Shaolin Temple (1976)

Shaolin Temple [少林寺] (1976)
AKA Death Chamber

Starring Alexander Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-Chun, Wai Wang, David Chiang, Ti Lung, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Yueh Hua, Wong Chung, Lau Wing, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Phillip Kwok Chun-Fung, Li Yi-Min, Shih Szu, Ku Wen-Chung, Shan Mao, Chiang Sheng, Ku Feng, Lu Feng, Wong Ching, Tsai Hung, Chiang Nan, Shum Lo, Wang Han-Chen, Lee Sau-Kei, Liu Wai, Hao Li-Jen

Directed by Chang Cheh (with Wu Ma)

Expectations: Another Shaolin Cycle film. Yes, I’m still expecting greatness.

Shaolin Temple isn’t Chang Cheh’s last Shaolin film, but it is the last in his Shaolin Cycle that began with 1974’s Heroes Two. His later Shaolin films with the Venom Mob actors may relate in some ways, but I consider them separately from the Shaolin Cycle films. Anyway, Shaolin Temple is a great finale to Chang’s non-linear series with a habit of contradicting itself and re-telling different versions of the same story. Shaolin Temple showcases something that has been talked about in just about every film, but has yet to be shown in its full glory: the Shaolin Temple itself. In classic Chang Cheh fashion, it’s also not a typical martial arts film; it’s one that puts the Shaolin Temple and its teachings at the forefront of the film, above character development and even plot. If you’ve seen all the previous entries, this isn’t a big deal, but newcomers might be a little lost with the sheer amount of characters in the film.

Shaolin Temple is basically a prequel to Five Shaolin Masters and Heroes Two/Men from the Monastery/The Shaolin Avengers (and while we’re building shaky Shaw Shaolin timelines, Lau Kar-Leung’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin would come directly before Shaolin Temple). It also re-tells/re-imagines certain aspects that would tie into those films, so it’s not the type of prequel that completely works. That doesn’t matter in this case, though, as these are folk tales just waiting to be re-imagined and re-told as the teller sees fit. In any case, the film opens with Hung Hsi-Kuan (here played by Wang Wai), Fang Shih-Yu/Fong Sai-Yuk (Alexender Fu Sheng), and Hu Huei-Chien (Chi Kuan-Chun) kneeling outside the Shaolin Temple in hopes of being accepted for training in the martial arts. The Grand Master (Ku Wen-Chung) decides that after five days of kneeling, the men are dedicated enough to withstand the hardships of Shaolin training. What ultimately sways him is his feeling that if he does not teach them, the very survival of the Shaolin martial arts might hang in the balance. They enter the temple, and it begins a new era of the temple training outsiders to aid their resistance against the oppressive Qing government.

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The New Shaolin Boxers (1976)

The New Shaolin Boxers [蔡李佛小子] (1976)
AKA The Choy Lay Fat Kid, Demon Fists of Kung Fu, Grand Master of Kung Fu, Grand Master of Death, Silly Kid

Starring Alexander Fu Sheng, Jenny Tseng, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Lo Dik, Leung Kar-Yan, Jamie Luk Kim-Ming, Chan Wai-Lau, Shan Mao, Phillip Kwok Chun-Fung, Wong Yiu, Wu Hsiao-Hui, Stephan Yip Tin-Hang, Wong Fei, Lee Ying, Wong Cheong-Chi

Directed by Chang Cheh (with Wu Ma)

Expectations: Excited for another Shaolin Cycle movie.

The New Shaolin Boxers is something of an anomaly in Chang Cheh’s informal Shaolin Cycle. It most resembles Disciples of Shaolin, with both films featuring a resonant dramatic core about practitioners of Shaolin martial arts far down the lineage from the folk heroes who survived the burning of the Shaolin temple. The New Shaolin Boxers isn’t nearly as effective or finely crafted as Disciples of Shaolin, but I must admit that it is a film that is growing in stature the more I think about it. The key to this blossoming love is how Chang Cheh and Ni Kuang wrote the film to reflect the dual nature of its featured martial art: Choy Li Fut.

Choy Li Fut is an interesting branch of kung fu developed by Chan Heung in the 1800s. He combined two of the five main Southern styles, Choy Gar and Li Gar, with Fut Gar (also known as Buddhist Fist, itself a combination of Choy Gar and Hung Gar), resulting in a well-rounded system that enriches all aspects of the artist’s life. Philosophy and similar non-physical teachings are not unique to Choy Li Fut, but it is my understanding that it is more of a focus here than elsewhere. The film opens with Fu Sheng demonstrating Choy Li Fut, while the narrator tells us of its history and the art’s lineage to contextualizes the movie’s timeline. After this intro, though, the film seems to dive into a standard martial plot without a lot of thought or care paid to representing Choy Li Fut. In thinking this, I was quite wrong; the teachings of Choy Li Fut influence every aspect of the film and its plot.

