Lo Lieh

November 2nd, 2002. Veteran actor Lo Lieh has died. He was 63. His was born in 1939, in Indonesia, and his name was Wong Lap-Dat. Lo was a staple in old-school kung fu movies from the mid-1960s through to the mid-1980s. He appeared in such classic films as GOLDEN SWALLOW, EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN and MIRACLES. In 1973, Lo's FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH (KING BOXER) became the first Hong Kong movie to make a splash at the American box office. Lo parlayed the recognition from that film into a role in the 1974 "Spaghetti-Western" style movie THE STRANGER AND THE GUNFIGHTER. "Spaghetti-Western" legend Lee Van Cleef co-starred.

Lo died in Shenzhen on Saturday morning at around 10 am after suffering a heart attack. He was rushed to the hospital but was pronounced dead on arrival. Lo had reportedly been dealing with a heart condition for the past two years.

Although virtually ignored in the West, Lo Lieh has had a successful career in Hong Kong. He was born in Indonesia, but his parents sent him back to China at a young age to be educated in their homeland.

Lo Lieh began appearing in HK films in the middle of the 1960’s Temple of the Red Lotus, Tiger Boy, Golden Swallow and Twelve Deadly Coins. Initially, he was generally a good guy in the movies and his 1972 film King Boxer made him a star not just in HK but also internationally where it was released under the title Five Fingers of Death. It was the first kung fu film to have an international release.

Some people in the West know him as the star of the martial arts classic King Boxer (Five Fingers of Death). Compared to fluid modern actors like Jet Li, Lo’s fighting style was harder, probably derived from popular Southern Chinese schools of fighting arts. King Boxer was typical of the kind of “kung fu” film Hong Kong audiences enjoyed in the immediate post-Bruce Lee period.

This was the first successful martial arts film to reach American shores, even before Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury. Earlier, he had gained popularity in Hong Kong for his roles in King Hu’s films such as The Golden Swallow (1968) and The Singing Thief (1969).

Although Lo Lieh began primarily playing the villain, which in truth his face is much more suited for, Lo was a devout Buddhist renown for a gentle off-screen demeanour. During the 70’s and into the early 80’s he was in a host of classic films Chinese Boxer, Bamboo House of Dolls, Black Magic, The Magic Blade, Executioners from Shaolin, Eighteen Jade Arhats, Kung Fu from Beyond the Grave and Black Magic with Buddha.

Lo Lieh seems to have appeared in about three out every five movies made in Hong Kong between 1970 and 1980. Directors Liu Chia Liang and Chang Cheh at the Shaw Brothers studio cast Lo in many of their iconic kung fu films. He worked with swordswoman Cheng Pei Pei (Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) early in her career. He’s shared the screen with Chow Yun Fat, Angela Mao, and Gordon Liu (he directed Liu in the classic Fist of the While Lotus, with choreography by Liu Chia Liang!). He’s created some of the most memorable villains of the era, but also he’s done a handful of straight dramatic roles.

Lo Lieh, he doesn’t embarrass easily and he liked to work. He used to brag that he only needed four hours of sleep at night, and calculated that it allowed him “sixteen hours to make money” every day. He didn’t mind working overtime, in multiple productions simultaneously. In fact, he once claimed that he never wanted to direct another film after his debut, Fist of the While Lotus (1980), because the director’s pay was about the same as acting, and the responsibilities interfered with his ability to work on other projects.

Fist of the While Lotus came about through his friendship with “Kung Fu” Liang, the martial arts director responsible for Drunken Monkey (late 2002) in Hong Kong. Lau Kar Leung had made a series of “Hung Gar” kung fu films at the Shaw Brothers studio in the ‘70s. Lo Lieh appeared in Liu’s Mad Monkey Kung Fu and Executioners from Shaolin. Together they crafted in White Lotus, one of the classic Hung Gar stories, based on Hung Wen Ting’s attempt to avenge his father’s death at the hands of White Eyebrows. The choreography by Liu, has many elegant touches. “Embroidery Fist” can be best described as very “yin” with coils that seem to be inspired by Pa Kua. And Lo’s character has such advanced kung fu that he uses the displaced air from his opponent’s punch to avoid the strike!

The close teamwork of filmmaking must have provided a satisfying surrogate experience. Lo seems to have been genuinely liked by his co-workers, the actors and directors of the Golden Age of Hong Kong films. With his return to the screen in Carol Lai’s Glass Tears (2001), Lo Lieh resurrected his stock character, who was once a young punk, and is now an old punk, and he deepens and humanizes the portrayal. It’s tempting to think that his best work may be yet to come.

Lo lived a turbulent life filled with ups-and-downs in business and in his personal life. He was married four times and leaves behind three children. His widow, his fourth and current wife, is twenty-three years old. She and Lo have a two-year old child from the marriage. Lo also has two sons from previous marriages. One of his wives, Tong Ka-Lai, is the older sister of director/producer Stanley Tong Kwai-Lai.

He went on to work with virtually every significant player in Hong Kong from directors Lau Kar Leung and Yuen Wo Ping to actors Gordon Liu and Yuen Biao. He is best remembered for the many villainous roles he played throughout the years. While competent as a martial arts performer, Lo was also a fine actor who imbued his characters with charisma and depth.

Celestial Pictures is releasing the Shaw Brothers catalogue on DVD and VCD for the first time and Killer Clans co-starring Lo Lieh will be among the first to be sold. Thankfully, most of Lo Lieh’s work with SB will eventually be made available to the public again as Celestial releases a total of 760 films over the next three years.

Martial Arts film legend, actor, director, producer and writer Lo Lieh, passed away this Saturday, November 2nd, in Shenzen, China at the relatively young age of 63. Lo Lieh leaves a rich body of work behind him and will be missed and remembered by his many fans.