Many directors and actors have been associated with the kung fu genre, Hong Kong cinema’s most unique creation, but no one compares to Lau Kar-leung (1937–2013), aka Liu Chia-liang, as a purist of the genre and the kung fu form. Trained in the southern Hung Fist tradition, Lau practiced under his father, whose teacher was a direct disciple of Wong Fei-hung (1847–1924), the legendary martial artist and folk hero whose life has been fictionalized in over 100 films. This lineage formed the foundation of Lau’s work as both a director and kung fu practitioner.
Lau began performing stunts and small roles in movies at an early age, and joined the Shaw Brothers film studio in the 1960s as a martial arts instructor, choreographing and directing action scenes. His partnership with director Chang Cheh created such stunning swordplay films as One-Armed Swordsman (1967) and Golden Swallow (1968). The first martial arts instructor ever to become a director, Lau rose to the position with a unique vision. Diverging from Chang’s world of gut-spilling bloodbaths and machismo, Lau used his films to honor the holistic practice of kung fu—a discipline of both the body and mind. And unlike director King Hu (Come Drink with Me, A Touch of Zen), who constructed fantastical, impressionistic movements inspired by Peking opera–style acrobatics and theatrics, Lau favored realistic combat, informed by the southern kung fu form that he had practiced all his life.
While many films feature invincible fighters at their pinnacle, Lau had a penchant for a martial artist’s training stage, dedicating ample screen time to the depiction of rigorous practice and the development of humility, kindness, and moral standing—the qualities that make a true master. Some of the training scenes have an almost documentary quality; the actors sometimes underwent grueling physical ordeals on set. Lau often embedded kung fu demonstrations in opening-credit sequences as well, offering moments for the art form to shine in its purest state. Intricately choreographed and performed fight scenes further underline the director’s intimate relationship with his art. Lau’s films are an ultimate ode to kung fu, and earned him the moniker The Grandmaster.
This series includes 10 films Lau made for the Shaw Brothers. The director himself appears in six of the films, in a variety of leading and supporting roles, alongside many of his favorite kung fu stars, including Gordon Liu Chia-hui, Kara Wai, and Hsiao Hao.
All films © Licensed by Celestial Pictures Limited. All rights reserved.
Organized by La Frances Hui, Associate Curator, Department of Film.
Special thanks to Celestial Pictures, American Genre Film Archive, and Bede Cheng.