Executioners from Shaolin [洪熙官] (1977)
AKA Hung Hsi-Kuan, The Executioners of Death, Shaolin Executioners

Starring Chen Kuan-Tai, Lily Li Li-Li, Lo Lieh, Wong Yu, Dave Wong Kit, Cheng Kang-Yeh, Shum Lo, Gordon Liu Chia-Hui, Lee Hoi-Sang, Tin Ching, Chiang Tao, John Cheung Ng-Long, Lee Chiu

Directed by Lau Kar-Leung

Expectations: Super high.

Shaolin Temple marked the end of Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Cycle, but hot on its heels a couple of months later came the first Shaolin film from Lau Kar-Leung: Executioners from Shaolin. Lau is fundamentally a different style of director than Chang, and this film is a perfect example of this. Chen Kuan-Tai reprises the role of Hung Hsi-Kuan, but Lau builds the character in ways that Chang never did. Executioners from Shaolin begins similarly to Chang’s Heroes Two (with Hung’s escape from the burning Shaolin temple), but it is not a tale of survival and hiding out from Qing government officials. Executioners from Shaolin has a bigger goal in mind, broadening its focus out to illustrate the evolution of Hung Gar and the importance of its lineage. Lau Kar-Leung was a member of this lineage himself, so his genuine appreciation and love for it really pops off the screen. Shaolin filmmaking at the Shaw studio began with Hung Gar under the influence of Lau, so it’s fitting that he would begin there as well.

The martial lineage of Hung Gar is the overall focus of Executioners from Shaolin, but it is framed around a basic revenge-driven story that any kung fu fan has seen a million times. It’s presented differently here, but regardless it still boils down to “You killed my master, now I kill you.” Shaolin Master Zhi Shan (Lee Hoi-Sang) is defeated by Pai Mei (Lo Lieh) during the film’s opening credits, setting the stage for a quest of revenge. Hung Hsi-Kuan & his remaining Shaolin brethren would like to strike while their emotional wounds are fresh and the wood of Shaolin still smokes, but after confronting some Qing resistance it becomes clear that regrouping and strengthening their position is their only viable option. The students find refuge in the Red Boat opera troupes who travel the country by sea, leading Hung to meet the beautiful and martially adept Fang Yung Chun (Lily Li), and this is where the heart of Executioners from Shaolin can be found.

Much like any facet of life, practicing martial arts is an ongoing process. You may master a specific art, but no matter how good you are there is always room for improvement. Also like life, you can learn something from every person you meet; even a master can learn from their student, as long as they are open to it. In the case of Hung Hsi-Kuan, he trains for the specific purpose of defeating Pai Mei. He is so laser-focused on this specific training that he neglects opportunities to better himself and strengthen his chances as a fighter. Beyond the struggle for revenge, this tunnel vision is also a roadblock to the natural progression of time and passed-down knowledge. Societies thrive because the new generation’s job is to build on what has come before. Enter the fruit of Yung Chun and Hung’s marriage, Hung Wei-Ting (played first by Dave Wong Kit (Wang Hsieh’s real-life son), and later by Wong Yu). Wei-Ting must complete the cycle of growth to continue the lineage of his martial arts and honor his father. Knowledge is not rigid; it is growing and alive as long as a new student is learning.

As you would expect, the choreography by director Lau Kar-Leung is nothing short of superb. Lau once again raises the high water mark for the genre, making everyone else play catch up to his extreme sense of timing and movement. Executioners from Shaolin was released nine months after Lau’s previous film, Challenge of the Masters, and there is a marked boost in the quickness and the complexity of the choreography. It is apparent during the opening credits fight between Lo Lieh and Lee Hoi-Sang, but it really begins to flourish during Gordon Liu’s excellent, but brief appearance as Tong, a fellow student at Shaolin alongside Hung. Lau favors long takes showcasing a series of complex movements, capturing Liu moving between multiple minor opponents quickly and then settling into trading blows with their boss (played by John Cheung Ng-Long)… all in one shot. When Lau does edit, it’s always perfectly cut on action to accentuate the blows and heighten the tension of the battle. Later fights only build on this solid formula, and the spectacular fights with Pai Mei are, without question, the highlight of the film’s action.

Lau’s inherent comic sensibility lightens the mood of Executioners from Shaolin considerably, infusing the film with a playfulness and a down-to-Earth humanity that isn’t a part of Chang’s Shaolin films. Lau’s characters are heroic but also flawed; they are more relatable than Chang’s stalwart, unflinching folk heroes. Perfectly timed sound effects punctuate moments of slapstick, and some fights are even scored comically to bring out smiles instead of white knuckles. More than either of his previous films, Executioners from Shaolin feels like a direct predecessor to Jackie Chan and Yuen Woo-Ping’s pair of 1978 break-out hits: Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master. The marriage between Hung and Fang is another source of joy and laughs, specifically during the courting section of their story. It is truly a kung fu marriage, with a mutual respect and admiration for each other’s martial abilities in addition to the usual love and affection.

Lau Kar-Leung’s Executioners from Shaolin is a great film that delivers the goods on comedic, dramatic and action fronts. Lo Lieh gives a career-defining performance as Pai Mei, and Chen Kuan-Tai & Lily Li have rarely been better. I must admit that being familiar with Lo Lieh’s very entertaining sequel, Clan of the White Lotus, did hinder my enjoyment of Executioners from Shaolin some (the two films share a lot of story similarities). Executioners from Shaolin is slower paced with a real message, while Clan of the White Lotus is more straight-forward action entertainment. In any case, Executioners from Shaolin is a must-see film for martial arts film fans.

Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is the next wuxia from Chor Yuen: Clans of Intrigue! See ya then!