Lau Kar-leung accepts the Outstanding Achievement Award at the Golden Bauhinia Awards in 2005. Photo: Dickson Lee

Grandmaster Lau Kar-leung remembered for redefining kung fu cinema

Tributes pour in for martial arts legend, whose films and performances are hailed for showing true roots of kung fu

Lau Kar-leung 1937-2013

Late grandmaster Lau Kar-leung will be remembered for redefining Hong Kong's kung fu cinema and winning over audiences with the true story of the martial art, critics say.

The world knows about Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and action choreographer Yuen Wo-ping, but Lau was the genuine grandmaster of all, says Hong Kong International Film Festival executive director Roger Garcia.

"He was truly one of the originals and keeper of the flame. He was a great movie and action director, also a great performer," Garcia said of Lau, who died at Union Hospital in Tai Wai on Tuesday.

Po Fung, author of , said Lau's films showed the genuine roots of kung fu and the best of Chinese heritage.

"Bruce Lee brought kung fu cinema to the world's attention with its own school of modernised and mixed martial arts, but Lau's films show the authentic roots and his true lineage of kung fu," Po said.

Lau was the fourth generation to inherit the lineage of Hung Kuen, one of the most important schools of kung fu, from the legendary master Wong Fei-hung. Lau's father, Lau Cham was a disciple of Lam Sai-wing, one of Wong's most famous pupils.

In an interview with the in 2003, Lau said he was always doing action choreography in his head, secretly envisioning fight scenes with people sitting just across the table.

"I love making films because it was my first job; I made my first film in 1950," he said.

An action choreographer with director Chang Cheh during Shaw Brothers' golden era in the 1960s, Lau worked with choreographer Tong Kai, creating many memorable fight scenes.

In the 1970s, Lau and Chang fell out, and Lau embarked on a career in directing - the first martial arts choreographer to do so - Garcia said.

Po said in that many of Lau's classics, from the to , the master demonstrated his deep knowledge of kung fu, weaving his own images and the flavour of southern China into narratives ancient and modern.

While Yuen's choreography was lyrical due to the influence of Peking opera stage acrobats, Lau's was beautiful as well as practical. "You can appreciate the great beauty of kung fu, but at the same time, you can also understand how kung fu can be applied in real combat," he said.

Lau's biggest achievement, Po said, was that he showed the high moral ground of Chinese traditions through kung fu: "His films were about cultural inheritance and passing on the heritage."

Garcia said while the world knew Yuen's choreography from and the trilogy, Lau was under-exposed despite being such a great filmmakers.

He said Lau's films didn't get the global exposure they deserved until Quentin Tarantino turned his passion for Shaw Brothers kung fu films into reality through his movies.

Lau finally earned the recognition he deserved at the 2010 Hong Kong Film Awards, winning the lifetime achievement award. But such attention did not seem to be what he sought most.

"Whether I will continue to make films depends on people's response … if they don't like it, I'll just save the kung fu for myself to enjoy," he said.


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Grandmaster Lau Kar-leung the real deal