Hong Kong Cinema

The Original Master Killer! - Gordon Liu Biography

Gordon Liu has recently been basking in the limelight after his film-stealing antics in Tarantino's Kill Bill. His career is enjoying an Indian summer after rising to fame as Shaolin monk 'San Te' four decades earlier. As with many martial artists, by keeping in excellent shape he still has much to offer as he moves into his fifties. His prestigious background in kung fu has allowed him to mix it with the very best and he represents the iconic figure of the impetuous bald-headed monk. Few would begrudge Gordon Liu his place in the hall of fame and many will be surprised by his versatility beyond the Shaw Brothers stable. The original Master Killer has a bright future with a renewed demand for his services and many of his classics receiving five-star remastering treatment from Celestial Pictures.

Gordon Liu

Gordon Liu was born in the Guangdong province of China in 1955 under the name of Xian Qixi (Louis Sin in English). After his family moved to Hong Kong , he regularly skipped school in order to practice kung fu at the Lau Gar School . The legendary Lau Charn ran the school, which he attended from the age of seven. Lau Charn's sons, Lau Kar Leung (Liu Chia Liang) and Lau Kar Wing (Liu Chia Yung) were also to become significant players for the Shaw Brothers. Southern Shaolin martial arts were a key feature of the Lau family tradition. In the marshy and congested regions of Southern China (south of Yangtze River ) there was a greater emphasis on solid and compact fighting styles with lower and wider stances. The styles north of the Yangtze were based on more active footwork, with higher stances using acrobatic and flamboyant leg techniques.

It was at this school that Gordon Liu learnt the famous ‘Hung Fist', which had been taught by Wong Kei Ying to his son, the legendary Wong Fei Hung. It was then passed onto Lam Sai Wing (portrayed by Sammo in Magnificent Butcher and Kent Cheng in Once Upon a Time in China ) and Lau Charn was one of Wing's disciples. Gordon Liu was born into a rich tradition of authentic martial arts, which gave him an excellent grounding for a career in cinema. A point of popular contention concerning Gordon Liu's youth was his relationship to the Lau family, as many mistakenly assert that Gordon Liu was their blood relative or adopted son. However, Gordon was one of Lau Charn's favourite pupils and Lau Charn became his ‘god-father'. Gordon adopted his master's surname and took the Cantonese stage name of Lau Kar Fai, but confusingly used the Mandarin version in many of his early films (Liu Chia Hui). The ‘Gordon' in his name came from his days at English schools at Hong Kong , although the Shaw stable was not keen on their stars using English names. After leaving education he had a short career as a shipping clerk before following his god-brother Lau Kar Leung into the Shaw Brothers studio.

As with virtually everyone at Shaws in the early seventies, Gordon got his first break with Chang Cheh. This was during the time of ‘Chang's Film Company', the Shaw Brothers subsidiary operating in Taiwan. Working with Lau Kar Leung as principal choreographer, this was a productive period for Chang Cheh. Lau Kar Leung pioneered a new focus on genuine martial arts and historical legends, which proved hugely successful at the box office. However, after smaller roles in the likes of Shaolin Martial Arts, Five Shaolin Masters and Marco Polo, Gordon Liu's first lead was soon to follow. After falling out over ‘artistic differences' as Chang Cheh's choreographer, Lau Kar Leung progressed to director and debuted with the Spiritual Boxer in 1975 (cited as the first kung fu comedy). He then cast Gordon Liu as the folk hero Wong Fei Hung in Challenge of the Masters (1976). Wong Fei Hung had previously been portrayed in over 90 films by Kwan Tak Hing, which had featured the likes of Lau Charn and Lau Kar Leung, and this time Gordon was pitched against his elder god-brother in a battle of North and South. However, when Fei Hung was given the chance for a bloody revenge he decided to forgive rather than kill. The actor and director were to go onto make many trademark films with similar tones of respect and clemency.

