Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin [蛇鶴八步] (1978)
AKA Arts of the Snake & Crane, Shaolin Kung Fu
Starring Jackie Chan, Nora Miao, Kam Kong, Kim Jeong-Nan, Lee Wing-Kwok, Lau Nga-Ying, Miao Tian, Lee Man-Tai, Miu Tak-San, Tung Lam, Wong Gwan, Liu Ping
Directed by Chen Chi-Hwa
Expectations: Moderately high.
On the general scale:
Just in terms of action:
Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin opens with an incredible martial arts display by Jackie Chan, first showing off his solo staff work and then battling two staff wielders while armed with a sword and baton. This five-minute intro alone is better than To Kill With Intrigue, but let’s do our best to forget that film and focus on the greatness before us. Jackie’s staff work is incredible, and the mock fight offers up a great way to whet your appetite for the film at hand. These kinds of pure martial arts displays didn’t survive into the modern era of kung fu film (unfortunately), so it’s a real treat to see Jackie strut his stuff so cleanly and without distraction. Even if the film offered up nothing more than this intro, it would still be a notable early Jackie release. I’m not saying anything bad about the overall quality of the Lo Wei period in Jackie’s career (OK, maybe I am), I’m just trying to illustrate just how much I loved the intro.
The film kicks off proper as we fade into the story of eight masters coming together to pool their talents and create the hybrid kung fu style, The Eight Steps of the Snake and the Crane. They entrusted the book of this style and the Badge of the Nine Dragons (an emblem denoting the leader of the entire martial arts community) to their appointed leader, who, after a quick martial arts display and fight, vanishes along with the rest of the eight masters. Dun dun duhhhhh! The martial world is in frenzy mode, and we are introduced to Jackie’s character on the bank of a snowy river, attacked by some ruffians who believe he holds the precious book. Turns out he does have the book, but he quickly dispatches with these petty villains. 10 minutes in, and already two martial arts displays and two fights (and they’re all good). If you’re sensing a pattern emerging, you’re correct… and the hits just keep on comin’.
Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin isn’t much of a movie for its story; it’s basically just all action. There’s a wide range of characters with motives and desires, but none of that matters. It all boils down to “They want the book” and then Jackie fights them. Sometimes these supporting characters fight amongst themselves, sometimes they team up with Jackie to fight others… whatever the circumstances: it’s awesome! Later in the movie it tries to get a little more complicated, but even then it still pretty much comes down to everyone trying to take the book from Jackie. While this does hinder the film from ascending past being a simple action movie, there’s nothing wrong with being a simple action movie when the action is so much fun. The lack of a truly engaging story does make the film feel somewhat lesser than early favorite Shaolin Wooden Men, even though Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin clearly has better and more advanced choreography overall.
But non-stop fights can be a little fatiguing, and because there’s so many fights, the choreography isn’t always top-notch. It is often excellent, though, and really reaches its zenith in the final fight (which is actually three, seamlessly nested fights). First up is Jackie vs. Kam Kong, then Jackie vs. the three Hsiang West Brothers, and then back to Jackie vs. Kam Kong. Without taking Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow into the equation, this is probably Jackie’s best fight up to this point, especially during the section with the Hsiang West Brothers. These guys unsheathe their pointed and hooked spears and come at Jackie relentlessly. Jackie must twist, turn, flip, roll and dodge as quick as he can to avoid being run through, and it’s incredible to watch. That palpable sense of danger that typifies Jackie’s later films is on full display during the fight. The spears might have been fake, but they look real, and knowing Hong Kong they probably were the real deal. It’s a fight that must be seen to be believed. And like I said in my review of Shaolin Wooden Men, the fact that something as incredible as this is swept under the rug with the rest of the budget kung fu releases, shows how incredibly high the bar was for martial arts entertainment at the time.
If fights aren’t your thing, this is the opposite of your kind of movie. But as you’re reading a Jackie Chan film review, that’s probably not you. Released just one week after Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin is one of the best films Jackie made with Lo Wei’s studio. I probably prefer Shaolin Wooden Men (because of its richer story), but Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin features so many awesome fights that it’s hard not to thoroughly enjoy it. Jackie’s choreography (along with To Wai-Wo) does a good job of balancing the action with light comedy. There’s some fun characters too, most notably the tomboy beggar girl Pearl (Kim Jeong-Nan) and Oddball Lu (Miu Tak-San). I liked Oddball Lu especially so, because he has a fun wuxia name and we both share a love for creative profanity. No matter its lacking story, I think just about every Jackie fan could find a lot to like about Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin.
Next up in this chronological journey through the films of Jackie Chan is the first Hong Kong film to be made in 3D: Lo Wei’s Magnificent Bodyguards! I don’t know that I ever saw that one, so I’m hoping it’s an eye-popping good time. (His next film made after Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin was actually Half a Loaf of Kung Fu, but Lo Wei was so dissatisfied with it that he refused to release it and instead immediately through Jackie into production on Magnificent Bodyguards).