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.
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.
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.
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.