Heroes of the East (1978)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2007-04-10
Summary: As close to perfect as possible
“Heroes of the East” is a special movie. It is well written, beautifully executed and combines two very different genres—romantic comedy and martial arts drama—into a successful whole. Most of the cast give committed, professional performances while Gordon Liu Chia-Hui and Mizuno Yuko are note-perfect as the loving but warring married couple at the center of the film. Cheng Kang-Yeh is terrific as Shou Kwan the servant who literally finds himself in the middle of arguments. His role, the sly onlooker who comments on the action but doesn’t really affect it, often seems to be more a burden than anything else but even this thankless part adds significantly to the tone and texture of the movie. He keeps things moving while trying to show both Ah To and Kung Zi that there might be a middle way.

The acting, fight choreography, cinematography and art direction were all excellent. Director Liu Chia-Liang’s directing was impeccable; he kept the comedy light, the pathos fleeting but effective. The characters were well drawn types that generally appeared in Shaw Brothers films but with enough room for a bit of development. Most importantly Ah To and Kung Zi are characters that we like and identify with—young lovers from differing although similar cultures. Both of them are intelligent, attractive and headstrong, committed to each other but also to their own traditions.

What makes “Heroes of the East” a classic is that Liu Chia-Liang and Mizuno Yuko collaborated to create such a memorable character. In lesser company Kung Zi would have taken over the film entirely—she is just about perfect. At first she is completely, almost blatantly, Japanese wearing white at her wedding and bowing in the Japanese as opposed to Chinese manner, which scandalizes the wedding guests. She enthusiastically practices Japanese martial arts, of which she is a master, becoming so involved in her workout that she doesn’t notice that top is open to her waist. Kung Zi goads Ah To into fighting with her—what they are doing is much more than sparring—and insists she will be able to beat him soon. She destroys some of the family statuary and even knocks down a wall during her exuberant and athletic practices.

The studio system, whether in Hong Kong, London or Los Angeles, has been the vehicle for many outstanding movies and wonderful characters. Betty Grable, Barbara Stanwyck and Katherine Hepburn created powerful women, and each had the advantage of working with a director who seemed particularly attuned to their abilities, Grable with Walter Lang, Stanwyck with Frank Capra and Hepburn with George Cukor. Liu Chia-Liang and Mizuno Yuko didn’t have the luxury of working together over several movies and many years—they had one shot and made the most of it.

“MGM Musicals” and Ealing Comedies” are two examples of how some studios were so identified with types of films that they lent their names of the sub-genre. While they could almost as accurately have been called “Busby Berkley Musicals” or Alec Guinness Comedies” it was the ability of the studios to marshal leading actors, high quality technical artists, superb supporting players and (often) excellent scripts and do so on a tight schedule, that led to movies like “Casablanca”, “Double Indemnity”, “The Philadelphia Story” or “Kind Hearts and Coronets”. “Heroes of the East is every bit as impressive and important as any of those.

While the movie ends with a certain amount of respect between the martial arts virtuosos of both nations, the Sino/Japanese divide remains intact. Chinese martial arts are shown to be superior to those practiced by the Japanese, indicating in this context that Chinese culture is superior to the Japanese and that Japanese philosophical methods, epistemology and literature originated with and are contingent upon the older and more enlightened Chinese. Japanese practices are forceful and aggressive, even a bit rough. They are vulgar and coarse compared to the more refined and elegant Chinese style. The Japanese fighters themselves are sly and tricky, trying to take advantage of every possible technicality in the rules—insisting that “tomorrow” begins at 12:01AM, for example and not when the sun comes up at the dawn, forcing Ah To to fight twice in the same day—while the Chinese use trickery only as a last resort and then only in response to the Japanese. Chinese masters, as represented by Ah To, are expert at all forms and with all weapons while the more limited Japanese must only master one skill.

The first few minutes of “Heroes of the East” show another part of the genius of Hong Kong film making. Exposition, background, relationships and some comic relief occur in several scenes that tell us all we need to know about the characters and how we should think about them. This very compact and effective storytelling is typical of how Hong Kong movies of the period get started. Like much of the rest of the film the beginning was a formula, but a formula that worked and occasionally allowed the creation of masterpieces like “Heroes of the East”.

Because no movie is perfect I have to mention the atrocious wigs worn by many of the actors, particularly Gordon Liu. It wasn't just a matter of one's expectations being thwarted, thinking that he almost had to be bald. His wig looked like a bad joke, much too large for his head and probably stuck on with a lot of adhesive. Other than that though...

Very highly recommended
Reviewer Score: 10