February 23, 2008

Meeting the Maestro : Talking ‘Heroes Of The East’ with Lau Kar-leung.

There’s a lot to be said for the old adage that you should never meet your heroes, though, in my own case, I’ve generally been lucky. In person, my idols have exceeded my expectations. The more I’ve worked with and better I’ve known the likes of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung, the deeper my respect for their character and talent. I can add to that the veteran Shaw Brothers kung fu icon Lau Kar-leung. As we prepared materials for our upcoming release of his classic Heroes Of The East, I was delighted to take afternoon tea with Lau Sifu and his charming wife Mary.

I first became aware of Lau Kar-leung’s work when Warner Bros’ UK office released a selection of Shaw Bros classics, including 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Heroes of the East. This was a rare early opportunity to savour Lau’s martial arts mastery. Most of the Shaw Bros films, including the classic Lau Kar-leung titles, remained locked in the company’s vaults for decades following their theatrical release. They were not sold for television, and only a very few made it to a legitimate VHS or laserdisc release. This led to an underground trade in classic Shaw titles, sourced from American TV screenings. I remember the months I spent, in vain, trying to get a copy of Lau’s Martial Club from my supplier. You’re not ready, he’d say, shaking his head sagely. I finally picked up a bootleg VHS in a store on New York’s 42nd Street, and it was worth the wait.

Over the years, I got to re-examine the Lau classics in a variety of ways. I bought a copy of the full-length version of 36th Chamber, released in Holland (of all places!), and realized how much had been cut from the Warner Bros ‘international version’. I finally picked up an uncut Heroes of the East (also from 42nd Street!) and saw the three-sectional VS nunchaku/tonfa duel excised from the UK version. More importantly, as I began training in Lau’s style of kung fu, Hung Kuen, I looked at his old films with new eyes, and a richer appreciation of how faithfully he had brought traditional Chinese martial arts to the jade screen.

Lau Kar-leung’s father, Lau Cham, was a student of Hung Kuen legend Lam Sai-wing, and played his own master in the black-and-white Wong Fei-hung films starring the late Kwan Tak-hing. Besides training and teaching at his father’s martial arts school, Lau Kar-leung cut his teeth as a martial arts performer in this legendary movie series, eventually become an action choreographer in his own right. At Shaw Brothers, he and his partner Tang Chia (AKA Tong Gai) provided the kung fu action for director Chang Cheh’s films, before Lau moved on to become a helmer in his own right. From his Shaw Bros debut, Spiritual Boxer, through his last great film for the studio, Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, Lau took kung fu cinema to whole new heights of art and craftsmanship.

After the decline of Shaws as a film-making centre, Lau remained active in the industry, providing show-stealing roles in movies like Scorpion King, Pedicab Driver and Drunken Master 2. Despite bouts of ill health, the master summoned some of the old fire for Seven Swords (out now on Dragon Dynasty). I was especially grateful to director Tsui Hark for granting me access to the film’s outtakes, so we could include deleted scenes featuring Lau Sifu on our special edition DVD.

Watching Heroes of the East again, prior to my meeting him and my recording a commentary for the film, I was impressed with his skill as a film-maker. Most reviewers, including myself, have focused on his martial arts action scenes. What I noticed when I went back to the film was how much heart it had, and what a good performance he got from adoptive brother Gordon Liu (as underrated as a dramatic actor as Lau Kar-leung is as a dramatic director).

I asked Lau Sifu if he still trains every day. Of course!, he replied, gesturing energetically. Now, I don’t do specific forms, I just move, without thinking, and the form comes out. On Heroes of the East, he remembers his desire to celebrate the martial arts, without involving his characters in a battle to the death. How does he feel about American audiences rediscovering his work? He remembers that his western audience was always very loyal, even during those years when there was less work for him in Hong Kong cinema. Foreign kung fu students and fans (including myself!) constantly sought him out.

My respect for Lau Sifu and his work knows no bounds. I would love for him to be more involved with our Dragon Dynasty re-releases of his films, but, for a variety of reasons, we may have to content ourselves just with his moral support. He already gave us the finest films the genre is capable of, and perhaps that’s enough.

After our chat, Kea and I walk Lau and his wife to the front of the Intercontinental Hotel. The valet pulls up in a funky-looking vehicle that is, appropriately, fire engine red. (The ‘hung’ of ‘Hung Kuen’ sounds like ‘red’ in Cantonese.) With a wave and a smile, Lau Sifu gets behind the wheel and drives away.

(My thanks to Mark Houghton for his help in connecting us with Lau Sifu.)


Great post. As you said it's a pity he can't be more involved but I rest easy knowing these films have given all of us more than Lau Sigung will ever know.
- Scott, Australia | 2008-03-05 19:45:24
A genuine legend (a term which is quite frankly used all to cheaply these days) whose work will enthral many a future generation and perhaps in time get the respect it deserves.
- Gav, UK | 2008-03-06 03:37:27
Great Blog entry! You've just lived one of my dreams- talking with Lau Sifu. I wish he'd allow you guys to film him for interviews, but you mentioned on one of your commentaries that he isn't interested in doing that (despite the wealth of great stories he has to tell). I'm sure you'll share many of the things he revealed to you in your chat with us on the DVD. Can't wait.
- "Kung Fu Bob" O'Brien, PA. | 2008-03-07 08:53:37
Super Excited about this DVD. Lau is unquestionably the master.
- Scott Burton, Richmond, VA--USA | 2008-03-07 22:23:52
man i tell heroes of the east hands has to be gordon liu's best fighting performance and lau kar leung's crowning achievement for culture clash its great that youre re-releasing the film and of course adding commentary too it but i already got the red sun version with the original language.
- justin, suffolk, va | 2008-03-09 10:47:48
It is too bad that we get to know Sifu Lau Kar Leung in his old age, wow! the story he would say and tell, how he trained this guy, or how he got this idea for a movie. He is actually a direct connections to Wong Fei Hung, I hope someone will notice he is still in good shape and he can still have great ideas for movies, before it is too late. What a fantastic man thank God he has left us a legacy. Long live Sifu Lau Kar Leung.
- Labellaescrima, North America | 2008-03-10 21:31:57


Your comment

Who are you?

Where are you located?



Its great to see the late era Shaw Bros Five Deadly Venoms and The Return of The Five Deadly Venoms (AKA Crippled... MORE ›

Viewing an Invisible Target

Of Hong Kong’s recent contemporary martial arts actioners, INVISIBLE TARGET has a special place in my heart.... MORE ›



Join the Order of the Dragon and receive e-mail updates on the latest releases, news items,and special promotions.

Sign Up