The Taming of the Kung-Shrew

OR When East Meets Easter

Heroes of the East - 1978
AKA Shaolin Challenges Ninja
Written by Kuang Ni
Directed by Chia-Liang Liu
With Chia-Hui "Gordon" Liu, Yuka Mizono & Yasuaki Kurata

Despite its thoroughly generic title, the Shaw Brothers' Heroes of the East has a unique charm all its own.  The high-concept pitch is a brilliant one -- take the first half of The Taming of the Shrew and the second half of any "fight X-number of enemies defined by their fighting styles" kung-fu bang-up, and that's it, that's all you need.  Well, almost.

Central to everything in the film is martial arts legend Gordon Liu (36th Chamber of Shaolin, Kill Bill Vols. 1&2) as Ah To (Ho Tao in some versions), the archetypical star pupil in a historied Chinese martial arts academy.  Wasting little time with anything more than introductions, the news is sprung upon both Ah To and the audience that he is soon to wed in a long-arranged marriage to Yumiko, the daughter of his father's business partner; a Japanese girl he has not seen since her chubby youth.  He complains only until he discovers that she's hottened up in the intervening years, and the wedding commences almost immediately.

This is where the film's core theme is introduced.  While the story does end up feeling like two incomplete stories stapled together, the two parts are unified by the running theme of cultural difference, and that theme gets played out on all the levels -- comedy, drama, martial arts and marital arts -- that make up the film's structure.  It's an unexpected piece of thematic cohesion in a genre that rarely gets involved in that sort of thing.

At their wedding, cultural differences come into immediate conflict.  Yumiko is fiercely Japanese, and arrives seemingly never having considered that she might have anything but a Japanese wedding, or at least that she might be anything but a classic Japanese bride.  As such, her different wedding dress and eschewal of certain customs (kneeling at a given time, etc) sets off a stir among the Chinese mean girls.  Ah To is undisturbed by the differences, but does less than Yumiko (and this viewer) reckoned he ought to do in her defense against the sniping.

After a bit of schtick where the community becomes convinced that Ah To is beating Yumiko based on sounds heard over the wall, it's revealed that Yumiko is an avid devotee of the Japanese martial arts and the sounds overheard had been her rigorous training sessions.  While Ah To doesn't mind that Yumiko trains in the martial arts, he does advocate that Yumiko should switch to more "modest" Chinese martial arts for girls.  Yumiko is polarized by this rejection of her style, therefore her culture and her foundational identity.  There's a very interesting side-by-side comparison of Japanese martial arts and the Chinese styles from which most of them came.  The final bone of contention between Ah To and Yumiko is Ninjitsu; the style and craft of the ninja.  Ah To rejects Ninjitsu outright as immoral and dishonorable.  To use such sneaky Japanese techniques was nothing less than murder, in his estimation.  Yumiko takes extreme offense at this, and flees home to Japan.

In an effort to yank Yumiko's chain and goad her into coming back where he could win her over, Ah To sends a letter to her, challenging her to a husband-vs-wife, Chinese-vs-Japanese head-to-head style-for-style throw-down.  The letter gets intercepted by her Ninjitsu teacher -- who also happened to be the boy she left behind -- Takeno (Professional Handsome Man, Yasuaki Kurata).  He gets his mawashi all in a bunch and soon gathers together a group of seven (because it's always seven) Japanese masters to go teach Ah To some respect.

It's at this point that the Taming of the Shrew part of the movie is all-but-entirely over.  There's really very little resolution to the Ah To/Yumiko relationship other than that they just sort of end up back together along the way.  She feels guilty for dragging all these people into this mess over what was largely a matter of her pride.  Now that I think of it, that's actually a better "taming" than ol' Shakesbeard came up with.

From this point on, the film is essentially Ah To fighting his way through all seven Japanese masters, countering with Chinese techniques the Japanese arts of Karate, Judo, Kendo, Nunchaku, Ikebana, Sai and... Ninjitsu!  One of those might be wrong.  But hey, that's all we're askin' for!  Each fight has its own character and style.  In order to confront a more rigid Japanese karate master, Ah To's friends pick a fight with the local drunken master so Ah To can shadow and learn his more wily and flexible style.  He counters the samurai sword in kendo with the more fluid Chinese sword stance.  While spears are largely the same, we learn that the fuzzy red pom-pom on the Chinese spear isn't just ceremonial.  One by one, Ah To shows them the error of Japanese thought and culture.  As you'd expect, his final showdown in with Takeno's mad ninja skills, and that battle goes through 3 major phases before Ah To... wins or loses -- I'd hate to spoil the mystery for you.

I love the overall concept for the film, using a culture clashing romantic relationship as the basis for a really top-notch collection of high-concept beat-downs.  I was a little disappointed on the narrative end that their story wasn't better resolved, but it's a little like ordering pie, getting free ice cream, and then grousing that the ice cream could have been a little better.  We just don't get many interesting romances in martial arts cinema, and I got all cookied up when we got half of one here.  In that way, the film doesn't quite live up to what it offers.

However, in other ways, it does far more.  The side-by-side comparison of Chinese and Japanese techniques is cool.  The X-number of enemies provide an outstanding assortment of conceptual battles, which is of course the paramount issue when approaching a kung fu movie.  The culture clashes are both funny and insightful, especially if you remain aware of the inherent cultural bias behind it.  Kung fu cinema is very much about national/cultural pride, and Heroes of the East is all up in that.

Totally, totally entertaining (and surprisingly thought-provoking) old-school fu, even for someone who tends to be biased in favor of the Chinese New Wave and after. 

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