Some very sad news hit the Martial Arts movie community this week when it was announced that legendary Hong Kong filmmaker, fight coordinator and actor, Lau Kar Leung, passed away following a 20 year battle with lymphatic cancer. His contributions and influence in action cinema cannot be overstated and tributes have poured in from his friends, colleagues and fans all over the world. In his lifetime he amassed an incredible volume of popular work; winning awards and earning several nominations in the process.
Lau began his career helping choreograph and occasionally acting in old black and white Kung Fu films from the 1950s and 60s. But his most famous work started when he joined the prestigious team at the Shaw Brothers studio in the 1960s, with momentum really picking up during the surge of Kung Fu movies in the 1970s. During this time he built a strong working relationship with director Chang Cheh and would soon define myself as a filmmaker who could choreograph action and bring the best out of his stars. In time he fashioned a lifelong friendship with star, Gordon Liu, and the pair made several successful projects together including The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978), My Young Auntie (1981), Eight-Diagram Pole Fighter (1983) and many others.
Even beyond his years at Shaw Brothers, Lau continued building his reputation as a dependable director delivering trend-setting action films. He also helped raise the profile of Hong Kong action, particularly for western fans. Other popular work included Tiger on the Beat (1988), Drunken Master II (1994) and Drunken Monkey (2003), which marked the first Kung Fu movie from the Shaw Brothers studio in 20 years and was Lau’s last project as a director. In his last film he choreographed the action and played a role in Tsui Hark’s Seven Swords (2005).
One thing’s for certain, it wasn’t just his action which made him so prolific. He had a real flair for narrative filmmaking, bringing characters to life and letting action add intensity to the drama. His famous training sequences in movies The 36th Chamber helped audiences buy into a character’s struggle and, unlike most Kung Fu cinema of the time, showed the physical and mental cost to acheive the asskicking results that followed. In films like Tiger on the Beat, he showed a natural leaning towards comedy and still managed to deliver tense, hard-hitting action in an urban, modern cop setting. On screen he was just as memorable and one of my personal favourites would have to be his pole battle with Sammo Hung in Pedicab Driver (1989), an instant classic!
His incredible and highly influential work remains his greatest epitaph and audiences will undoubtedly continue enjoying his movies long into the future. We’re privileged to have witnessed a true master at work.