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The Shaolin Avengers (1976)

The Shaolin Avengers [方世玉與胡惠乾] (1976)
AKA Fong Sai-Yuk and Wu Wai-Kin (literal translation), Incredible Kung Fu Brothers

Starring Alexander Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-Chun, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Lung Fei, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Shan Mao, Leung Kar-Yan, Jamie Luk Kim-Ming, Chan Wai-Lau, Tsai Hung, Lo Dik, Ma Chi-Chun, Weng Hsiao-Hu, Ricky Cheng Tien-Chi

Directed by Chang Cheh (with Wu Ma)

Expectations: Pumped for more Shaolin.

The greatness of The Shaolin Avengers lies in its structure. The film opens with its finale, fading in and out into flashbacks that show how our heroes and villains all came to this particular battle. It could have been told in chronological order and the audience would have similarly understood the characters’ journey to the finale, but introducing us first to the final struggle colors the flashbacks in ways that chronological order could not. It may be called The Shaolin Avengers, but I found the structure to remove a lot of the tension inherent in a traditional revenge story. Instead, I pondered the nature of life, how small moments remind you of people or places, and how important preparation is to success. You don’t simply wake up bad ass, you must be dedicated and willing to endure hardship so that you can emerge a better, streamlined version of yourself.

The Shaolin Avengers re-tells the stories of Fang Shih-Yu AKA Fong Sai-Yuk (Alexander Fu Sheng) and Hu Huei-Chien AKA Wu Wai-Kin (Chi Kuan-Chun), as previously seen in Men from the Monastery. It removes Hung Shi-Kuan’s character altogether, which allows for more time devoted to the early days of Fang before he sought training at the Shaolin Temple. In Men from the Monastery, there is a slight mention of Fang’s mother bathing him in rice wine, but here in The Shaolin Avengers we see the circumstances that led to this, as well as the hardship involved with the bathing itself. Hu Huei-Chien’s story is virtually unchanged, though, and in comparing scenes — such as the death of Hu’s father in the gambling house — they might have even used the same script (or very close to the same script) for these scenes. The main difference is that now the two characters’ stories are fully intertwined and dramatically complete, instead of the disjointed, episodic quality that Men from the Monastery has. So you could say that The Shaolin Avengers is essentially a remake of Men from the Monastery, but I hesitate to write that because it seems reductive to classify The Shaolin Avengers as a mere remake.

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7-Man Army (1976)

7-Man Army [八道樓子] (1976)
AKA Seven Man Army

Starring David Chiang, Ti Lung, Alexander Fu Sheng, Chen Kuan-Tai, Li Yi-Min, Chi Kuan-Chun, Pai Ying, Ting Wa-Chung, Leung Kar-Yan, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Gordon Liu Chia-Hui, Miao Tian, Fung Ngai, Chen Ming-Li, Wang Ching-Ping

Directed by Chang Cheh (with co-directors Hsiung Ting-Wu & Wu Ma)

Expectations: Moderate.

As I mentioned in my review of Boxer Rebellion, Chang Cheh had become tired of making so many Shaolin movies in a row that he sought something fresh to sink his teeth into. He decided on the war film, a genre you don’t see a lot in Hong Kong film. Boxer Rebellion was shot second but released first, and it’s an atypical war picture that focuses on the boxers who believed themselves invulnerable to the foreigners’ guns. 7-Man Army is more a traditional war film that is an opposite in ways to Boxer Rebellion. 7-Man Army is about a small group of men who know exactly how fragile their lives are, but in the defense of their country they have no choice but to continue fighting.

7-Man Army tells a true story set a couple of years after the Mukden Incident, in which the Japanese staged a bombing to facilitate an invasion of China. The events depicted in the film were during the 1933 Defense of the Great Wall, specifically around the Gubeikou area. After a battle, the Chinese took back this section of the Great Wall, but seven men were all that remained of the Chinese forces. Cut off from all communication to their reinforcements, the men dug in and withstood multiple assaults on their position. These brave men were commemorated with a monument on the site of their burial, which can be visited via the Gubeikou Great Wall Kangzhan Memorial Hall (see #3 on the on-site map). There is also a monument on Kinmen Island, off the coast of Taiwan, called the Badu Tower. It’s also worth noting that the film’s Chinese title (and Wikipedia entry) cites the location as being the Badaling region, roughly 65 miles southwest of Gubeikou. In any case, Chang Cheh is once again fictionalizing a part of Chinese history for the masses, and 7-Man Army is quite successful in this task (despite what Chang says about the film being an artistic failure in his memoir).

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The Protectors (1975)

The Protectors [鏢旗飛揚] (1975)

Starring Lo Lieh, Chang Pei-Shan, Wang Hsieh, Yeung Oi-Wa, Lee Sau-Kei, Chan Shen, Dean Shek Tin, Wong Ching, Chan Chuen, Wong Ching-Ho, Wu Chi-Chin

Directed by Wu Ma

Expectations: Moderate.

