Turn Back The Clock
Five Fingers of Death
Produced By: Run Run Shaw
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
The other day, I was in the mood to watch a martial arts film, but not one of your modern day martial arts action flicks. No, I wanted to watch a film I remembered from my days of watching Black Belt Theater when I was a kid. My brother and I would sit mesmerized in front of the television every Saturday from 3PM to 5PM. Then we would practice all of the moves we saw on television on each other. Ah, those were the days. Fortunately, I am the proud owner of quite a few of those old movies. This time around, I selected Five Fingers of Death.
In Five Fingers of Death, elderly martial arts teacher Shen Wu realizes that he has nothing left to teach his best student, Chao Chi-hao (Lo Leih). If Chi-hao is to reach his full potential as a fighter, he must train under a more youthful and more talented teacher. Thus, it is with extreme sadness that Shen Wu sends Chi-hao to a well-respected friend and teacher named Shen Jin Pei, much to the chagrin of Shen Wu’s daughter Ying Ying (Wang Ping). Chi-hao is not happy to leave, but understands his master’s reasoning.
Unbeknownst to Chi-hao, a rivalry has been brewing between Shen Jin Pei’s school and that of that of a school run by Master Meng Tung-Shun (Tien Feng). Meng’s thug son has been training for the upcoming tournament and Meng will stop at nothing to ensure his son’s chances of winning, even if this means he will have to kill his competitors. Meng enlists the aid of Japanese assassins led by Mr. Okada (Chao Hsiung) to get rid of the competition, including any member of Shen Jin Pei’s school who is thinking of joining.
When Shen Jin Pei is injured by one of Meng’s allies, he realizes he can no longer keep his special fighting techniques a secret. Seeing the potential in his newest student, Shen Jin Pei decides to teach Chi-hao the Iron Fist technique. Of course, this news sparks jealousy in Han Lung (James Nam), one of Shen Jin Pei’s longstanding students who believes that he, not Chi-hao, should have been chosen to learn the technique. He decides to join forces with Meng to ensure that Chi-hao can never learn the Iron Fist technique and thus never enter the tournament. Mr. Okada and his men attack Chi-hao, crushing his hands and destroying his pride. Can Chi-hao hope to recover from this debilitating injury in time to enter the tournament?
Five Fingers of Death first hit theaters in 1971, but it wasn’t until 1974, after Bruce Lee’s death, that the film was given its debut in the United States. The movie broke all box office records for foreign films at the time of its release and opened the floodgates for more martial arts movies to come. This movie employs all of the cheesy techniques that make us love all of the old martial arts films – repetitive shots, cheesy dialogue, wild music, pretty maidens, lousy English dubbing, film angles such as panning from one fighter’s eyes to the others over and over again in the middle of a battle, the evil Japanese character, high flying jumps and more.
The one thing about Five Fingers of Death that differs from many of the martial arts films of the era is that this film had an actual storyline that was easy to follow. Some of these films get all mystical on you or make no sense whatsoever. In those cases, you sort of hope that the fight scenes are well-choreographed, otherwise you have just wasted time and money watching them. But with Five Fingers of Death, the plot is easily understood AND the fight scenes are downright kick-ass. The acting – well, no one ever said that the acting in martial arts films was stellar. Most of these films employ exaggeration as a means of acting, so don’t expect any dramatic scenes befitting a Shakespearian play.
I loved the cheesy film angles. Pan to Chi-hao’s eyes, now back to Mr. Okada’s, now Chi-hao. And the way the director let’s you know that Chi-hao is about to use the Iron Fist – the eerie music coupled with the glow in Chi-hao’s hands. I had to laugh at that. I even enjoyed the crazy percussion-filled theme song that was played over and over again. However, I could have done without the singer and her warbling. Not only was it hard to listen to, but the scenes in which she performed were a waist of my time.
Five Fingers of Death is one of my favorite martial arts films because it wasn’t over the top ridiculous. Yes, there were scenes in which you found yourself thinking, “No way that guy could have done that” or “No way he could have survived that.” But for the most part, this was really a story about a young man overcoming odds to become the best he can be at his craft. As the movie flows, you become mesmerized by both the story and the action and by the end, you are so invested in the characters that you need to know the outcome for each one, even the bad guys. Five Fingers of Death is one classic that every martial arts film fan should have in his/her movie library!