March 11, 2013

Fists of The White Lotus (Lieh Lo, 1980)

Hong Kong has steadily been restoring old Shaw Bros. movie and showcasing them around the world. Fists of the White Lotus is the most recent of such classics to benefit from those efforts.

Following the events of Executioners from Shaolin, Fists of the White Lotus confronts our heroes, Wen-ting and Chin-chung, with Pai-Mei’s brother, a White Lotus clan priest and a master of kung fu, hell-bent on exacting revenge for Pai-Mei’s death. As he’s introduced, his kung fu’s superiority is quickly established, effortlessly fending off the two brothers’ synchronous Tiger and Crane attacks.

Some readers will recall Pai-Mei as the Bride’s kung fu master in Kill Bill part 2, a man whose devastating abilities and merciless ego were invoked in “The Legend of Pai-Mei”, Bill’s campfire story on the quasi-mythical legend. There’s also a lot to be said about Tarantino’s choice in using Gordon Liu as Pai-Mei in his film, since they are here mortal enemies. Pai-Mei is an important, egocentric, villainous figure in Shaw Bros movies. Lo Lieh’s portrayal of the character is perfectly nuanced, enriching the character immensely.

The most interesting aspect of Fists of the White Lotus is the way it defies the regular hero progression. After his brother Chin-chung is killed by Pai-Mei, Wen-ting attempts to start his life again making straw mannequin in a nearby village. But the death of his brother haunts him so intensely that he trains at night to kill Pai-Mei, contrary to his sister-in-law’s wishes. His first attempt at revenge proves disastrous but, at each battle, Wen-ting incrementally adds a style to his kung fu, hoping it will be enough to defeat his adversary. In the end, he does defeat Pai-Mei, but it is laborious and drawn-out, like chipping away at a block of ice. At the end, Wen-ting’s victory over the legendary master seems to come to as much of a surprise to him as us.

In the tradition of other great wuxia, Fists of the White Lotus subverts conventional mainstream storytelling models and societal norms and gender roles. It is one of the best of the genre I’ve ever seen.

INFO: Fists of the White Lotus