscribed

  18. Nicely done Ms. Hui. I would love to see you go more in depth on the women of Kung fu, like for instance Angel Mao.

  19. I absolutely love kung fu films, from past to present. La Frances Hui did such a great job addressing some very important aspects of kung fu film history in a short amount of time. This video is an instant favorite. Great job and thanks for this!!

  20. I love to smoke some Herb and just chill out with a kung fu movie. of course drunken master is my favorite but I want to give a shout out to duel to the death

  21. The division between dance and martial arts, as an understanding that martial arts is not dancing and being respected as the art it is.

  22. as a practicioner of Wing Chun for nearly 30 years (28 exactly), I want to extend my gratitude to the person who posted this, magnificent piece of fact and wonderful display of culture. you have my respect and admiration. BRONX IN DA HOUSE

  23. Hey thanks for your critique evaluation. Can you imagine life with just Hollywood, thank goodness for Shaw Brothers Japan and Korean movies very enriching. I got to tell you though kids this stuff leads to far greater purpose in life than we even know now.

  24. Thank you for your knowledge. I am an avid student of film and martial arts and I hope what I wrote and direct will be up to the standards of the greats.

  25. The phrase is 'mo-hap' not 'wu-xia'. it's cantonese, not mandarin. they are different languages.
    this is about hong kong films but the words are pronounced in mandarin. that takes away the authenticity of the hong kong films, imho.

  26. This is a great mini documentary on a very important filmmaker and choreographer. Thank you for creating this. Can you expand on how the wuxia and kung-fu films were made? Did the directors use storyboards and scripts? How did they pace out the fights and the story?

  27. Thank you so very much for sharing your knowledge. I definitely look forward to investigating such over the months ahead !!! Much love to you eternally ***************  (smile)

  28. Great video! I like Kung Fu movies because the stories can be very great and I love seeing all the different styles. Even though I have never done Kung Fu, the films are encouraging to me to practice the martial art I do practice 🙂

  29. There is nothing that can compare to old school kung fu movies i still watch them in 2018 they are the best the characters the plots the fight scenes 100% awesome

  30. very well analyzed, Ms. Hui…it is nice to see the genre be discussed among intellectuals and not just be depicted as a cheap afterhour flick. Thank you for giving credence and honor to this. I'd like you to talk about the recent films where we have had to employ MMA styles into Donnie Yen's movies. This is very significant if HK film industry chooses to evolve with this…

  31. I wish you would have mentioned "the Blade", it was a more in depth look at the renegade villians and the dog eat dog society in lawless China. too many KF films focus on shaolin and the royal courts. And so the blade revealed a different angle…thanks again.

  32. I love Kung Fu movies since the 70s as a kid like Chen Xing Meng Fri Shoji Kara's, Wang Yu and a host of others

  33. I just want to mitigate what you say : although the movies from LKL are excellent and can be seen as accurately reflecting the mental aspects of Kung Fu, they are not however what real kung fu looks like.
    Sure the actors are trained in real Kung Fu, but they perform for the camera. Moves are exaggerated, spectacular, fun and often not very realistic.
    In a way, movies like Bourne Ultimatum more accurately reflect what real Kung fu and fighting feels like because the fight scenes are brutal, fast and very unclear (lots of cuts and shaky cam).
    Although I hate this directing style because it simply isn’t fun to watch (you can’t see or understand anything), in a way it shows how fighting really is : brutal, fast, messy, often quite incomprehensible and not fun at all.

  34. What a beautiful and delightful trip through some of the most over the top and unappreciated films. This was a treat to watch.

  35. It's a shame this video wasn't available for the show runner of Marvel's Iron Fist to watch. I don't think that guy had ever seen a Kung Fu movie. Of course, if he couldn't be bothered to watch any Kung Fu movies in preparation, he probably wouldn't have bothered watching this, either!

  36. You made it so easy to see behind the screen of Kung Fu movies. Now I'll have to rewatch them all with my new appreciation.

  37. Some more modern (yet not newest) films are so good, that it's virtually unpleasant to watch western fighting movies after them. I thing my most favorite ones are: Fist of Legend (1994), Kill Zone S.P.L. (2005) and Flash point (2007). Ip Man series should be mentioned too I guess.

  38. Excellent! I have no interest in Wuxia style at all. I like the clash between the Southern Shaolin and Wu Dang styles.

  39. These movies influenced a grand multitude of martial arts practitioners throughout the entire world. Including myself.

  40. The ballet is very nice but it doesn't hold my attention as well as a tightly choreographed fight movie.

  41. Loved watching his movies on 42st back in the day, but, the best martial art movie of all time… Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.

  42. I'd love to see some history regarding the Japanese horror film. I saw a movie a while ago called The Black Cat that had several tropes that you see in the Ring movies. it was an "aha" moment that there was a whole tradition which these modern films actually came from.

    On top of that I'd love a cultural comparative piece on horror. How it's represented in different cultures.

    Thanks, this piece was great.

  43. I'd love to see an extended commentary on the way directors like Tarantino "sample" and "remix" (or less chraitably, "steal") these classic movie martial arts styles

  44. Too bad you had to bash The bourne ultimatum, since if you looked at any of the behind the scenes stuff you could see they worked hard on the fight scenes. https://youtu.be/2ruk-x4uLFk Sure they used alot of cuts but you can see its not just tiny 2 second snippets cut together. They used a different technique and actors who are not martial artists. Lots of movies have tried to copy that style but have failed.

  45. my uncle got me into kung fu movies by giving me a dvd box set of bruce lee movies. and I loved it. at the same time I watched those films I would stumble upon the what I now know is called the Wu Xia films. really interesting to understand what I've been watching all these years. like the fact why I never understood bruce lees martial arts style in his films. he was mixing it it the whole time lol. Jackie chan having his own style but its not kung fu but works for him. a master in his own craft

  46. Thank You for the explanation and clarity, La Frances Hui. You provided very good understanding that I've been in search of for many years. Great combination.

  47. I love dance, and I also love the ability to defend ones' self without needing a weapon. Kung-fu movies combine the two for a beautiful dance of physical defense. They are just awesome.

  48. I've been into kung-fu ever since I saw Bruce Lee as Kato in the Green Lantern. But some of the things you said, I never knew. Thank you for teaching me.

  49. This was awesome! I love the 36th chamber of Shaolin! I would love to see a more in depth look into one of the films that you mentioned, this was excellent.

  50. great video. My favorite film to watch is Legendary Weapons of China, from the choreography, story and comedy, it's by far one of the best films I've ever seen.

  51. [In wu-xia films] you see high kicks, intense acrobatics, anti-gravity and weightless leaps, supernatural power fully fantasized. ~La Frances Hui

  52. I used to have a vhs as a kid it come out was before I was born in 1987 .. I can remember some scenes I Kno the last fight it ends with both fighters dying the is a bar fight which has a older women a man fighting in it I'm going crazy trying to figure it out

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