After performing in Executioners from Shaolin (1976), featuring the notorious White Eyebrow Priest Pai Mei, Gordon worked in He Has Nothing But Kung Fu (1977), which was the first film to emerge from the independent Lau Brothers Film Company. It was a year later that he made history by shaving his head and becoming Shaolin hero San Te in 36 th Chamber of Shaolin. The folk hero was also known as ‘Iron Arms' for his muscular physique, but the slight frame of Gordon Liu was chosen to portray him. The film's context was not groundbreaking with the imperialistic struggle against Manchus and the mastery of Shaolin kung fu. However, 36th Chamber was significant because it gave an intense focus to the ‘machinery' of the temple. San Te overcomes the temple's thirty-five chambers as he moves through the rigorous training regime. Monk San Te was also an aspirational hero; after seeing his father and teacher killed by Manchu warlords he sneaks into the temple to learn martial arts. The outsider returns triumphantly from the temple to rid his people of the imperialistic oppression. It is a great “zero-to-hero” tale played with real verve by Gordon.

Few other films can claim the influence and impact of 36th Chamber of Shaolin, which turned Gordon into an international icon (perhaps only One Armed Swordsman and Drunken Master). The film was a top earner for the Shaw Brothers (HK $3.0m), but failed to match the pulling power of Jackie Chan's Drunken Master (HK $6.8m). However, even if domestic dominance was not achieved, this film enjoyed significant revenue abroad. It was retitled ‘Shaolin Master Killer' for the US market, to make the film sound more bloody and violent than it actually was! The film was also released in the UK but disappointedly edited down by twenty minutes by ignorant distributors. Fortunately, Celestial have released the remastered version in Asia and will soon be doing so in the West, but we can only hope that rumours of an Adam Sandler remake prove unfounded!

For most people working in cinema, they would be content with one groundbreaking film every year, but not so for Gordon Liu and Lau Kar Leung. They formed an understanding that would rival Yuen Woo Ping / Jackie Chan and Robert Tai / The Venoms. Their next significant work was Heroes from the East. In a futile attempt to ensure he was not typecast as a bald-monk for the rest of his career, Gordon donned a particularly unconvincing black wig for this martial arts masterpiece. In many ways it was Lau Kar Leung's parting shot against the generic formulas at the Shaw Brothers. Starring alongside Gordon Liu was the beautiful Japanese actress Yuko Mizuno who played a strong female lead much to the disapproval of Shaw Brothers producer Mona Fong. It also rejected two common themes for the martial arts genre. It portrayed the Japanese in a more flattering light than most productions (versus Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury) and no one was killed in the movie! This was a cool tonic to the bloody and treacherous Shaw productions that were flooding the market. However, this would all have been irrelevant if the film had been poorly executed.

The results were spellbinding; Gordon Liu brought an air of substance to complement his exceptional talents. He managed to work with a set of relatively unknown and untested Japanese martial artists, including experts in Karate, Judo, Samurai, and Ninjitsu. This film features Gordon Liu's finest hour, where he defeats a Japanese tonfa and nunchaku fighter with his trusty three section staff (the UK VHS release of this movie had this fight edited out!) The film manages to represent Gordon and Mizuno's marriage as a symbolic debate over the virtues of Chinese and Japanese martial arts. Lau Kar Leung's conclusion is compelling; a great martial artist's finest trait is that of respect. This film has enjoyed a cult status that almost rivals his previous work and was also subjected to the mandatory title change for the US audience (aka Shaolin Challenges Ninja). Western fans will be pleased to hear that an uncut 2005 release by Celestial is likely.

