Five Shaolin Masters (1974)

fiveshaolinmasters_1Five Shaolin Masters [少林五祖] (1974)
AKA Five Masters of Death

Starring David Chiang, Ti Lung, Alexander Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-Chun, Mang Fei, Leung Kar-Yan, Fung Hak-On, Tsai Hung, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Chiang Tao, Li Chen-Piao, Gordon Liu Chia-Hui, Lo Dik, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Stephan Yip Tin-Hang, Lau Kar-Wing

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: The highest. Chang’s Shaolin Cycle is dope.

threehalfstar


Like Heroes Two and Men from the Monastery, Five Shaolin Masters tells a tale about refugees from the burning of the Shaolin Temple. Hung Hsi-Kuan and Fong Sai-Yuk ended up in Kwangtung in the south of China, but the heroes of Five Shaolin Masters fled north to Central China. Structurally, the film also takes a page from Shaolin Martial Arts in that our five heroes must train tirelessly to defeat seemingly invincible enemies. And like this suggests, Five Shaolin Masters ends up feeling like a blended version of all of Chang Cheh’s previous Shaolin Cycle films.

Due to this repetition of themes and structure, Five Shaolin Masters does not reach the heights of either Heroes Two or Shaolin Martial Arts, though it does come close thanks to power of the action. The complexity and dynamism of the choreography by Lau Kar-Leung and his brother Lau Kar-Wing bring the film’s relentless action to brilliant life, culminating in the five stunning, concurrent fights that make up the film’s finale. This is pure martial bliss, and I can’t imagine a martial arts film fan not getting a huge jolt of enthusiasm from this lengthy section of the film, if not the whole thing.

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Na Cha the Great (1974)

nachathegreat_1Na Cha the Great [哪吒] (1974)

Starring Alexander Fu Sheng, Lo Dik, Chiang Tao, Fung Hak-On, Lin Jing, Jamie Luk Kim-Ming, Li Chen-Piao, Yuan Man-Tzu, Sze-Ma Wah-Lung, Lee Wan-Chung, Fung Ngai

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: Pretty high. I enjoyed Na Cha and the Seven Devils and I hope this is equally fun.

twohalfstar


When I think of words to describe the films of Chang Cheh, “fantasy” is not even remotely within the brainstorm. Elements of the fantastic enter many of his films, but Chang rarely handles them in a way that inspires the imagination like typical fantasy. The idea that a man could cut off his own arm and then become a fearsome one-armed swordsman (The New One-Armed Swordsman) is definitely within the fantasy genre, but Chang grounds the idea to the point that it’s not about suspending disbelief. So when I watched Na Cha and the Seven Devils a few months ago, knowing that I had Chang Cheh’s take on the character in my future, it was hard to imagine how Chang would handle the incredible fantasy of an adaptation of the Chinese classic novel Investiture of the Gods.

Turns out that he ambitiously reaches in both directions, bisecting the film into a largely grounded first half and a wildly fantastic second half. I’d love to tell you that my favorite Shaw Brothers director handles both halves well, but unfortunately I can’t even say that he does so with either half. The whole movie feels half-baked and without the usual thematic sharpness that is evident in his other films around this time. The groundwork is there, but there’s little artistry pulling it all together into a pleasing, emotional package. My feeling is that the abundance of special effects hindered Chang’s abilities somewhat. A separate special FX director, Lam Kwok-Cheung, is credited, and according to Chang Cheh’s memoir, Lam led a team from Japan to achieve the film’s many photographic effects.

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