It’s February and everything sucks right now, so it’s time to unwind with February Fisticuffs – a punchy look at some of the best, worst and most average boxing, kung fu and martial arts movies.
Also known as Ninja Checkmate, Joseph Kuo’s Mystery of Chessboxing is like a lot of 1970s kung fu movies in that it follows a formula and serves as a platform for some stunning martial arts. This 1979 motion picture clings close to the norm and carries a lot of snap, but it’s the unconventional style of martial arts that makes this one interesting.
As the title suggests, “chessboxing” is the gambit here. Xiangqi, a Chinese form of chess, is blended with kung fu in order to build a technique that is as tactical as it is lethal. And as chessboxing master Chi Sue Tin (Jack Long) says, it also requires a certain degree of calm.
Lee Yi Min stars as Ah Pao, an impetuous young man on a vengeance quest after the nefarious Ghost Faced Killer (Mark Long) slays his father. The Ghost Faced Killer is a practitioner of the “five elements style” and leaves a pile of bodies in his wake as he exacts his own form of revenge against the clan leaders that tried to have him killed.
Ah Pao continues to cherchez la Ghost, which takes him to the Chang Sing School. He wants to learn martial arts, but has trouble with the senior students. He learns a few lessons from the wise cook (Yuen Siu Tien) and makes his way to Chi Sue Tin (Long), where he learns chess techniques and develops the skills to take on the Ghost Faced Killer.
After an opening credit sequence involving a demonstration of martial arts over a Xiangqi board, the action gets cooking as the imposing Ghost Faced Killer kicks ass. The opening fight is reinforced by plenty of hook and choke moves, with the bad guy finishing his adversary with an entertaining, head-hopping flourish.
The fights crackle, but Kuo tries to balance things out with humour. Sometimes this leads to drawn-out diversions, like a funny but long bit involving Ah Pao trying to get rice to the senior students at the Chang Sing School. It concludes with a remarkable balancing act, but the payoff is debateable.
That’s not to say that humour feels out of place in Mystery of Chessboxing, as the proceedings are generally light despite the enduring murder spree. There is an eccentric energy throughout Kuo’s picture, with zooms and wide-shot kung fu battles, and nothing is too bogged down in darkness or severity.
And Ah Pao makes for an amusing protagonist, even if he does play out a raft of clichés. Lee Yi Min is a striking martial artist, but he may be a better comic as he handles the abuse thrown his way by other characters. He’s every bit the “but, master” student, complete with a misinterpretation of the value of chess.
Long’s Ghost Faced Killer exhibits sure mastery of the five elements style, plus he throws a “killing plate” that serves as a marker for his venom. There’s not a lot of depth to his character and his purpose is principally to kill a lot of fools, which is fine. Totally fine.
Fans of 1970s kung fu movies know what they’re getting into with Mystery of Chessboxing. Kuo’s endeavour really is a lot of fun and there’s enough kicking and punching and choking and double-horse trickery to satisfy enthusiastic genre lovers. And hooking. Don’t forget the hooking.