In the following year another classic was unleashed with Lau Kar Leung's Dirty Ho. This movie featured Gordon in the third of his three key roles at the Shaw's. He either trained to become a martial arts master in order to take revenge, was a martial arts master on a revenge mission or a martial arts master who trained someone to take revenge! In order to be an old school kung fu master you either need to be very old (see Sam Seed) or you need to be crippled (see Mad Monkey Kung Fu), and in this case Gordon Liu had a crippled leg. This idea was rejuvenated in Treasure Hunters (1982) but was nowhere near as successful. The lucky recipient of his kung fu knowledge was the exuberant Wong Yue. There was a deliberate shift within Shaw Brothers to profit from the runaway success of Jackie Chan's kung fu comedies, but this never hits the mark. However, Dirty Ho contains the timeless encounter between Gordon Liu and Wang Lung Wei, where Gordon enjoys a wine tasting evening whilst being attacked by his host at the same time! The end fight is another classic as Lo Lieh lets rip with a massive Kwan Do. However, this encounter may just have been eclipsed by their next production, Clan of the White Lotus (1980).

Clan of the White Lotus (aka Fist of the White Lotus) was a hugely promising directorial debut for Lo Lieh, allowing Lau Kar Leung to focus on choreography. Once again, Gordon Liu's two main foes are Wang Lung Wei and Lo Lieh in this sequel to Executioners from Shaolin. Lo Lieh reprises his role as the White Eyebrow Priest with supernatural powers in this all-star cast. To overcome the White Lotus Priest Gordon learns feminine ‘embroidery' kung fu, which was in sharp contrast to Chang Cheh's machismo flicks. It also featured a special finale with a sensational display of the chain-whip by Gordon. If Bruce Lee became synonymous with the nunchaku, then Gordon had no equals with the chain-whip, highlights include his work in Carry on Wise Guy (Fist and Guts) and Shaolin Drunken Monk.

Through the early eighties Gordon increased his work outside the Shaw Brothers whilst continuing to forge ahead with Lau Kar Leung's projects. Due to his iconic status as San Te, Gordon began to parody the character's training sequences for films such as Carry on Wise Guy and The Lady is the Boss. There were also two loosely based sequels to 36th Chamber of Shaolin with Return to the 36th Chamber and Disciples of the 36 th Chamber. His own directorial debut came in Shaolin vs. Wu Tang, with further bizarre training sequences for his bald-headed persona. To his credit, what the story lacks in conviction it certainly compensates for in eye-catching kung fu sequences. His other major contributions include the awkwardly modern The Lady is the Boss, My Young Auntie and Legendary Weapons of China. The latter film was one of the Shaw Brothers most successful productions ever, grossing over HK $9m in 1982. However, the entire cast (Gordon Liu, Hsiao Ho and Kara Hui) were outshone by the breath-taking fight between Gordon's ‘god-brothers'; Lau Kar Leung and Lau Kar Wing. Of particular interest is the rare sight of Gordon being defeated during the prime of his career, but everybody has to make a sacrifice once in a while! He was also to have one more groundbreaking role before Shaw Brothers closed their doors, but the work was his darkest yet, borne out of real-life tragedy.

Alexander Fu Sheng was one of the most dynamic performers at Shaw Brothers, who died prematurely at the age of 28 in a car crash. This tragedy befell the filming of Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, which led Lau Kar Leung to postpone its completion for two years whilst trying to overcome the shock of losing Fu Sheng. The film was released in 1984 with Gordon Liu playing 5 th Yang in this dark reworking of 36 th Chamber of Shaolin. Gone are the notions of innocence and youthful enthusiasm, to be replaced with unadulterated revenge. Gordon Liu does not sneak into the temple; he storms the temple, cuts off his hair and burns his head in order to be accepted. This film is Gordon's most enthralling dramatic performance, where he shows intensity not witnessed since his early years. During his stay at the temple he is torn between family honour and the temple's pacifism, but ultimately his passion is too strong and he defeats his senior monk (Kao Fei) before leaving the temple. The climax is a work of genius by Lau Kar Leung, staging the fight on a set of booby-trapped coffins. Much of the action anticipates the work of Yuen Woo Ping in the nineties, with the mobile and wire-supported scenery providing the ultimate backdrop for a scintillating encounter.

