Shaolin Mantis [螳螂] (1978)
AKA Deadly Mantis
Starring David Chiang, Cecilia Wong Hang-Sau, Lau Kar-Wing, Lily Li Li-Li, Wilson Tong, Norman Chu Siu-Keung, John Cheung Ng-Long, Teresa Ha Ping, Wai Wang, Ching Miao, Gordon Liu Chia-Hui, Lee Hoi-Sang, Lun Ga-Chun, Wong Ching-Ho
Directed by Lau Kar-Leung
Expectations: High. Lau Kar-Leung, c’mon!
David Chiang, you got me two weeks in a row! Just like Shaolin Hand Lock, Shaolin Mantis isn’t really a Shaolin movie! My spirit wilted when I realized. Technically, the origins of Mantis Fist lie in Shaolin, but you’d never know it from the movie. Once again I looked to the film’s Chinese title, and, wouldn’t you know it, there’s no mention of everyone’s favorite flammable temple. The Chinese title translates to Mantis or Praying Mantis, which is a cool title, but in this film’s case it’s also a huge spoiler; our hero literally learns Mantis Fist over an hour into the film. So don’t go into Shaolin Mantis expecting much in the way of Shaolin or Mantis, although the Mantis Fist you eventually get is pretty dope stuff.
Shaolin Mantis begins in the hall of the Kangxi Emperor, ruler of the Qing Dynasty from 1661–1722. A royal scholar (Ching Miao) has brought his studious son, Wai Fung (David Chiang), to serve the emperor. Wai Fung is a student of many arts, and after proving his martial abilities by defeating cameo performers Lee Hoi-Sang and Gordon Liu, the emperor entrusts him with a most important mission. He suspects that Wu Sangui, a Ming Dynasty general who defected to the Qing, is plotting a revolt against the Qing. The Emperor fears that the mighty Tien family will join the rebellion, so he sends Wai Fung to gather evidence on their illicit dealings. The game is afoot!
If you’ve seen a few Shaw Brothers movies or you know Chinese history, though, this might seem like an odd set-up for a film. Our hero is a spy, working to undermine those seeking to overthrow the oppressive Qing regime? Huh? If this was a traditional Shaolin movie, our heroes would be the Tien family. This didn’t sit right with me for the entire movie, all the way up through the ending. Stories are meant to build empathy by exposing you to experiences that aren’t your own, but this was a bridge too far. Sympathize with a Qing spy? And no, this isn’t a movie about a Qing spy who learns the truth and flips allegiances. He just keeps fighting the “good guys” the whole time. I really should be able to put this aside, but I couldn’t. Sue me. The ending that attempts to set this right only feels tacked on and meaningless, something I don’t expect from Lau Kar-Leung.
My hangups aside, Shaolin Mantis is still an odd Shaw Brothers movie. Outside of the cameo fights that open the film, there’s very little action until about 45 minutes in. This is fine, of course, provided the film delivers something else worthwhile. In my opinion, Shaolin Mantis doesn’t do that. It’s a fine narrative, but it’s nothing special. The film plods along until Wai Fung decides to deliver his report to the capital. At this point, the film shifts entirely into action mode. Fight after fight after fight after fight, etc. These are prime Lau Kar-Leung fights, too, so they’re all exceptionally well-choreographed and fun. Every fight is unique, with a variety of weapons on display throughout. The finale between David Chiang and Lau Kar-Wing, though, is outstanding. The fight transcends its own choreography, making me feel like I was watching a pair of supremely talented fighters reacting to each other in the moment. Lau Kar-Wing is one of my favorite Hong Kong actors, and he’s a beast here, but Shaolin Mantis is probably the greatest display of David Chiang’s talent I’ve ever seen.
As a complete movie, I don’t think Shaolin Mantis is a success. Wai Tung is the central figure of the film, but outside of being a spy for the Qing emperor we know next to nothing about his character. The romantic angle is even weaker, to the point I thought it was a ruse. Both of these negatives are applicable to many kung fu films, or genre films in general, but Lau Kar-Leung had already proven himself a director capable of better with Executioners from Shaolin and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. To be honest, I was ready to write this movie off completely until the fights rolled around. Thankfully, Lau does not disappoint in this regard; the fights are superb, top-of-the-genre work for this era of Hong Kong cinema, and well-worth your time.
Make sure to watch the original trailer below, as it is almost entirely unique footage of the cast and director Lau Kar-Leung displaying the fighting styles seen in the film! I like it better than the movie itself, and it’s actually related to Shaolin! 😛
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Chor Yuen’s follow-up to 1977’s Clans of Intrigue: Legend of the Bat! Let’s hope it’s not actually The Legend of the Squirrel. See ya then (hopefully soon)!