As with quite a few of the films Shaw released in 1975, The Protectors was shot in 1971 and held back from release. The reasoning for this is up for anyone’s best guess, especially since it tells a complete, satisfying story with vibrant characters despite only running 62 minutes. Instead of making random speculations, I should focus on what’s here, and besides, The Protectors actually benefits from the extreme, barely feature-length brevity. It cooks the film down to its bare essentials, and since it’s a solid piece of work, it excels at entertaining in a way that only a good Shaw Brothers wuxia can.

The Eagle Escorts are known throughout the land as the security bureau to hire if you want to be sure your gold or silver arrives safely at its destination. The founder is aged and confined to his chair, but the company continues to thrive thanks to the skilled swords of Ling Xiao (Lo Lieh) and Guan Wang Long (Chang Pei-Shan). After another successful mission (that left tons of bandits dead on the trail), Ling and Guan return to headquarters. At the gate, welcoming them home, is Fang Yan Er (Yeung Oi-Wa), the object of Guan’s affection. She does not reciprocate these feelings, though, instead she is kind of infatuated with Ling. From his reaction, this is not the first time Guan has felt jilted, and this resentment is near the point of explosion.

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The Imposter (1975)

The Imposter [七面人] (1975)

Starring David Chiang, Chen Kuan-Tai, Wong Chung, Danny Lee, Chen Ping, Shut Chung-Tin, Tung Lam, Wu Ma, Ku Feng, Tin Ching

Directed by Pao Hsueh-Li

Expectations: Moderate.

The Imposter is a movie that’s fairly hard to classify. It definitely has enough action to qualify as a martial arts film, but it feels more like a movie that has martial arts instead of a true martial arts film. If that makes any sense. Anyway, the star of the film is David Chiang and his many disguises, so if you’re not into David Chiang, you could skip this one and not miss too much. But for those still on-board, the cast is stacked with top-shelf Shaw talent and David Chiang fans should enjoy the ample opportunities he is given to jump in and out of characters throughout the movie.

Tseng Yung (Danny Lee) has been wrongly imprisoned by the police chief Captain Lo Gin Yin (Chen Kuan-Tai). Tseng’s brother, Tseng Kan (Wong Chung), bribes a guard to let him talk with Yung, who tells Kan to find an illusive man named Ge Liang (David Chiang), as he is the only one capable of proving his innocence and saving his life. In basic terms, this is the whole movie in a nutshell, since finding Ge Liang is a prolonged multi-step process, and then proving Tseng Yung’s innocence is similarly complex. The one constant is David Chiang and his ever-changing disguises, influencing the other characters to do whatever he needs them to. Ge Liang is not just a master of disguise, he is a master manipulator as well.

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All Men Are Brothers (1975)

All Men Are Brothers [蕩寇誌] (1975)
AKA Seven Soldiers of Kung Fu, Seven Blows of the Dragon II, Seven Kung Fu Assassins

Starring David Chiang, Fan Mei-Sheng, Chen Kuan-Tai, Wong Chung, Danny Lee, Wang Kuang-Yu, Yue Fung, Ti Lung, Chu Mu, Tin Ching, Tung Lam, Chen Feng-Chen, Bolo Yeung, Lau Gong, Wong Ching, Chang Yang, Betty Chung, Ku Feng, Tetsuro Tamba, Chin Feng, Chen Wo-Fu, Michael Chan Wai-Man, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan

Directed by Chang Cheh & Wu Ma

Expectations: Super high! A sequel to one of my all-time favorite Shaw films? Yes, please!

The Water Margin is one of my all-time favorite Shaw Brothers films (along with all of Shaw’s other films based on the classic Chinese novel —  Delightful Forest, Pursuit, and to a lesser extent The Amorous Lotus Pan and Chang’s segment in Trilogy of Swordsmanship), so All Men Are Brothers had a lot to live up to. The key to my immense affection for each film lies in how they all carry their own style and are therefore able to stand on their own in companionship with the other films, like the 108 Liang Shan bandits themselves. All Men Are Brothers is another very welcome addition to this lineup, taking its own path along the way to dramatizing a section of the illustrious book.

All of the previous films dealt with chapters from either the beginning or the middle of the book, but All Men Are Brothers seeks to tell the end of the tale. It takes material mostly from Chapters 90–100 (out of 100 total chapters), which deal with the redemption of the outlaws through their struggle to defeat the rebellious Fang La and his generals. A couple of flashbacks tell earlier tales to provide some character depth, and the film opens with Yan Qing’s procurement of the bandits’ pardon from the emperor (which is detailed in Chapter 81), but the film is mostly concerned with bringing everything to a close.

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