The lure of the impulse buy is a hard one for the film geek to resist. We’ve all fallen prey to those cheap box sets filled with forgotten Spaghetti Westerns, Kung Fu Films, Horror or whatever 35mm print someone found in their garage and was able to license for 3.97. Most of the time these films sit unviewed on the shelf still in their shrink wrap. Cheap License Theater is a weekly trip dedicated to exploring these cinematic backwaters of the not-quite-public-domain.
Worth Watching? Oh hell yeah. Fist Of The White Lotus (AKA Clan Of The White Lotus) is among the finest films that the Shaw Brothers produced, one of the last Kung Fu films of the exploitation era and one of the best showcases Gordon Liu ever had. It hits the pleasure centers of Kung Fu fans as directly as acupuncture pins driven into hidden nerves.
Liu plays a young Kung Fu student whose clan is murdered by their rivals The White Lotus, led by Lo Lieh, the villainous head priest. Liu tries again and again to get revenge, his record of success roughly as strong as that of Wile E. Coyote’s against the Roadrunner. Lo Lieh is obviously having a blast as the evil, white haired priest. This type of villain was usually portrayed as stoic and calm; an act of God/implacable force of nature. Lieh plays the priest with a distinct strain of gleeful, personal malevolence, not so much contemptuous of Liu’s repeatedattempts to kill him as he is genuinely amused and finally exasperated, by his determination. With his impressive physicality and cocky attitude Lieh makes for a classic villain.
Fist Of The White Lotus was also directed by Lieh, one of only seven trips behind the camera. He has a talent for action and composition, staging and shooting large scale pitched battles between crowds, one on one duels, fights with weapons and hand to hand combat with equal aplomb. Lieh sticks to the classic medium wide framing but with enough variation, including a surprisingly mobile camera, to keep from getting dull.
Liu is a fine protagonist. While it’s not his showiest role, he’s at the peak of his athleticism and manages to make his character’s determination seem admirable rather than thick skulled. One of the things that sets Fist Of The White Lotus apart from its contemporaries, is that most of the film’s battles are one-on-one fights between Liu and Lieh, rather than the escalation through the ranks of Lieh’s flunkies that most Kung Fu films rely on for their story structure. While this could easily get repetitive, Lieh is clever enough as a director to give each fight its own feel. This includes a doozy of a final duel that ends with Lieh resembling the kung fu master version of Pinhead.
Even without the ferocious choreography and gimmicks there is always a fascinating frisson when Lieh and Liu fight. Shaw studio’s second most popular star battling its first is always a thrill to watch. Despite the popularity of his breakthrough Five Fingers Of Death (1972) and a few deliberate bids for Western appeal like The Stranger And The Gunfighter (1974), Lieh never gained lasting popularity in America and died in 2002 before the Kung Fu revival could breathe new life into his career. Liu has settled comfortably into the status of icon and elder statesman, an actor to cast for easy legitimacy, while Lieh has fallen to the rank of bar trivia. Liu gets to star in Kill Bill and The Man With The Iron Fists. Lieh had to settle for taking his final bow in something called The Vampire Combat, with only supporting roles in some of Jackie Chan’s better films (including Dragons Forever and Police Story 3: Super Cop keeping his late career from being a complete travesty).
In Fist of the White Lotus they both are at the top of their game dueling it out. Kung fu fans will forever be debating which one was better, but here they are both glorious.