Released in 1979, and also know as Ninja Checkmate, The Mystery of Chess Boxing is one of the most storied Kung Fu films to ever make its way stateside. It was released on 42nd St in NYC. During the late 70's 42nd St was a mecca for Grindhouse films. The story goes that The Mystery of Chess Boxing was so popular that it played in various theaters for over two years! For a Kung Fu film, not with a high budget and not starring Bruce Lee, to have a run that long is saying something. Perhaps it was the fights, deliberate and beautiful, perhaps it was the abysmal voice over, it really is terrible for the most part, or perhaps it was the blend of traditional and comedy stylings that was all the rage during this time period. Or maybe the reason it stayed around so long, and the one I hold to, is because of the Ghost Face Killer.
The story is again one of revenge. Ah Pao, played by Lee Yi Min, is out for revenge against the man who killed his father, the Ghost Face Killer. The problem he faces is that no one will train him. He eventually finds a school that is willing to accept him but, they mostly treat him like garbage and make him wash, serve, and clean up after the other students. The school's cook eventually begins to train him in secret by improving his dish washing skills. Things take a turn when the master of the school finds one of the Ghost Face Killer's plates in Ah Pao's possession and kicks him out before before giving Ah Pao a chance to explain why he would have such a deadly object. He is soon taken in by the Chess Boxing teacher, played by Jack Long, and is taught to combine elements of the Chess Boxing style with that of the style practiced by the Ghost Face Killer, the Five Element Fist style. Ah Pao fights the Ghost Face Killer in an epic battle and spoilers, avenges his father.
Now, for as common as the story of The Mystery of Chess Boxing is, and it is one of the most prevalent stories in all of Kung Fu cinema, what makes this movie shine is the Ghost Face Killer. He is the villain of the piece, that much is fact. However, he is a villain that you find yourself rooting for during the course of the film. The Ghost Face Killer is also a man out for revenge. He fights and kills only those who sought to kill him in the past. In his younger years the Ghost Face Killer was a military official who did... something to make people angry. We are never really given the exact back story. But we can feel for him, a rarity in these types of films. Here is a guy who, for all we know, is perfectly justified in his quest for vengeance. Here is a guy with a long hit list of people who tried to kill him. Villain or not, we can understand being a bit miffed at the situation. When you see that plate, when you hear that laugh, you cannot help but wonder why he is on this, to steal blatantly from Mr. Tarantino, roaring rampage of revenge. The character, played by Mark Long, has endured throughout cinema history. He has gone on to become one of the more interesting and downright cool villains ever put to screen.
The legacy of the Ghost Face Killer, and of The Mystery of Chess Boxing, has been furthered no doubt by the Wu-Tang Clan. One of (personal opinion time) the greatest hip hop groups ever assembled. Just kidding that's a fact. Their love of this film is not hidden. One of the original members takes his name from this film, Ghost Face Killer, and the film itself has been sampled numerous times throughout their career. They brought attention to this film when interest was waning and rightly so. It is, even for its time, a low budget affair. But what you do get is amazing. The fight scenes are some of the most intricate ever shot, and some of the most deliberate. The action here is not the fastest but for what it lacks in speed it makes up for in depth. There are a ton of styles on display and each one is performed beautifully. It is a shame that the most easily accessible versions of this film are relatively terrible prints. Film quality aside, it absolutely deserves your attention. Check out the trailer below and click here to watch the whole flick. Remember to follow me on twitter, @geekadedan, and let me know what you thought of the film.