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.
It is more like a slightly different variation on a folk tale, only that the main heroes are played by the same actors in both films. The supporting cast is far superior in The Shaolin Avengers, though. I like Lo Dik’s portrayal of Feng Dao De, the Wu Tang infiltrator of Shaolin, in Men from the Monastery, but Tsai Hung’s more athletic and physical performance is easily the more entertaining of the two. Similarly, I found that Lo Dik played Hu’s father better in The Shaolin Avengers than Wu Chi-Chin did in Men from the Monastery. The well-loved, White-Eyebrowed Priest Pai Mei is merely a shadow behind a screen telling Feng Dao De of Fang Shih-Yu’s weakness in Men from the Monastery, but in The Shaolin Avengers he is an integral part of the film that further enriches the already engaging story. Fang’s battle atop the poles now comes near the climax of the film, and the intertwined, building drama makes it a far more satisfying fight sequence than the one in the earlier film. Your mileage will vary, of course, but little things like this combine for a much more pleasing and satisfying rendition of the story in The Shaolin Avengers.
I don’t want to seem too down on Men from the Monastery, though. I love that movie immensely, and knowing and loving it enriched The Shaolin Avengers experience. Being familiar with the story informs The Shaolin Avengers in the same way that the flashbacks do so within the film itself. It’s like hearing your favorite ghost story re-told by someone else with engrossing detail changes here and there. Instead of the familiar becoming boring, it becomes fascinating to hear an alternate version (plus I’ve always loved the single shot in Men from the Monastery of Fu Sheng in the rice wine bath, so to fully explore that part of his life was intensely gratifying). But regardless of which one you prefer, the films should be regarded as complimentary instead of derivative.
The films are probably equal in terms of choreography, although The Shaolin Avengers is more jam-packed with action and it has better martial performers in the secondary roles. I doubt many martial arts fans will argue with the inclusion of Leung Kar-Yan, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Lung Fei, Tsai Hing and more! Chang Cheh’s “new” Taiwanese choreographers, Hsieh Hsing & Chan San-Yat, do their best work yet for Chang and imbue the film with an energy and ferociousness similar to the work that Lau Kar-Leung and Tang Chia did in the early Shaolin Cycle films.
The Shaolin Avengers is another of Chang Cheh’s co-directed credits, but because of the way it’s credited I’m not entirely sure how much Wu Ma contributed to the film. In the opening credits, Wu Ma is listed as a Joint Director, but this credit is untranslated and in Chinese only. Wu Ma is credited in exactly the same way in Chinese on The New Shaolin Boxers, but in that film the credit is translated into English. In Chang Cheh’s memoir, Wu Ma is listed as Chang’s Associate Director on The Shaolin Avengers, while he shares the full director credit in the book’s listing for The New Shaolin Boxers. So given what I know of Chang Cheh, it’s possible to surmise that Chang Cheh made The Shaolin Avengers and Wu Ma made The New Shaolin Boxers, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if Wu Ma shot either Fang or Hu’s story while Chang Cheh shot the other to speed up production. As usual, I’m just theorizing based on various Chang Cheh quotes from his memoir, so don’t go quoting any of this as fact.
The Shaolin Avengers is a great movie that cohesively combines the stories of Fang Shih-Yu and Hu Huei-Chien into one thrilling, entertaining package. It’s definitely not as affecting as Disciples of Shaolin, nor is it as ambitious as Shaolin Martial Arts, but The Shaolin Avengers is still top-notch Shaolin Cycle in my opinion. It is a film of pure entertainment that builds up more of the Shaolin mythology of the earlier films, or in other words, it’s every thing I could want out of a Shaolin Cycle film. Highly recommended.
And just for a little fun fact for context: Jackie Chan’s New Fist of Fury, his first real starring role, was released between The Shaolin Avengers and the next Shaw film on my list, The Magic Blade. It came out about three weeks after The Shaolin Avengers, and a few days prior to The Magic Blade.
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is the movie that made me go down this chronological path: Chor Yuen’s The Magic Blade! I’m so excited to finally re-watch it. See ya then!