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.