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.
Shaolin Temple tells the story before many of Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Cycle films, but I think its place as the last film is perfect. Watching it after everything that came before informs the experience considerably, and I don’t think watching it first would be nearly as satisfying. Whatever order you see it in, though, Shaolin Temple is a great look inside the temple (although definitely not as effective or dynamic as the later 36th Chamber of Shaolin).
Also: don’t blink and you also might catch Lo Meng’s first appearance in a Shaw Brothers film!
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is the first film of 1977: Sun Chung’s Lady Exterminator! See ya then!