In Five Fingers of Death, the characters act around a society-based honor where virtues such as respect for elders, social order, and women are encompassed by those who are considered “good”; those who are bad show a lack respect for elders, terrorize society, and are indecent to others in general. Like all martial arts movies, Five Fingers of Death features multiple battles that externalize the struggle between the good and bad. The protagonist of the movie, Chih-hao, strives to honor his masters and embodies common decency valued in his society; hence he portrays the “good guy”. His multitude of opponents, from the son of Master Dung-Shun to the Japanese assassins, have no respect for elders, honor in combat, or society’s values, hence they embody the “bad guy” to various degrees. When the characters of the movie engage in combat, their internal codes of honor are externalized based on their style of fighting, and more importantly, their motivation for fighting. One example of this is when Chih-hao goes to defend his love Ying-Ying and avenge the death of his masters. When faced with the enemy, Chih-hao fights to gain justice for those who were killed for selfish reasons, honoring his masters and the lessons that they taught him. Through his motivations to achieve justice while defending the weak, he is seen as a “good guy”.
Several of Chih-hao’s enemies, such as the head of the Japanese assassins and the son of his Master’s rival, have different motivations for fighting and no honor code. The son of the rival master, fights for power, does not respect his elders, and is a menace to society in general. When he fights it is ruthless and without mercy, exercising any power he has in order to win, even if it means gouging out his opponent’s eyes. When seen in combat, the clear lack of honor is externalized in his fighting style, revealing that he is a “bad guy”. When examining the assassins, it is evident to the audience that while he has more honor than many others, he is still a “bad” man due to his un-honorable motivations. The assassins are hired for the purpose of taking out competition at the annual martial arts tournament in the movie; this alone is not honorable. When seen in combat, the assassins fight opponents, many of whom rely only on bare-handed combat, mainly with their swords, demonstrating extreme contempt for rules regarding honorable combat. When the protagonist fights the head of the assassins at the end of the movie, the conflict between the two brings their different codes of honor into sharp relief, instantly allowing the audience to recognize Chih-hao as “good” while his opponent is seen as “bad”. The fighting in Martial Arts genre movies display the motivations and the codes of honor held by the characters in Five Fingers of Death, allowing the audience to assign the labels of “good” and “bad” that are characteristic in martial arts movies.
One of the most striking examples of the disparity between the actions and honor of good and bad is the scene where Han Lung tells Master Dung-Shun of Chih-hao’s victory over him for placement in the tournament. At first, Suen seems pleasant and forgiving, assuring Han Lung that everything is okay and under control. Dung-Shun reveals that he has enlisted three Japanese martial arts experts to handle Chi-hao, and under the guise of a friendly match up, wants Han Lung to fight the Japanese experts. Han Lung agrees, but instead of only fighting one man, he ends up fighting three; the two Japanese men and Suen’s son. At the end of the third bout, Han Lung vs. Dung-Shun’s son, a worn-out Han Lung is quickly defeated and has his eyes poked out by Suen’s son.
In this scene, there is a very evident disparity between action and words, with action taking clear precedent and authority over the words being said. Here, the ‘bad’ characters are depicted as liars and cheaters, those who fight without honor. When Han Lung comes to report that Chih -hao will fight in the tournament, Dung-Shun responds kindly, that Han Lung has done well. The master later turns on his own words and has his henchmen fight and mutilate Han Lung, defying his previous words of mercy and kindness. Even though Han Lung betrays his school, in this scene he fights with honor against the Japanese and the master’s son, and is therefore depicted honorable (at least relatively, given his present company). He fights three opponents in a row without taking a break, while his new opponents funnel in fresh and ready for a fight. The master’s son is the most dishonorable; he fights Han Lung last and defeats him only by gouging out his eyes, a dishonorable tactic. Han Lungs actions show consistency, while the villains’ do not.