Five Shaolin Masters [少林五祖] (1974)
AKA Five Masters of Death
Starring David Chiang, Ti Lung, Alexander Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-Chun, Mang Fei, Leung Kar-Yan, Fung Hak-On, Tsai Hung, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Chiang Tao, Li Chen-Piao, Gordon Liu Chia-Hui, Lo Dik, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Stephan Yip Tin-Hang, Lau Kar-Wing
Directed by Chang Cheh
Expectations: The highest. Chang’s Shaolin Cycle is dope.
Like Heroes Two and Men from the Monastery, Five Shaolin Masters tells a tale about refugees from the burning of the Shaolin Temple. Hung Hsi-Kuan and Fong Sai-Yuk ended up in Kwangtung in the south of China, but the heroes of Five Shaolin Masters fled north to Central China. Structurally, the film also takes a page from Shaolin Martial Arts in that our five heroes must train tirelessly to defeat seemingly invincible enemies. And like this suggests, Five Shaolin Masters ends up feeling like a blended version of all of Chang Cheh’s previous Shaolin Cycle films.
Due to this repetition of themes and structure, Five Shaolin Masters does not reach the heights of either Heroes Two or Shaolin Martial Arts, though it does come close thanks to power of the action. The complexity and dynamism of the choreography by Lau Kar-Leung and his brother Lau Kar-Wing bring the film’s relentless action to brilliant life, culminating in the five stunning, concurrent fights that make up the film’s finale. This is pure martial bliss, and I can’t imagine a martial arts film fan not getting a huge jolt of enthusiasm from this lengthy section of the film, if not the whole thing.
The film is definitely lacking in terms of story or plot — there’s little else besides “We have to defeat these guys” — but I found this to be one of the defining aspects of the film. It is a story of survival, not like the art itself in Shaolin Martial Arts, but of these five heroes. They are not able to have normal lives while they are being hunted by the Manchus. They must defeat them before doing anything else, and at all costs. The characters lack definition in a traditional sense because of this. They exist as shadows of men defined by their determination and their righteousness; it’s all they can be at this point. Their lives were stolen the moment the Shaolin Temple was attacked, and Five Shaolin Masters is about the immediate fight to regain them.
Amidst this struggle for survival, the characters also have to train in order to defeat their enemies. Like Shaolin Martial Arts, the heroes must learn specific techniques in order to counteract each villain’s style, but unlike that film, the heroes of Five Shaolin Masters are forced to train themselves. They’ve been taught the concepts, they understand the techniques, the only thing standing in the way of their success is their own selves. Their masters were killed; they must become the masters. Fu Sheng’s character needs a little friendly competition to spur his spirit, but the others are only driven by the necessity to survive. The film’s title is also relevant in this context, as these five heroes are only truly classifiable as masters after this intense effort of will, determination and personal spirit. The film is about this journey of survival and perseverance that defined these eventual masters who helped to save Shaolin from destruction.
And who are these heroes? They are: Hu De-Di (David Chiang), Cai De-Zhong (Ti Lung), Fang Da-Hong (Mang Fei), Ma Chao-Xing (Alexander Fu Sheng), and Li Shi-Kai (Chi Kuan-Chun). They are notable outside of the events of Five Shaolin Masters, too, because these five men are part of a legend surrounding the formation and growth of the famous Chinese secret society, the Tiandihui (AKA the Heaven and Earth Society). During the Qing Dynasty these types of organizations were made illegal so they were forced underground, and as the story goes they hooked up with these five Shaolin masters in an effort to “Oppose Qing and restore Ming.”
The legend also notes that this alliance began at the Red Flower Pavilion, which just so happens to be the setting of the final scenes of the film! One of the few plot points in the movie is the importance of remembering secret signals to identify friends, so while the movie never outwardly mentions the Tiandihui, it’s secretly a story of this alliance. That was mighty sneaky of Chang Cheh and Ni Kuang! A splinter group of the Tiandihui called the Sanhehui (AKA Three Harmonies Society) is also where the organized crime triads get their name, due to the Sanhehui’s triangle emblem. So I suppose you could say that Five Shaolin Masters is a prequel of sorts to all the triad films that Hong Kong has produced over the years.
It is also worthwhile to note that these characters also appear in the classic wuxia novel by Jin Yong, The Deer and the Cauldron, which is based around the Heaven and Earth Society. It was also adapted numerous times for both the big and small screen, including a 1983 Shaw Brothers film called Tales of a Eunuch, and a pair of Wong Jing-directed Royal Tramp films starring Stephen Chow (with wonderful action by Ching Siu-Tung!).
But to get back around to Five Shaolin Masters, I can’t write this review and not mention the wonderful villains that make the fights with our intrepid heroes so enjoyable. They are: a Mantis fist expert (Fung Hak-On), a pigtail-wielding Qing general (Chiang Tao), a Chop Palm specialist (Leung Kar-Yan), a dude that fights with an axe head on a rope (Tsai Hung), and the formidable Shaolin traitor and practitioner of Plum Blossom Palm (Johnny Wang Lung-Wei). They are an incredible bunch, and between these guys and the heroes you should be well entertained. The cast’s combined star power is formidable, but if that still isn’t enough, Five Shaolin Masters also boasts small roles for Gordon Liu, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Lau Kar-Wing and a quick cameo from Eric Tsang!
If you’re in the mood for a film filled with dope fights and stellar physical performances from the entire cast, Five Shaolin Masters is a perfect choice!
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is one of two co-productions that will close the book on the 1974 portion of the series: Shatter starring Ti Lung! See ya then!