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.