The first time that I saw Lau Kar Leung in action was during the late 90s as I was watching a Tai Seng copy of “Drunken Master 2” in my home. The beginning fight scene featured Jackie Chan going toe-to-toe with an older chap under a train who was, to put it bluntly, damn good at kung fu. The old man’s death near the film’s end was sobering to say the least, but had I known that the individual had such a rich and colorful history in the world of asian action cinema, I may have given him more of the respect he truly deserved. It wouldn’t be until years later, thanks in no small part to YouTube, that I had finally cultivated a new appreciation for Hong Kong style fight choreography, and, more importantly, Lau Kar Leung. Words such as “a contemporary,” or “a legend” can only say so much of this little man’s reputation. With his passing today, the only words that come to my mind when I think about Lau Kar Leung and what he’s given to asian action cinema are words like “pillar,” “trend setter,” “visionary,” and even “pinnacle.”
From his collaborations with Chang Cheh during his heydays at Shaw Brothers to his varied cameos in films such as Tsui Hark’s “Seven Swords,” Lau Kar Leung was revered for both his skills in Hung Kuen and his dynamic approach in filming fight scenes. His early work with Chang Cheh in “One-Armed Swordsman” was, in my opinion, preliminary at best, but he evolved in such a way that only the fashion in which my jaw dropped at the sight of his final fight scene in “8 Diagram Pole Fighter” could justify it. Lau Kar Leung’s fights had a stepwise intensity that featured form, force and fury and if that wasn’t evident to those uninitiated in kung-fu film lore, then wait until you see him actually performing in a fight scene. Lau’s cameo in Sammo Hung’s classic “Pedicab Driver” would probably be my favorite fight scene featuring him thusfar (but thankfully, I’ve got more to watch from him).
It’s sad to see an individual with such a rich legacy in asian action cinema go like this, especially when it happens during an age where it seems like we need him now more than ever. With less and less action film stars emerging from China, our eyes turn to those outside of it to feed us our daily dosage of film fighting. However, with that comes the possibility that maybe a new star can rise and fill in the large shoes that someone of Lau Kar Leung’s stature have left behind. We can muse about Lau Kar Leung’s legacy day in and day out, but for me, the best way I can remember him is by watching his films, finding amazement in them, sharing them with others and thinking to myself that in one point in our history as asians involved in action cinema, there was but one man in the modern day who we could call our reference, our gold standard, and our zenith. Lau Kar Leung, that was you. That will always be you.