Shadow Fist Hunter (1973) Review

Shadow Fist Hunter (1973) Review

Shadow Fist Hunter | Blu-ray (Dark Force Entertainment)

Director: Fei-chien Wu
Cast: Yip Tai Kong, Yi Yuan, Liang Pin, Pearl Chang Ling, Wu Kuan, Kwan Hung, Chen Hui-Lou
Running Time: 90 min.

By Will McGuire

On Black Friday of last year, the small press label Dark Forces released a pair of extremely rare classic kung fu films: Deadly Kung Fu Factor and this film, Shadow Fist Hunter. Remastered from newly discovered 35mm prints, the films represent a fascinating window into independent kung fu films made at the height of the so-called “Kung Fu Boom.” Shadow Fist Hunter (aka The Shadow Chaser) is the slightly better known of the two releases, which in this case means it’s only been out of circulation since the boom and is getting its first proper home video release in America now.

Shadow Fist Hunter is a Taiwanese basher shot in 1973, and it feels like a lost cousin to the earliest “open hand” films from Shaw. Yip Tai Kong plays a young martial artist searching for his father, who abandoned his family to become an alchemist, and according to local rumor succeeded in turning base metals into gold. When his caravan driver is killed in an ambush, he sends him to an affluent factory owner, played by Yi Yuan, in his hometown who knew Yip’s father. Yip soon discovers a conspiracy between the factory owner and the local brigands that targeted Yip’s father and Yip has to fight his way up the ladder.

The first thing you notice when you pop this disc in is that the film is shot in 2.35:1 widescreen and looks extremely clear for a Chinese film from 1973. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t sound nearly as good as it looks – you’re locked into an English mono dub from the 80’s with all the cheese that implies. While I’m laying out these basics, I should mention that Shadow Fist Hunter has a major antagonist played by Liang Pin who is done in a blackface performance for no real plot-motivated reason. If something like that sounds like a deal breaker for you, at least you know up front.

What works about this film are the energetic, well-filmed, action set pieces that dominate the final hour of the picture. This is not a film that is content to simply present a series of fights but hammers the viewer with inventive gimmicks for each encounter that raise the energy level of the film, and give each encounter a distinct visual identity. The opening fight climaxes with a spectacular carriage crash off the side of a cliff; a fight between Yip and bandits extends in a sequence where the brigands turn the tables on Yip and smoke out the tunnel while attacking under hoods; a one armed killer attacks in the marsh with a golden finger-needle; and a final showdown takes place in the factory with a gimmick borrowed straight from Goldfinger.

Fei-chien Wu is not a director I am familiar with before watching this film but I was impressed with his technical skill under extreme limitation in this film. Fights are directed with clarity and focus and time is taken to establish footwork. The technically sound approach to filming fights reminds me a bit of Wang Yu’s style of direction on The Chinese Boxer with maybe the one caveat that Wu is a bit too dependent on Dutch angles to establish dynamism on specific strikes. That said, I was very engaged by his clear framing and attention to detail. In an early fight Wu frames the legs of the combatants to show off their fighting footwork, like you might if you were filming a boxing match, he moves from that shot to a shot of Yip hitting a high kick from a low angle. That’s really solid visual storytelling in a basher.

This is not a style film, nor does it have a training sequence– the plot feels like a wuxia story that has been transposed to open hand kung fu because that’s what was in fashion at the moment the film was made. It is perfectly paced at 90 minutes and there’s really no flab on the film outside the first act. Structurally and technically this is one of the best Taiwanese films of the period not by Joseph Kuo or King Hu. Unfortunately because the story is so simple and the dub is very bad, you’re not going to get a lot of power from the performances but the fights have such a fantastic energy, and inventiveness to them that I cannot imagine a genuine fan of kung fu being disappointed by this film. I recommend it easily.

Will McGuire’s Rating: 7.5/10