Invincible Shaolin [南少林與北少林] (1978)
AKA The Unbeatable Dragon

Starring Sun Chien, Chiang Sheng, Lu Feng, Lo Meng, Phillip Kwok Chun-Fung, Wai Pak, Chan Shen, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Suen Shu-Pei, Wong Ching-Ho, Ching Miao, Niu Niu, Yau Chui-Ling, Kara Hui

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: Pretty high.

Invincible Shaolin was Chang Cheh’s first Shaolin movie since 1976’s Shaolin Temple, and his first with the full Venom Mob of actors and choreographer Robert Tai. As much as Chang was returning to old thematic territory, the action departed considerably from his previous Shaolin films by incorporating the movement principles of Peking Opera. His first foray into fusing Peking Opera with cinema was 1975’s The Fantastic Magic Baby, which is more of an experimental attempt at dressing up a stage play than an actual movie (but I love it nonetheless). That was also Philip Kwok’s Shaw debut, and in the years since, opera-trained actors and the influence of Peking Opera steadily became more prevalent in Hong Kong films. 1978 was their breakout year, with Yuen Woo-Ping’s Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow in March, and Drunken Master in October. It makes sense to consider Chang Cheh as part of this “Peking Opera in film” lineage, but I never stopped to consider it prior (perhaps because his attempts failed to find major success).

My mind moved in this direction thanks to the Robert Tai interview on Arrow Video’s release of Invincible Shaolin (in the wonderful Shawscope Vol. 2 boxset). He tells how Chang Cheh recruited him as a stuntman and choreographer in the years after parting ways with Lau Kar-Leung and Tang Chia. They each went on to make films that led with their strengths (Lau’s traditional, pure kung fu and Tang’s weapon-based wuxia), and Chang Cheh knew he couldn’t compete with them in their own arenas. Here he turned to Robert Tai and the Peking Opera. While this shift was prescient in 1975, by the release of Invincible Shaolin in November 1978, the industry delivered even more formidable challengers than his previous collaborators. Chang and the combined strength of the Venoms, while incredible, were no match for the sheer charm and star power of Jackie Chan. The Shaw system was the old way, as well, and the audiences craved something different. Between Lau Kar-Leung’s landmark films, the arrival of the Venom Mob, Jackie’s big break and Sammo Hung’s directorial career exploding, 1978 was certainly a sea change year for Hong Kong action cinema.

Anyway, Invincible Shaolin! The Manchu government has outlawed commoners from practicing martial arts, but General Pu (Johnny Wang Lung-Wei) thinks Shaolin should fall under this ban, as well. Knowing they’re too powerful to confront head-on, he hatches a plan to encourage in-fighting between North and South Shaolin. He invites each school to send three masters to teach his troops kung fu, and upon arrival he asks them to fight one another in a competition to see who’s better. The North is the clear winner, but as the Southerners pack their bags to leave the general kills them with his own incredible martial power. With the Northern masters framed, the Southern school is out for revenge!

Each Shaw Brothers Shaolin film finds unique stories to tell within the Shaolin mythology, and this film is no exception. There’s definitely some overlap with Chang’s previous films in the details (hand training making eating a challenge recurs from Shaolin Martial Arts, etc.), but the overall story of North vs. South gives it a lamentable quality that the other films don’t have. Both sides are good people, so you want them all to succeed. You can see the eventual team-up coming from the get-go, but instead of feeling triumphant it’s tragic. The Northerners must defend themselves, and the Southerners must train to defeat them. Exploiting the weaknesses of other Shaolin styles takes up nearly the entire film, and honestly the inevitable defeat of the villain is a secondary and kind of meaningless end to the film. It obviously had to be there — and it’s GREAT — but the focus and the true heart of the film remains with Shaolin and its students.

Respect comes up frequently, and this core theme resonates well. General Pu is initially incensed that Shaolin sends him lay students when he asked for their masters. It was always a plot to undermine Shaolin, but the disrespect intensified his commitment. When the Southern masters are killed, their bodies are sent back to the school. Their horrific deaths deeply affect the ailing master (Chan Shen), and he orders their coffins to remain in the school’s main area under a banner reading “Pay Respect.” As the new round of Southern fighters train in the techniques necessary to defeat the Northerners, they learn an unconscious respect and understanding of their “enemy” that could not be gained otherwise.

The film’s Chinese title directly translates to North Shaolin & South Shaolin, and I love how the English title reflects this with Invincible Shaolin. It’s certainly a catchier title (and much better than the meaningless US title The Unbeatable Dragon), but the implication, intended or not, that North & South become invincible when together is sublime. The Manchus seek to divide and conquer. It’s human nature for animosity to erupt when lines are drawn between groups, but as Xu Fang (Sun Chien) repeats throughout the film, “North and South are from the same family.” The two schools of Shaolin begin the film without respect for one another, and as such they’re open to the devious Manchu plans. The training methods frequently bring two ideas together to form one, most obviously when Zhu Zancheng (Lo Meng) must learn to strike the wheeled mallet in front of him and defend from the opposite mallet striking him from behind. But this training is primarily about learning to get hit, hardening the body. Respect the power of your opponent by raising your body to his challenge.

And as audience members we learn to respect the commitment of the martial actors performing for us. A film capturing something real is always special, and with the inclusion of Peking Opera performers, the simple act of movement becomes a spectacle. To take it in and gasp in awe is to respect their dedication, both as actors and as characters in a story. We are the second half of their circle, the yin to their yang. Performance has followed humanity throughout our history, and it always will.

I absolutely loved Invincible Shaolin.

A couple of extra notes: The new Arrow release comes from a brand new scan of the negative and it is superb! I wish they could do the whole library! Film grain is present, and there’s no frame-cutting like the older Celestial Films masters. I compared a few random moments and immediately caught differences, including a few seconds of the final fight now restored in the Arrow master. If you love Shaw Brothers films, you owe it to yourself to get these wonderful, lovingly assembled Shawscope sets from Arrow Video.

The Hong Kong Film Archives’ book The Shaw Screen lists Invincible Shaolin as a Cantonese production. The previous Celestial DVD & Digital releases were Mandarin only, but the new Arrow set contains the Cantonese track. Visually, it appears that the on-set actors were primarily speaking Mandarin, but to my ears the Cantonese track sounds much closer to what an “original audio” track should sound like. Dubs generally have voices much higher in the mix, and this is the case for the Mandarin track. The Cantonese sounds more natural, you can hear background sounds better, and it’s overall a more balanced sound mix. I don’t speak the language so what do I know, but Cantonese sounded right to me.

And in regards to the “Peking Opera in film” lineage, I should note that Yuen Woo-Ping’s father, Simon Yuen Siu-Tin, was opera trained and acted in/choreographed lots of Cantonese films in the 1940s–’70s. Peking Opera runs deep throughout the history of Hong Kong film, but I do find it interesting that Chang Cheh, the industry’s leading light forward for so many years, turned towards it in the mid-’70s before its boom years.

Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is another Chang Cheh film, released just one month after Invincible Shaolin… Crippled Avengers! See ya then (hopefully soon)!