Boxer from Shantung
aka 馬永貞 aka Ma Yong Zhen aka Ma Wing Jing aka Killer from Shantung
Written by Chang Cheh and Ni Kuang
Directed by Chang Cheh and Pao Hsueh-Li
The rise of a gangster from nothing to boss who goes down in a violent orgy of death is one of those classic tales that gets told a lot in cinema. Boxer of Shantung is no exception on delivering the basic story. What Boxer of Shantung does do, is deliver the story in an entertaining fashion that makes you cheer for the hero, even as the trappings of power cause him to abandon some of his principals.
Boxer of Shantung is Chen Kuan-Tai’s first lead role, and he brings such an energy of pride to his laborer character Ma Yung Chen that you know he is going places. As a penniless worker, he argues against the innkeeper treating his fellow poors like second-class citizens. He refuses to do a demeaning job for insulting carriage drivers, nor does he accept charity from a fellow immigrant from Shantung who has gone on to do well. He decrees that he is going to be just as successful as him one day, and soon he gets a little territory, then goes punching his way for more. During his rise, Ma remembers his poor roots and chastises his men for shaking them down for money, choosing instead to target richer districts.
The trappings of power are dangerous, and when you play the game of thrones, you play for keeps, even if the game is being a local boss in olden China. Each move leads Ma Yung Chen increasingly in conflict with the Axe Gang, their champions and boss at first seeing him as a distraction to their main rival, Boss Tan Si (David Chiang Da-Wei), but eventually focusing on Ma Yung Chen with their entire gang army.
The action starts slow in Boxer from Shantung, but builds and build until the end, where Ma Yung Chen is battling the entire Axe Gang by himself. This slow burn action may have fallen out of favor in our ADD/hyperediting modern reality, but it still works for me. The fight scenes are worth waiting for, Chen Kuan-Tai is a powerful force, and the choreography incorporates all the random objects around the landscape into the melees. With each bump into the Axe Gang, Ma Yung Chen battles both more dangerous members and just plain more and more members of the Axe Gang.
At one point, Ma Yung Chen decides he’s going to take over an area with a casino and brothels controlled by the Axe Gang, and just goes by himself to do it. Ma Yung Chen isn’t going to send his goons in to do something he won’t do himself. The motivation to take over that sector isn’t just because of the increase in income, but because the money will be gained off of those that can afford it, instead of chasing after protection money from poor struggling merchants who can barely afford to eat. When Ma Yung Chen was poor, he fought against a Russian opponent the Axe Gang was using to earn money in a combat spectacle. Here he fights for the little guy, for the common Chinese man who is humiliated by strong foreigners. The Axe Gang teaming with the foreign fighter makes them collaborators. But as Ma gains wealth and power, he is fighting less for the common man and more for himself so he can stay in the trappings of wealth.
Ma Yung Chen has a sense of pride. It’s the thing that made him seek out fortune in the city, it’s the thing that made him friends with Boss Tan Si, and it’s the thing that keeps him from leaving what he gained and instead heading down the path to a quick death. Instead of being part of the meat grinder that is day laboring, he becomes part of a bigger, faster grinder of organized crime. He wants the respect that having displays of wealth affords him.
As we’ve seen time and time again with these tales, all that rises must fall, and Ma Yung Chen is no exception. His gangster ways cause some of the people who looked up to him to not respect him any more. Chin Lin Chi (Ching Li), the singer that was his crush is so saddened when Ma begins collecting the protection money that she can’t bear to go sing again. A drunken Ma eventually hallucinates that a prostitute is Chin Lin Chi.
One of Ma’s oldest friends from his laborer days is Hsiao Chiang Bei (Cheng Kang-Yeh), who stood by him when they both were penniless. He becomes the loyal driver for Ma, but he obviously doesn’t have the stomach for gangster life. Ma recognizes this, making sure to keep his friend out of harm’s way, and even sending him off back home when he knows he’s probably going off to die.
Despite the promise of the city and the big money life, the surviving characters are all ones that choose to leave and go back to the country. The lure of wealth and power of the city is intoxicating, but it is a desire that can destroy you. The closing sequences with everyone boarding the train is a nice punctuation of this theme, as Boxer From Shangtung is not subtle at all. At one point Ma Yung Chen literally goes up the ladder, in that he climbs the ladder from the poor section where workers sleep on the floor to an actual room and bed. The man Ma Yung Chen admires and aspires to be, Boss Tan Si, dies a bloody death, and instead of heading that warning, Ma is only focused on revenging the guy who gave him motivation.
The ride is the key that pushes Boxer From Shangtung to a good film. Great action choreography that results in a classic climactic battle scene against the Axe Gang. Chen Kuan-Tai as the charismatic lead you want to see become a powerful boss. And a collection of loudmouth villains that populate the Axe Gang. Boxer From Shangtung delivers a solid kung fu flick that you should seek out!
Rated 8/10 (Shaw, coin, scarred, boss, dragon, Ma, deadly nuts, axe a question)
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