The late eighties were a challenging period for many martial artists working. Jackie and Sammo were busy pioneering modern action-comedies and the traditional kung fu movie was no longer a box office draw. After 1985, Gordon experienced a downturn in productivity with a handful of notable contributions in Yuen Biao's Peacock King (1988) and Lau Kar Leung's Tiger on the Beat series (the first took HK $27m!). After some quiet years in the early nineties, Gordon re-emerged as period kung fu sprung back into vogue. The only difference was that now he was cast as the bad guy! After a light-hearted appearance in Stephen Chow's hilarious Flirting Scholar (1993), Gordon played an evil priest in Wu Jing's Last Hero in China . This part-parody of the Once Upon a Time in China series featured a memorable exchange between Gordon Liu and Jet Li, which was under-cranked and wire-assisted, but hugely entertaining. Gordon Liu was quickly recruited for Lau Kar Leung's Drunken Master 3, after a rift with Jackie Chan over filming for Drunken Master 2. Sadly, the final work is one big blotch on everyone's CV, and Gordon struggles as a clichéd evil Governor. After a few more films and television appearances it seemed like the curtains were closing in on a glorious career for the Master Killer. However, Shaw Brothers were to reopen their doors for the new millennium and Lau Kar Leung cast Gordon Liu in Drunken Monkey (2003). Unfortunately, the film was another box office failure (partly due to the SARS virus scare), but Gordon put in a creditable performance as Detective Hung, including a great fight against his god-brother. This recent activity did not go unnoticed and helped secure Gordon work on Tarantino's Kill Bill.

Kill Bill Volume 1 features Gordon Liu at Johnny Mo, the leader of the Crazy 88's bodyguards. Gordon took a prime role in this slasher fest, as Uma Thurman cut her way through the cannon fodder. This film placed particular pressure on Gordon Liu as he was working with an inexperienced cast and Yuen Woo Ping. Gordon and Yuen Woo Ping had worked together (e.g. Last Hero in China ) but both had different backgrounds in Northern and Southern style martial arts. As Gordon stated “Master Yuen's work in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was very beautiful, a work of art. But it was not real fighting. I knew that Quentin wanted something different. He wanted real fighting. And I knew that when those two approaches were put together, the result would be something unique.” His work in Kill Bill Volume 1 was respectable, but as it turned out, merely an appetiser for Kill Bill Volume 2.

Quentin Tarantino had originally planned to play the role of Pai Mei himself, but had to withdraw due to the demanding physical training. The ideal candidate would have been the late Lo Lieh, but Gordon Liu was perfectly placed to be the traitorous Pai Mei. Filming at the Miao Gao Mountain provided the perfect backdrop for the arduous training sequence entitled ‘The Cruel Tutelage of Pei Mei'. The 17 th century Gao temple set the scene for old school training administered by Gordon's hilarious Pai Mei. His performance is a clear high-point for the movie combining laughs and spectacular combat sequences. Tarantino weaves together an excellent piece of retro-cinema using many classic techniques such as the wonky zoom effect, the delayed death punch and the trademark beard stroking (surely homage to Gordon's moustache stroking in Dirty Ho)!

It seems unfair to overlook some of Gordon Liu's works, but unfortunately there are so many that demand attention throughout his long and prosperous career. He is now approaching his 30th year as a movie star and there is a renewed hope that he will continue as an active force. He was thrust into the limelight as Shaolin hero San Te, and never managed to free himself from this association. However, he was just as happy to ridicule his persona as he was to benefit from it. His best work was under the direction of Lau Kar Leung, which led to some of the finest movies ever to be produced at the Shaw Brothers. He was a key figure in introducing new ideas into the martial arts genre and arguably being the finest weapon fighter of his generation. His recent work on Kill Bill and the new Celestial releases have showcased his martial arts and comedic skills to a new world-wide audience. The future is bright for the Master Killer, which can only be bad news for those pesky Manchus!