Whether you recognize him as Monk San Ta, Pai Mei or “that one guy I saw in a film when I was a kid,” the fact is that Gordon Liu has been a prominent face in kung fu cinema for close to four decades.
He began training in the Hung Gar system at a young age, often skipping school in an effort to put in more practice. After eventually capturing the eye of famed actor/director/choreographer, Lau Kar Leung, Liu was cast as a stunt performer in early Shaw Brothers films like “Five Shaolin Masters” and “Four Assassins.”
Luckily – for both Liu and us – Lau Kar Leung saw the potential in this new face and, after offering him bigger roles in films like “Challenge of the Masters” and “Executioners of Shaolin,” a true partner ship was formed.
It would be this partnership that lead to some of the greatest and most iconic kung fu films being made.
The fact he was always such a formidable physical presence in so many classic films, including the iconic “36th Chamber of Shaolin” series, makes the fact he suffered a severe stroke in 2011 ever more the tragedy.
Liu experienced paralysis down his right hand side and it has since been confirmed that he experiences difficulty speaking. Positive progress has been reported in recent months so let’s hope he’s back on his feet, and possibly in front of the camera again, soon.
And what better way to celebrate his legacy than by taking a look at some of his greatest contributions to kung fu cinema?
1. Clan of the White Lotus
It’s not often that a kung fu film begins with what looks like its final fight and yet “Clan of the White Lotus” (a remake/sequel hybrid to “Executioners of Shaolin”) does just that.
Here, Gordon Liu pairs his Tiger Fist with Lee King Chu’s Crane Style to take on the traditional white-haired villain archetype (the always amazing Wilson Tong). This would come to be Liu’s most ironic role as the final showdown features a fantastic one-one-one between his character and Lo Lieh’s Pai Mei. Twenty years later Gordon Liu would himself would play Pai Mei in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill Vol. 1,” which has since become his most memorable role among mainstream cinema fans.
2. Eight Diagram Pole Fighter
When considering he pantheon of kung fu cinema, there’s a general consensus that “Eight Diagram Pole Fighter” is, if not thegreatest old school kung fu film of all time, then certainly in the top ten.
Sadly, it was an ill-fated production as director Lau Kar Leung’s wishes to make Alexander Fu Sheng an international star fell through when Fu Sheng was killed in a car crash halfway through filming. In an attempt to revive the movie, Gordon Liu was made the leading man and the result is one of the all time greats.The final showdown is a phenomenal one-on-one against Philip Ko Fei but, minutes before, Liu’s character sees himself facing off against a dozen or so henchmen and, with a little help from his Shaolin brothers, takes part in an all-pole brawl that hasn’t been replicated since.
3. Fists and Guts
With his brother getting a huge amount of recognition for his work behind the camera for Shaw Brothers, Lau Kar Wing decided to follow in his footsteps and directed his own Gordon Liu vehicle.
Despite being a small independent film, “Fists and Guts” has all the signatures of a Shaw classic and, if anything, ups the ante with a finale fight featuring the seldom seen three link chain whip. It’s a great showcase of Liu’s seamless ability to go from weapons to the empty hand as he’s paired up against legendary icon of villainy, Lo Lieh.
4. Heroes of the East
I’m not sure what’s more impressive about “Herous of the East”: the theme of Japanese martial arts going up against Chinese martial arts or the awkwardness of Gordon Liu’s wig!
A true fan favourite, this film features some of Gordon Liu’s greatest weapon work (three section staff, butterfly swords, sword, spear etc.) as well as a rare bout of drunken boxing. But it’s the finale in which he pits his Crane Style against Yasuaki Kurata’s Crab Fist that’s the cherry on the proverbial cake.
5. Shaolin Drunken Monk
“Shaolin Drunken Monk,” as a whole, comes off as a film Gordon Liu did because he owed someone money. It’s an oddly lackluster film and is unfortunately marketed in some countries as another one of the “36th Chamber…” series.
Despite the fact it’s justifiably overlooked, the film does have a pretty solid finale, notable for the fact Liu gets to break out his own brand of Drunken Boxing against Eagle Han Ying’s Mantis Fist. It may not have the flare of some of this other films but it’s always awesome to see another kung fu legend join the ranks of all the others that have performed Drunken Style on screen.
6. The Last Hero in China
In the 90’s, Liu took a small break from the traditional kung fu films he was known for in order to star alongside Jet Li in the insanity filled “Last Hero in China.” It’s heavy on the wires and Liu floats around in a seemingly magic giant lotus for the first few minutes, but it’s great to see such a legend make the move into that frantic modern style of fight work and choreography.
His role in the film is certainly more of a cameo but it’s great to watch two significant figures go head to head, especially since they represent different eras of the genre.
7. Silo Seven Swords
When the Shaw Brothers studios began winding down, it wasn’t rare to see some of their most popular stars turn to television work.
There are dozens upon dozens of martial arts tv shows destined never to see the light of day for western audiences. Taiwan, in particular, churned out a number of them and while the budgets were low, the martial arts on display were no less exciting. Here, Gordon Liu squares off against Lu Feng (the Centipede from “Five Deadly Venoms”).
Imagine coming home from a long day at work – or even school – only to turn on the television and find these two legends going toe to toe. You wouldn’t be able to slip a VHS in the VCR and his “REC” fast enough!
8. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
Ok, ok, so this isn’t exactly a fight per se but would any Gordon Liu related list be taken seriously if it didn’t mention his most iconic movie?
Interestingly, “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” isn’t really loved for its fights. Not that they’re bad, of course. It’s just that the film contains so many great and original training sequences that the fights take a backseat for once. This is perhaps why it’s so memorable. The film spawned two sequels (“Return to the 36th Chamber…” and “Disciples of the 36th Chamber”), both of which turn more and more to comedy rather than action. The originals remains one of the crown jewels of kung fu cinema and a great introduction for anyone trying to get into the genre.
9. Kung Fu Monkey
Although more of an old school icon of kung fu cinema, Gordon Liu hasn’t let up. Granted, few of his films see the light of day on western shores, but he’s still working as much as he ever has in Hong Kong.
Here’s a fight from the relatively unknown “Kung Fu Monkey” featuring Gordon, who was in his mid-forties at the time, demonstrating an insanely agile example of Monkey Kung Fu. He’d later star in Lau Kar Leung’s last film, “Drunken Monkey,” but wouldn’t get to perform the style.
In fact, I believe this is the only time Gordon’s used this particular form of kung fu so it’s definitely one for the books!
10. Hung Gar Demonstration
Let’s go out with a bang. At the end of the day, Gordon Liu’s background is in traditional Hung Gar, so here he is, along with Lau Kar Leung and Lau Kar Wing, doing what he does best. ‘Nuff said!
So, what do you think? Does Gordon Li deserve the accolades he’s given? Do you think he’s the most iconic kung fu star to ever grace the silver screen? Drop us a note below and tell us what you think.