Men from the Monastery [少林子弟] (1974)
AKA Disciples of Death, Dragon’s Teeth
Starring Chen Kuan-Tai, Alexander Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-Chun, Chiang Tao, Lo Dik, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Wu Hsueh-Yan, Wong Ching, Fung Ngai, Wu Chi-Chin, Fung Hak-On
Directed by Chang Cheh
Expectations: High, I like this one.
Men from the Monastery was the second film in Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Cycle, and it serves as both prequel and sequel to Heroes Two. The story is broken up into segments like an anthology film, except it’s more like being fed pieces of the narrative in chunks that eventually add up to something. The first two segments occur prior to the events of Heroes Two, while the third and forth segments act as the continuation of the combined stories of both films. It’s a structure unique to Men from the Monastery (at least up to this point chronologically), and while I’d generally prefer a standard narrative, it works very well here, especially with the events of Heroes Two fresh in my mind.
We begin with Fang Shih Yu (Alexander Fu Sheng) while he is still a student at the Shaolin temple. Within a few minutes, he’s challenging the “Wooden Men Alley” to prove that he has the skills to leave. At this point, Chang Cheh also subtly introduces us to Shaolin’s perennial villains: Wu Dang (better known in the Western world as Wu Tang) and Pai Mei, the White Eyebrow Priest (who only appears in shadow for a moment). Flashes of Fang’s wooden-man trial and his subsequent battle on poles are shown in Heroes Two when we first meet him, but it’s great fun to see these sequences play out as full scenes. It’s almost like Chang Cheh originally had a three-hour cut of Heroes Two and decided to split it up into two complimenting films. I honestly think this may have been the case, as there are possibly some other indicators of this (such as Chi Kuan-Chun’s inclusion in the Hung Fist intro to Heroes Two). So feel free to add “out-of-order, chapter-based films” and “splitting a long film in two” to the list of things Tarantino co-opted from the Chang Cheh playbook. 🙂
The second section introduces Hu Huei Chien (Chi Kuan-Chun in his debut role), who begins the film as a foolhardy, angry youngster who wants revenge at any cost. The fact that he doesn’t have enough training or martial skill to take that revenge doesn’t stop him from trying multiple times to wrench it from the hands of his father’s murderers (who also happen to be Wu Dang members). A chance meeting with Fang Shih Yu ushers him down the path of training at Shaolin, and just like that three years pass in the space of a single cut, and now Hu is an angry, capable fighter.
Around this time, probably within the years that Hu is training at Shaolin, the events of Heroes Two take place. I initially thought the burning of the Shaolin temple in both films was an error or miscalculation, but Chang Cheh and Ni Kuang are better writers than that. It’s key to remember that at the end of Heroes Two, the Shaolin disciples talk about heading to Fang Shih Yu’s hometown (and then presumably close to the Northern Shaolin Temple where he trained). That would mean that this Northern temple is the one burned down in Men from the Monastery, as well as the temple where Hu seeks his training.
Choreography is once again handled by the fearsome duo of Lau Kar-Leung and Tang Chia, and they continue to craft excellent battles that dwarf the offerings of other Shaw films at the time. The finale is an epic beast of a struggle, the fight on poles is suitably tense, but it was the Wooden Man Alley fight that stood out as something different to me (in terms of choreography). Within that scene they achieved fighting that didn’t feel like the life and death struggles these films are usually filled with. It has the feeling of full-contact training more than two sides trying to kill each other, and it’s a great, subtle touch. But that all being said, I don’t think the fights of this film are on par with the top-notch standard of Heroes Two. The fights in Men from the Monastery feel more quickly choreographed, and because of the structure there’s far less emotion and audience engagement with the battle between the two sides. The villains aren’t defined enough to earn our hatred; we merely side against them because they are going up against our trusted heroes.
There’s also less of a focus on showing the audience the animal hand shapes of each hero’s individual style, so it feels closer to an earlier film than Heroes Two. I don’t want to sound disappointed, though; this movie is undeniably badass and it’s filled with great action. I should also probably note that I re-watched Drunken Master II a couple of days prior to this film, so I could simply be experiencing a re-settling back to the standards of 1974 from the incredible heights achieved 20 years on.
A good portion of the finale plays in black and white, with some flashes of red here and there (used in a similar way to Heroes Two, but not exactly). The black and white is gorgeous, and it makes me want to see more monochrome Shaw films, even though the broad color palette is one of my favorite things about the Shaw output. It might seem like it was done to get buckets of blood past the censors (maybe add that one to the QT list, too!), but it feels more like an artistic choice. The black and white section primarily focuses on Hu and some lesser Shaolin students, so I took it as a statement on their characters, specifically Hu’s.
I tried to research Hu Huei Chien, as I did with the other heroes when I wrote about them for Heroes Two, but the only things that came up were in reference to Chi Kuan-Chun, or as part of the synopsis/ad copy written about Men from the Monastery by Celestial. This synopsis notes that the three heroes are very well-known in China, similar to how the Three Musketeers are known in the Western world, but Hu’s lack of presence on the Internet suggests that his star is far less bright than the others. With this in mind, I see the black and white section as a comment on this. Black and white is the format of the past, and since (according to the events of this film) Hu’s time fighting for Shaolin was rather short, his story has similarly faded. He valiantly fought and died for the cause, but it was before he could establish a legend of his own, so he’s forever locked in the past/B&W.
It may not be as strong as Heroes Two, but Men from the Monastery is still a badass movie. It’s pretty hard not to enjoy a movie with Fu Sheng exuding sly confidence while beating up dudes and retaining smooth control of his hand fan, Chi Kuan-Chun hardheadedly throwing his life up against all comers, and Chen Kuan-Tai brutally bashing Manchus with powerful strikes while radiating strength and leadership. If such things are up your alley, then definitely give it a watch!
Man… all those words and I never once mentioned my favorite part! The bit where Pai Mei talks about how Fang Shih Yu is invincible because his mother bathed him in tonic wine since he was a small child. Fang’s only vulnerability is a sword pierce straight up through his balls while he’s jumping! Goddamn! And people wonder why I love Hong Kong movies so much!
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is a side jaunt into Golden Harvest territory for context! I’ll be checking out Lo Wei’s box office smash Chinatown Capers, the sequel to his 1973 film Back Alley Princess. See ya then!