Temple of the Red Lotus [江湖奇俠] (1965)
AKA “The Red Lotus Monastery”
Starring Jimmy Wang Yu, Chin Ping, Ivy Ling Po, Lo Lieh, Petrina Fung Bo Bo, Tien Feng, Ku Feng, Wu Ma, Kao Pao Shu, Lau Leung Wa, Chen Hung Lieh, Chiu Ming, Feng Yi, Ko Lo Chuen, Kok Lee Yan, Lam Jing
Directed by Hsu Cheng Hung
Expectations: Moderate, as this is such an early Shaw and it’s bound to be rough, but I’ve been building a lot of mind-hype for this over the past few months.
It all had to start someplace, and for the Shaw Studios, this is evidently the first of their films to include martial arts sequences. It fared very well at the box office, spawned two sequels (which I will be looking at in the coming weeks), and launched an entire genre. While Come Drink With Me and The One-Armed Swordsman may be more well-known films from this early period in Shaw history, Temple of the Red Lotus was their first color martial arts film and is notable for that if nothing else.
Opening with a blood pool and a corpse is a bold move for any film, but it’s not one I’d expect from one released in 1965. In fact, there’s many small moments of violence that surprised me throughout, including a great leg amputation during one of the nighttime raids on the castle. Anyway, the opening shot is a good one: first revealing the blood, then tilting up to show the corpse’s face, and finally pulling back again to show his entire body and the road he lies on. This shot leads directly into the first action sequence when a small group is ambushed on a mountain road by a clan of black-garbed, masked assailants. Jimmy Wang Yu happens around the corner at the wrong time and gets a dart in the chest for his misfortune. After the dust has settled, the Red Lady (or Scarlet Maid in more ambitious translations) helps our hero out and cures his wound.
The plot got a little hard to follow at this point, only a few minutes in. Basically, Wang Yu is out for revenge on the people who murdered his family, but without knowledge of where they are, he decides to go to Jin Castle. There he plans to marry Jin’s granddaughter, who he is betrothed to and hasn’t seen since childhood. He also hopes to train in the Jin’s famous dart technique and eventually find his aunt, the only surviving member of his family. This gets complicated when he arrives at Jin castle and calls literally every female his aunt. I am reminded of the children’s book, Are You My Mother?
During his stay at the Jin castle he learns many revealing things about the family and his sweetheart, causing him great anguish. Should he stay or should he go? If he stays he will be party to banditry, if he goes he will have to fight his way through the clan’s leaders. Needless to say, he chooses to go, with his newly wedded wife along for the ride. This “fight through the family” section is pretty enjoyable despite the rudimentary choreography. It’s really better as an idea than an actual action sequence, but that comes only from watching the film so far into the future. Even still, the section shows flashes of what would come later from the brilliant studio and is still highly watchable regardless of the problems I had with it. It’s easy to forget that at the time of release audiences hadn’t seen anything quite like this, and with that in mind, the action becomes a lot more tolerable. It’s still relatively slow and less-than-engaging, but it has a naive charm that keeps it enjoyable. The heavy focus on female characters is a distinct difference here as well, as this is before all the Chang Cheh Brotherhood movies changed the martial arts film landscape.
I have to be honest and say that I’m not too impressed with Jimmy Wang Yu’s work here in any capacity. For most of the movie he just feels like a clueless idiot with little martial skill, tasked with insurmountable odds and somehow managing to scrape through thanks to lots of help from others. This type of character always bothers me (I’m looking at you Harry Potter), but at least in this film the character’s nature makes sense for the story. It successfully elevates the female players to positions of power and informs the fights a great deal. Chin Ping is great as his wife, even if their relationship is handled rather clumsily. My favorite character by far though is Ivy Ling Po’s portrayal of the Red Lady. She pops in at just the right moments to throw a dart or offer some choice advice. She might only be in the film for a couple of minutes, but she figures into the narrative prominently and has the distinction of being the most memorable character of the film.
Temple of the Red Lotus ends up being a moderately interesting swordplay family drama that effectively leaves you wanting for the resolution that comes in the form of two sequels. The best action in the film is contained within the opening and closing few minutes, but there are some choice moments throughout as well. I’m a bit more partial to the opening ambush scene, with its clever moving camera and healthy dose of paralyzing throwing darts. The film is very well shot and the sets are just as cool as the Shaw Bros. reputation for such things would suggest. If you’re a big genre fan, this is an interesting film to look at for its historical value and it also entertains fairly well along the way. I wish I could say it was fantastic, but it’s just OK. I’m hoping the sequels get a bit more polish and deliver the fun swordplay I expected from this.